Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Ma Durga In Mekhela

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                                                        Courtesy Google Images


               It is that time of the year when the slant of the sun's rays goes down a few notches.The memories in the mellowing sunshine stir up images of celebrations from childhood. At this time we invariably fall back on the Durga Puja celebrations of the places we grew up in. The little  metallic pistols, the tiny paper cases with red ammunition roll coiled in; the tik tiki that made a clackety sound when pressed between the thumb and the forefinger; the plastic wrist watches where time literally stood still; the array of bangles and beaded necklaces...

                        Decades back, in the 70s, while going to Dibrugarh for the Durga Puja holidays,  we crossed many tea gardens by the highway. The towns and villages came alive with the local Puja fairs. The bright pin wheels, the balloons twisted into animals and flowers, the pretty girls of the tea tribes attired in bright sarees and frocks,  adorned with coloured ribbons giggling along the roads. They were such a delightful sight building up anticipation for what awaited  at the end of the journey. It gave a sense of homecoming to us, the three hour long weary travellers from Nazira. 

                       The moment we entered Khalihamari in Dibrugarh, we were infused with a renewed sense of vigour and pride. Although we tried not to make an ado of the many relatives who dropped in to see how much we had grown, secretly we delighted in the attention. Happy to be in the middle of his kith and kin, my father's dialect changed and took on the drawl characteristic of Khalihamari lingo. While the grown ups were busy exchanging notes and some robust camaraderie, we rushed out through the driveway to take the best possible place near  the gate. It also happened to be an advertisement of our arrival. Nobody was a stranger here. 
"Aren't you Dulu's daughter? When did you come? Let me go and say a hello to him." 
And in they walked. Our interest was, however, on the other side of the road.  Right across the gate was the Khalihamari Puja pandal. It wasn't exactly the grandest one in Dibrugarh but it was unique for many reasons which was revealed over the years. In our growing years, it was the perfect place to strut around since the members of the organizing committee were family. The excitement of the Devi's arrival and her pratishthan reverberated with the dhak beats and the grace of the arati with wafting smoke from  the dhunadani. The nip in the morning air fragrant with the little orange stalked white xewali flowers is synonymous with Durga Puja. Even now in Delhi, the fragrance of the xewali takes me back to Khalihamari. It was the many fashionable new clothes that Puja pandal hopping crowd attired in, that caught our attention. Sitting by the gate with morahs and folding chairs, we scrutinized the crowd turning out in locally tailored copies of their favourite Bollywood stars. If one year it was the Ashiqui style, the next year it was reminiscent of Tridev with the loud accompanying Bollywood music from the pandals adding to the feel. The girls limped braving the  bite from the new sandals chaperoned by the matrons in starched new saris. 

                        As I look back now, I notice a unique feature of the Khalihamari Puja. And on further query it is affirmed that I am not mistaken. Khalihamari Durga Puja that started in 1947, claims to have been  the only one, where Ma Durga was seen vanquishing Mahishasura, attired in either Muga mekhela and riha or muga mekhela sador. Flanking her were Ganesha and Kartik in dhuti and muga or paat (Assam silk) kurta with gamusas. Now of course, there are many pandals where the Devi has shown a penchant for the Assamese mekhela sador in place of her usual  brightly coloured embellished sari. Nobody remembers who thought of it in the late 1950s but the tradition stayed on and also spread to other Puja pandals much later. At present I believe, there are atleast four to five such idols in Dibrugarh alone.  Back then it came as a surprise for the Bengali people of Dibrugarh drawing them to Khalihamari to pay their obeisance to the mekhela -pora -Ma ( mekhela attired Ma).  

                  You may ask what  is the big deal about it? It is the same as seeing Jesus Christ in a dhoti kurta and Lord Muruga in shalwar. The big deal is  when some festivals go beyond religion to embrace a community and share it's identity. Here in Khalihamari, the residents are mostly followers of Srimonto Sankardev who was a Vaishnavite saint. But when it came to celebrations, religious leanings were not the yardstick. Or maybe it was the other way round. To accept and assimilate the 'different ', it was essential to lend it a familiarity. It could  have been an offshoot of the political turmoil simmering with the Language Agitation when most Assamese scoffed at Bengali affiliations. But then Devi Puja was not a novelty in the land of Kamakhya temple.  Only, the Brahmin stronghold had dwindled with Srimonto Sankardev's ideologies sweeping the state veering off many from the exploitative  clutches of the priest class.

       Or maybe I read too much between the lines. In this case, reading too much between the folds of the garment.  The reason behind mekhela-pora-Ma  of Khalihamari could also have been a bright spark of a brain storming session to figure out a way to hold the Puja innovatively.  Through the generations now, the ladies of Khalihamari, clad in mekhela sadors seek 'their' Ma's blessings. That we have a mekhela wearing Durga shouldn't come as a surprise when the Sikhs of Morigaon celebrate Bihu with pithas and the Guru Parav with equal élan. After all, don't they say, that happiness doubles when you share it? On this day of Shashthi, as I key in my musings, Ma Durga takes her place on the pedestal in Khalihamari,  resplendent in her mekhela sador while Ganesha and Kartik look on with gamusas adorning their shoulder.



  1. Beautiful post ilakshi.The first para took me back to my own childhood-thanks for refreshing those memories.
    The rest of the post gave a cute peek into yours.
    What is mekhela sador?I wish you had shown a pic alongside:(.

  2. That was fun going down memory lane with you; I felt like a little girl skipping to a fair and looking forward to those plastic goodies. :)
    Happy Puja to you.

  3. Lovely post Ilakshee. When you described your visit to your native I could picturise it vividly and glad to know more about khalihamari.

  4. The nostalgic opening is the crown of your vibrant, richly detailed post.

  5. Hmm - If festivals will not unite, what will? If we cannot make the deities our own, who then is ours? :)

  6. Festivals do make us nostalgic don't they

  7. Festival times take us back to our childhood days and you have penned yours so well. I long to own a mekhala sari, i have seen my friends wearing them.

  8. Lovely lovely post Ilaskshee. I thought you would be glad to know I played the role of Goddess Durga, this year.

    Read my experience on my post.



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