Every year when the entire state of West Bengal, especially Calcutta, decks up in blinding psychedelic lights to celebrate the homecoming of Mahishasura slayer goddess Durga, a tribal community in eastern India mourns the death of their king.
Beginning from Mahalaya, the city and its people, rejoicing the triumph of good over evil, welcome the goddess and her children home and celebrate it with pomp and glory.
During Durga Puja, the ten-day annual festival in Bengal, the city comes together in celebrating the divine feminity.
But during the same time, a tribal community who identify themselves as Asurs or Mulnibasis, lock themselves inside their houses to mourn the martyrdom of their king who was ‘mercilessly slain by Aryan gods’.
According to the subaltern version of the mythology, Mahishasura, the buffalo-tribal king, was deceived and stabbed by Durga because of a boon that no man could defeat him. Subsequently, a group of gods arrived and killed him.
The Asur community thus assemble on a full-moon night of the Hindu calendar month Ashwin to mourn Mahishasura’s death. The Ashwin Puja or Asur puja is observed twice a year, once during the month of Phagun (March) and again during the month of Ashwin that falls in September-October which coincides with the tenth day of Durga Puja (Dashami/ Dusshera).
However, the tradition of Asur puja has spilled over to several other tribal villages in Bengal who now observe ‘Hudur Durga’. Tribal and Dalit communities such as Bagdi, Santhalis, Mundas and even Namasudras take part in observing the martyrdom of Mahishasura.
“During the nine days of Durga Puja, we don’t work much in the daytime. We only come out at night to offer prayers and at the end of the ninth day, we offer prayers to our ancestors to keep us safe. The men offer the pujas and then the women join in observing the day,” says Shyama Asur, a third-year student who pays annual homage at his village in Purulia.
Over the past few years, the Asura Puja has become an integral part of the Dalit-Bahujan discourse where activists say it is one way for Dalits to reclaim public spaces and their neglected identities in the backdrop of Durga Puja.
In 2016, Sushma Asur, a social activist, along with 10 other people from Jharkhand, took to the streets of Kolkata to spread awareness about their identity. She said, “I won’t go inside the pandals, this is a time for us to mourn. In the earlier days, we would help the Zamindars with their puja preparations but leave before the celebrations started.”
The Mahishashura martyrdom observance day entered the limelight in 2016 when Union minister Smriti Irani raised it in a parliamentary debate following a controversy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Traditionally, the Durga Puja celebrations were a savarna affair, often restricted to Zamindar families in pre-Independence Bengal. But in the 18th century, 12 people came together on the Hooghly and brought the festival into the public domain by organizing the first community Puja (known as Baroaari puja) and thus was born the cultural extravaganza that Durga Puja has turned into.
There are anywhere between 2500-3000 community pujas held in Kolkata for Bengalis to bask in the glory of divine revelation. The budget for the cultural exuberance often ranges between lakhs and crores of rupees with puja communities trying to outdo each other. The competition is so fierce that this year a puja committee is worshipping a Durga idol made with 50 kilograms of gold worth almost Rs 1 crore.