Kumbhars of Kumartuli (Kolkata) and the story of the creation of idols for Durga Puja

With the last spell of the monsoon rains having drained down the narrow lanes of Kumartuli, the season bids adieu to an important festival – Durgatsav. It has been a busy time for the kumbhars of the region, especially of Eastern India, who have been busy with the making of the clay idols of the deity for this festival of Goddess Durga. Amidst the many stories of the kumbhars of the region, those of the area of Kumartuli from Kolkata occupy an important space of historical significance. This is a story of the kumbhars of Kumartuli, who has been moulding the clay idols of Goddess Durga and other deities through generations. Today, their craftsmanship has reached even foreign shores as the idols find way into several regions all around the globe.

Chokkhudaan- or 'imparting the eyes'- is considered to be very auspicious and is done at an auspicious time

cast being used to make fingers

Fingers made from the cast

The word kumbhar is used for potters in Sanskrit and several Indian languages, including Bengali. Though traditionally, the festival of Durga was celebrated during the Indian agricultural month of Chaitra (corresponding to the Roman calendar months of March-April), the kumbhars of Kumartuli witness a spurt of activities during the period of the Durga Puja festival in Ashwin (corresponding to the Roman calendar months of September-October). This puja of Ashwin reflects an important historical as well as mythological strain.According to popular lore, the first kumbhar was brought in Kumartuli area from the region of Krisnanagar (Nadia district in Bengal) by Raja Nabakrisna Deb to build a Durga idol for worship and to mainly celebrate the victory of the British at the Battle of Plassey (June 23- 1757) against the Islamic power of Siraj-ud-Daullah (the last Nawab of Bengal). After the battle and in the following Ashwin month thus, Durga Puja was observed in Kolkata with aplomb. This worship followed the mythological story of the worship of Lord Rama from the Indian epic, The Ramayana. In due course of time, this puja also inspired several other rich families of the region to perform similar puja of the deity, giving rise to more number of Durga Pujas and a rise in popularity of the kumbhars. As demand increased with time, the kumbhars found it difficult to travel across the Ganges river to build the clay idol in Kolkata since they were travelling from Krishnanagar. On their request, this community was given a section of land to settle down and work. This was the beginning of the region of Kumartuli. Various lore describe the contribution of different rich families to help the settlement of Kumartuli. One popular one which still reverberates is:

Jagatseth’s money

Umichand’s beard

Banamali Sarkar’s house

Govinda Mitra’s walking stick

(“Jagat Seth – an influential banker” with “the road called Banamali Sarkar street [which] runs out of Kumartuli into the Chitpur Road on which is situated the temple of the Mitra family”- all being rich and influential families of the time).

For more on Kolkata Heritage read here:

https://blogvirasatehind.com/2017/01/20/glimpses-of-calcutta-kolkata-heritage/

The fact that Bengal already had Durga Puja, even before the Battle of Plassey, can be ascertained through various lore, e.g. the Maharashtra Purana of the Marathi poet Gangaram. The story also ascertains the significance of the worship of Goddess Durga in the region. An important evidence is reflected though the story of Maharashtra Purana. According to Gangaram, Bengal faced serious threats from Marathas of Western India, known as Bargees between 1740-1750. The poem of Gangaram also describes a battle between the forces of Bengal under Nawab Alivardi Khan and the Maratha general- Bhaskara. According to the poem, as Bhaskara desired to win the battle, he wished to perform a puja of Goddess Durga and summoned the local zamindars or landlords to help him. The zamindars invited several kumbhars to make an idol of the deity for Bhaskara. However, Bhaskara had to flee before the puja could be completed being beaten at the hands of the Nawabi forces. Bhaskara managed to only complete till the seventh and eighth day of the puja- Saptami (seventh) and Ashtami (eighth) and fled. This happened in the month of Ashwina. A few months later and in the month of Chaitra, Bhaskara returned once again. Nevertheless, the deity is mentioned to have been displeased with Bhaskara at the very first time, since he could not complete her puja and fled. Thus, though Bhaskara fought valiantly, yet he was defeated and killed after a fierce battle at the hands of the Nawabi forces. Through many other local lore as well as literary sources, the popularity of the deity is seen and by the time of the 19th century, many British officials also used to attend pujas in many rich households. The worship also started to come out of family circles as a community effort (Baroyari Puja). This was first performed by twelve Brahmin friends of Guptipara region in Hooghly district of West Bengal in 1790. Finally this community puja in Kolkata was introduced in 1832 by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar (from Murshidabad district).

Deities stands at various stages of completion

Awaiting the mounting of the weapons across the ten hands of the deity

Artists At work within the narrow lanes of Kumartuli

A workshop of a kumbhar at Kumartuli

Ganesha and Lakshmi

The deity is often decked in a red saree

Making the idols

The process of the making of the clay idols has traditionally followed the following steps:

  • Making the framework out of bamboo and dried straw, entwining them to
    render the basic shape of the structure.
  • Coating with well-kneaded and manually, prepared soft clay to render the entire shape of the idol.
  • Drying them in the sun
  • Applying the basic and the primary and secondary layers of paints.
  • Finally decorating the idol with other embellishments.

The fine clay is prepared through various layers of straining (refining the texture) and mixing with water and hand-made glue which is made from power of seeds of the local Siris tree (Albizzia lebbeck)– mixed with water and boiled to get a certain thick consistency. This hand-made glue is also mixed with the colours before they are applied to the idols. Finally, this glue is also used to attach the many embellishments onto the idol for decoration. The cloth/sari and dhoti are adorned variously- keeping in touch with changing times and demands. Of the popular types of decorations are- “Daaker saaj”, ‘Rangta saaj’ and ‘Sholar saaj’. Daaker Saaj or postal decorations came from the beaten and thin sheets of silver which were traditionally delivered from Germany through post or daak. Rangtasaaj traditionally came from the beaten and thin sheets of gold which were used for decoration. At present though- neither gold or silver are used- but the name remained. Sholar saaj (decoration made from shola) remains a popular decoration due to its pristine white touch. Shola is obtained from the fleshy, white interiors of the bark of pith plants which are found in marshy areas of West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The puja in the month of AshwinAkal Bodhon- and the lore associated with it

An interesting lore is associated with the festival of Durga Puja in the month of Ashwin. This story from the Indian mythology also explains the reason for this puja. According to the version of The Ramayana, written by poet Kirtibas during the battle between Rama and Ravana, the latter began to sing praises of Rama. Thus, Rama found it difficult to slay him as he had turned into a devotee. Seeing this tricky situation, all the Gods and Goddesses assembled in heaven to find a solution and finally decided to send Goddess Saraswati to reside on the tongue of Ravana to make him utter foul words against Rama. As soon as this happened- an enraged Rama cut Ravana into two halves, however he came back to life as he had a special boon of life bestowed by Lord Brahma. Ravana also prayed to Devi Ambika to assist him in the battle and the appeased Devi sat with him in his chariot. Seeing an impossible situation to defeat Ravana now- Rama was finally adviced by the Gods and Lord Vishnu to pray to the Devi. However, she was not appeased and did not appear before Rama. Finally- Bibhishan suggested that she be worshipped with 108 neel kamal or blue lotuses. On the request of Rama- Hanuman flew to Debidaha- the only place where one could find blue lotuses and Hanuman brought back the lotuses. Halfway through the puja- Rama discovered that there are only 107 neel kamal. It was too late to stop the puja and Rama finally decided to offer one of his eyes as the last lotus with his arrow. At this moment- the Devi appeared before Rama and blessed him and also mentioned that she would leave the side of Ravana. Rama had started the puja on the sixth day (Sashti) of the month of Ashwin and the Goddess appeared before him on the eighth day (Ashtami). At the meeting point or sandhikkhan between the eighth and ninth days- the Devi entered into Rama’s weapons and gave them required strength to fight against Ravana and the latter was killed a day after- on tenth day (Dashami). Thus, this day is also referred to as Vijaya Dashami (the victorious tenth day).Following this story- on the day of Dashami– many effigies of Ravana are burned across many celebrations in India. The idols of Kumartuli also reflect this image of the victory of good over evil. Traditionally, Bengal worships the Mahishashurmardini (slayer of the demon- Mahish) form of Devi Durga as a warrior goddess. However, she is worshipped along with her family and this is represented by two daughters Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge and learning), Lakshmi (Goddess of prosperity and wealth) and two sons- Kartikeya (Warrior God) and Ganesha (God of good wealth and fortune).

The history of the clay idol-making profession of the kumbhars of the region also got moulded according to the stories of Indian mythology and local history. It is also interesting to note the representation of the warrior deity in Bengal which follows a complacent expression and never displays anger- as should befit a warrior goddess. The goddess is also worshipped in Bengal (including by the Bengali community worldwide) along with her ‘offsprings’ Kartikeya, Ganesha, Saraswati and Lakshmi and the image portrayed across popular belief is that of a married woman visiting her father’s abode, along with her children for a few days every year. Through time various changes have taken place to include these representational transformations, as well as the changes within the sculptural expressions, adornments and embellishments.

Author – Dr Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai

Born and brought up in Kolkata, Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai now lives in Pune. A specialist in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology and cultural journalism, Lopamudra has a PhD in Ethnoarchaeology (a branch of archaeology that deals with living cultural practises as an enquiry tool to draw parallel with past human behaviour). Over the years Lopamudra has also specialised in Visual Anthropology and has worked extensively in the genre of intangible cultural heritage of India and South Asia and their reflections in visual- including media, art, architecture and folk culture and has authored 40 international publications on the subject- including her edited volumes at SAARC, Sri Lanka recently._DSC0263

At present Lopamudra teaches at MIT World Peace University, Pune and a Research Grant Fellow of the Indian High Commission, Colombo (Sri Lanka). Until recently Lopamudra had been deputed as the Culture Specialist (Research) at the SAARC Cultural Centre- Colombo in Sri Lanka (2017) – where she edited publications- covering intangible cultural heritage of all the 8 SAARC Member States. You may access these issues- edited by herself at http://saarcculture.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/issue3.pdf (Issue 3- March, 2017- focus being- Theatre)

and http://saarcculture.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/issue4.pdf (Issue-4- September, 2017- focus being- Storytelling and Folklore)

Lopamudra has also recently been invited by Aleph publications to edit a book for them about the folktales of India. This will be a collection of folktales from all over India- including firsthand accounts as well.

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