KOLKATA: Thousands from India and abroad on Wednesday thronged the famed Belur Math here to witness the annual ritual of worshipping pre-pubertine girls, also called "Kumari Puja".
The ritual is performed on the occasion of "Mahashtami", a day when the Durga Puja celebrations peak.
On "Ashtami", the rituals began in the morning with "Kumari Puja" to celebrate the spirit of womanhood in Howrah district's Belur Math, the headquarters of Ramkrishna Mission.
"Kumari Puja" was started by Swami Vivekananda in 1901 at the Math to underscore the significance of womanhood. While the puja at Belur Math is considered the most significant, devotees also organise these rituals at their homes.
The ritual starts at the crack of dawn. The pre-pubertine girl takes a holy dip in the Hooghly river. She is then wrapped in a red sari, adorned with floral ornaments and given a "sindur" (vermillion) mark on her forehead.
She then sits before the idol of Goddess Durga on a decorated chair, with priests chanting hymns, creating a sublime ambience.
It is believed that after the rituals, the "Kumari" is suffused with the divinity of the goddess.
Amid merriment and piety, devotees turned out in their fineries to offer "Pushpanjali', or floral tributes, to Goddess Durga, with the heavy beats of dhak (drum) reverberating in the background.
Since early Wednesday morning, teenagers were seen queuing up outside the prominent puja marquees to avoid rush expected in the afternoon, and also to relish every moment of Bengal's most celebrated festival.
The five-day Durga Puja festival is considered the biggest event in this part of the world when roads are choked with human traffic throughout the day and night.
According to the Hindu mythology, Goddess Durga, accompanied by her four children - Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati - descends on earth every year to visit her parents to fight evil. This is the occasion that the puja celebrates.
Durga, the slayer of the demon Mahishasur, comes astride her lion mount and wields an array of weapons in her 10 hands in a symbolic representation of Shakti, or woman power.