DURGA PUJO IS IN THE AIR
Every Indian festival has its share of sights and sounds. Be it the firecrackers piercing the night sky before exploding into a million sparkling stars on a Diwali night, or be it the gigantic Ravana effigies set aflame on Dussehra, its light reflecting on the awestruck faces of hundreds present to celebrate good winning over evil year after year.
Similarly, the white feather-like kash phool, women clad in saris and the sound of the dhhakis create an ambience like no other on Durga Puja. However, there is something that sets this festival apart from the others.
Durga Puja has a smell of its own.
Yes, you heard that right. Durga Puja has its own fragrance. And not just the usual Puja smell of camphor, incense or ghee being poured into fire. Weeks before the Puja, a sweet
honey-like smell pervades the air in Kolkata.In the pre-internet era, you did not need Google to find out when Durga Puja was — it was that very fragrance that indicated that it was time!
The fragrance being talked about is that of the Shiuli phool or the Night-flowering Jasmine. You might not have heard of it, but such is the uniqueness of this flower’s fragrance, it was used as the name of a lead character in a recent Bollywood movie!
Right before Puja, the air is thick with its heavy scent. One whiff of the flower’s fragrance and every Bengali across the globe is going to have one thought — Durga Puja!
The Parijat, or Shiuli, as the Bengalis lovingly call it, signals the arrival of Sharad and thus the Sharadotsava or the Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal. Weeks before the Puja, Kolkata changes almost overnight. There are Pujathemed hoardings all across town. Hordes of people throng the market areas to shop for their Puja-special wardrobe. Advertisements on TV include Durga Puja in some or other
DURGA PUJA HAS ITS OWN FRAGRANCE. AND NOT JUST THE USUAL PUJA SMELL OF CAMPHOR, INCENSE OR GHEE BEING POURED INTO FIRE. IT’S A HONEYLIKE SMELL THAT PERVADES THE AIR.
way. If you are in Kolkata during or before the Pujas, the excitement is palpable and slowly building up to a crescendo. While you are bombarded with numerous vibrant images about the forthcoming Puja, the fragrance of Shiuli is a much more subtle indicator of the festive period.
Our sense of smell is probably the most understated of the five senses, but also possibly the strongest. The smell of a certain aftershave can take us back to the time when we, as kids, used to wait for our father to finish shaving so that we could have a go. Our brain skips decades to take us to that very moment within a matter of seconds.
The smell of Shiuli has a similar effect. It harks back to the childhood days, when children would count the number of days remaining for the Puja holidays.
The Shiuli flowers bloom at night and lose their brightness by day. The tree, therefore, is sometimes called the ‘tree of sorrow’. Its scientific name, arbor tristis, literally means ‘sad tree’. The Shiuli is the official flower of West Bengal, where it is also known as the Parijat.
While all other flowers meant as an offering to the gods are plucked from trees, the Shiuli is picked from the ground and offered to the gods. In popular folklore, the Parijat has a special status as the Gods’ favourite flower and they do not mind even if they are picked from the ground.
According to many-a-grandma tales, Parijat was a princess who fell in love with Surya, the Sun God. Surya agreed to marry her but he had a condition — she could never turn away from him. No matter what. Parijat was so lovestruck that she could never imagine turning away from her beloved. So, she agreed and one fine autumn, they got married.
The seasons flew by for the newlyweds but once summer came around, Parijat faced a tough time facing her husband. Surya’s powers in summer were too intense for her to handle. It became difficult for her to be near him but fearing she would lose her lover, she soldiered on. As fate would have it, one fine day Surya appeared in front of her out of nowhere and she could not help but flinch. And she turned away for a moment, before realising her mistake.
Surya felt betrayed and was livid. In his anger, Surya’s intensity increased, causing Parijat to wilt. By the time Surya calmed down, the damage had already been done.
Surya rushed to the other gods for help, pleading them to bring her back to life. The gods knew Parijat’s love for Surya was true and they granted her another life. But only as a tree. Surya now visits her during the night. It is said Shiuli is so fragrant because it has been kissed by the sun!
Now, that’s some tale, eh? Unlike the other Indian festivals, Durga Pujo has a certain fragrance.Right before the Pujas, the air is thick k with a sweet honey-like aroma that brings a smile on every Bengali’s face. Tathagata Sen takes you on a walk down the narrow, dew-drenched alleys of Kolkata and old Bengali folktales to tell you more about the fragrance