e n

Asur rendition of Durga Saptashati

Dr Ambedkar raised important questions about the rise of Adi Shakti or goddesses during the Puranic era. He said that in the Vedic era it was the gods who fought battles. They were all men. Their wives did not join them in the wars

Almost all of us are acquainted with the Durga Saptashati as rendered in Markanday Purana. We have either read it or heard it. All of us are also acquainted with the celebrations of Durga Puja or Navratri. We would like to introduce you to a Munda tribal story. The story goes like this. In the forest, a pair of male and female wild buffaloes find a newborn girl. They take her to their home and bring her up. She grows into a dazzlingly beautiful young lady with golden skin. The king comes to know of her ravishing looks from hunters. He spots her from a hideout and is besotted with her. When he tries to abduct her, the buffalo couple arrive. On seeing them, the king takes the girl captive, drags her inside the house and bolts the door. The she-buffalo shouts from outside and asks the girl to open the door. But how can she? She is held captive. Crying bitterly, she asks the king to open the door. But he refuses. Ultimately, the buffaloes start banging their heads against the door in an attempt to break it open. The door doesn’t give way and the buffaloes die trying to set the girl free. After their death, the king forcefully makes the girl his queen.

You may wonder how this tribal tale is related with Durga Saptashati or the story of Durga Puja, in which Adi Shakti Durga slays Mahishasur. Before we talk about this, let us hear another tribal story, virtually unknown to the world outside. This is a story of Santhal Tribals. There is a Santhal festival called Dansaya, which is celebrated at the same time as Durga Puja. During this festival, young men, dressed as warriors, march in a group, led by an elderly person. They enter each house, pretending to search for someone. They are looking for their chief, who has got separated from them. The group moves from one house to another, their dance movements resembling that of a war. In this Santhal tribal tradition, the chief whom the group tries to locate is called Durga, who fights a battle in his disum (country) against the dikus (outsiders) who dominate them and commit atrocities against them. The dikus are no match for his strength and his valour. They are mortally afraid of him. Ultimately, the dikus decide to use deception. They seek the help of a woman to take the chief captive and kill him. The woman wants to know what she will gain by being party to this conspiracy. The priests convince her that if she joins them in this endeavour, people will worship her in the coming ages. Thus the Santhal chief is caught and killed. Because she kills tribal chief Durga, the woman herself is given the title of Durga. It takes her nine days and nine nights to capture and kill the tribal chief. Thus begins the celebrations of Navratri. Bengal becomes its centre because Santhals originally inhabited the area called Manbhum, near Bang. That is why a fistful of soil from the house of a woman is to be compulsorily added to the clay before giving it the shape of the idol of Durga.

From the second story, you must have realized the relationship of the first one – with allegorical references to forest, buffalo and girl with the golden skin – with Durga Saptashati. In fact, both these stories are the tribal renderings of the Manuvadi Durga Saptashati – renderings not allowed to come into the public domain by the priestly class, which dismissed them as folk tales of little or no worth. In their bid to culturally colonize the Tribals, the priestly class, and the education system devised and run by it, refused to lend any credibility to folk beliefs and crushed the history of dissent and opposition under the weight of Vedas and Puranas.

Dr Ambedkar raised important questions about the rise of Adi Shakti or goddesses during the Puranic era. He said that in the Vedic era it was the gods who fought battles. They were all men. Their wives did not join them in the wars. But in the Puranic era, when the gods or devas had already established their rule, we suddenly find their wives in the battlefield, displaying their valour. In a sarcastic tone, Ambedkar writes, “The Brahmins do not seem to have realized that by making Durga the heroine who alone was capable of destroying the Asuras, they were making their own gods a set of miserable cowards. It seems that the Gods could not defend themselves against the Asuras and had to beg their wives to come to their rescue. One illustration from the Markandeya Purana is enough to prove how imbecile the Puranic Gods were shown by the Brahmins against the Asuras. [Riddles in Hinduism, p75]”

Dasain dance

The Durga Puja of Bengal has an abominable history. Till the 18th century, Bengal had no history of Durga Puja as we see today. Many Hindus will be shocked to learn that the first time Durga Puja was held in Bengal, it was as a victory celebration of the British. The British established their rule over Bengal by vanquishing the Nawab of Bengal in the battle of Plassey in 1757. It was to celebrate this occasion that Raja Nabakrishna Dev, who was a friend of Lord Clive, organized Durga Puja at his residence in Shobhabazar on 17 June 1757. Even today, Bengalis describe the puja held at 36, Nabakrishna Street, as Company Puja. Subsequently, the Bengali landlords started organizing Durga Puja in their Thakur Dalaans and in the areas where they were in control. The tradition of Durga Puja also had an element of communal enmity. It must not be forgotten that Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah, whom the East India Company had defeated in the battle of Plassey, was a Muslim. In Indian history, Siraj-ud-Daulah, who fought the British, is not considered a patriot. Instead, the Bengali kings and landlords who prostrated themselves before the East India Company were described as harbingers of the so-called Bengali renaissance. This celebration of ethnic genocide is a reminder of the slaying of Asurs by Durga through deception thousands of years ago. The Bengalis resurrected Durga 250 years ago as part of their anti-Muslim agenda and as an expression of their love and admiration for the East India Company. After Independence, the government and Hindu society exported Durga Puja to the tribal areas in the name of development and industrialization. And the cultural annihilation of Tribals continues to this day.


Published in the November 2013  issue of the Forward Press magazine

For more information on Mahishasur, see Mahishasur: A People’s Hero. The book is available both in English and Hindi. Contact The Marginalised, Delhi (Phone: 9968527911).

Or, find the book on Amazon:  Mahishasur: A People’s Hero  (English edition),  Mahishasur: Ek Jan Nayak (Hindi edition)

And on Flipkart:

Mahishasur: A People’s Hero (English edition), Mahishasur: Ek Jan Nayak (Hindi edition)

About The Author

Ashwini Kumar Pankaj

Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, a poet and short-story writer, edits the fortnightly multilingual tribal newspaper, Johar Disum Khabar, and the quarterly magazine on theatre and performing arts, Rangvarta

Related Articles

For Ambedkar, Mahad Satyagraha was the end of a road and the beginning of a new one
The burning of the Manusmriti on 25 December 1927 during the Mahad Satyagraha marked the end of Ambedkar’s attempts to reform Hinduism, writes Siddharth
How the Tricolour can inspire us, the Bahujan, to fight for freedom in its truest sense
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd writes about imagining the nation and the flag not in terms of who were or are in power – Nehru and...
Journalism for Dalit liberation was a study in contrast during Hindi renaissance
While Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi was writing 'Draupadi-Vachan Banawali', portraying women as vile and lowly, Maithlisharan Gupta was singing paeans to Hindutva in his 'Vyas-Stavan',...