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Did the first Durga Puja of Indian subcontinent start in Tahirpur?

3 October, 2022 11:51:52
Did the first Durga Puja of Indian subcontinent start in Tahirpur?

Emotions that surround one’s roots are always eternal. The yearning for one’s homeland, the land of one’s birth will forever attract the soul, just like many Bengalis born in Bangladesh still wish to return once to the land of their ancestors, and so do their descendants, who have grown up listening to innumerable tales of a country that has witnessed bloodied partition through its undulating green territories. But come Durga Puja, Bangladesh still holds on to the tradition in many semi-urban areas that had historically celebrated some of the grandest Durga Pujas that Bengalis have ever witnessed.

One such territory is that of Tahirpur, where as per historical records, the first ever Durga Puja of the then undivided Bengal was held. This place is steeped in history, particularly the village of Nabagram, that was the capital of the Laur Kingdom in the 14th century. History goes that after the conquest of Sylhet in 1303, some disciples of warrior-saint Shah Jalal migrated and settled in present-day Tahirpur where they preached Islam to locals. One can still find the burial ground of one such follower, Shah Rafiuddin located in Sarping, on the border with Meghalaya. In the 18th century, Tahirpur became a part of Brajendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury's zamindari. Chowdhury was originally from Gouripur Estate of Mymensingh. During British rule, a Bengali Muslim named Tahir Ali, settled in the area and by then the local zamindari council was dissolved by the British. Tahir Ali became an important person in the area and named the place Tahirpur. 

It is believed that it was at this Tahirpur that grand celebration of Durga Puja first began in late 1500s. There are many folk tales about the first Durga Puja in Bengal that indicates Raja Kangsha Narayan of Tahirpur organized the first autumn Durga Puja in Bengal on the banks of river Barahi or Barnai. Raja Kangsha Narayan, son of Hari Narayan was one of the most notable zamindars of Tahirpur. It is recorded that by spending taka nine lakhs he arranged for the gorgeous celebration. Another story says the landlords of Dinajpur initiated the first Achala Durga Puja in Bengal. The 500-year-old heritage site of Tahirpur Durga Mandir still stands tall. 

In 19th century, many rich families of Bangladesh came together to celebrate community Pujas. The creation and ornamentation of idols is marked by rites and rituals still and the clay used for the sculpture of Goddess Durga is still collected from the banks of innumerable rivers that flow through Bangladesh. It may be mentioned here during Bangladesh Liberation War, Hindus as evacuees in relief camps also observed Durga Puja in 1971. The present day Puja committees in Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh depend on doles of government and protection of law enforcing agencies. 

Surprisingly, Durga Puja is celebrated twice a year in Bangladesh. According to Hindu religious scriptures, the conventional worship of Durga falls in the Bengali month of 'Chaitra' and is called Basanti Durga Puja. However, the autumnal ritual, also known as 'Akaal Bodhan', is more popular and widely celebrated as per Hindu almanac (Panjika) around different continents of the world in the Bengali month of 'Ashwin'. It is believed that Goddess Durga, the slayer of Mahisasur, was first worshipped in autumn by Lord Ram before going for war with Ravan. Lord Ram had invoked the blessings of Goddess Durga by performing 'Chandi Homa', offering 108 blue lotuses and lighting 108 lamps. It was then on Ashvin Shukla Dashami that Lord Ram who was blessed by the Goddess had attained triumph by killing Ravan. Moreover, it is believed that Durga Puja is observed as the welcoming celebration of Goddess Durga who visits her mother's land for ten days on the completion of which she goes back to her husband Lord Shiva.

Rig Veda, the oldest religious scripture of the world bears the testimony of Shri Sakti Cult that narrates ‘To establish peace by protecting from the destructive fire of vain arrogant tyrants wielding the evil power like that of a mad Bull, Lord created by His wisdom the First Devee, to cool off the force evil fire as if by throwing water to quench the evil fire.’ Thus Veda clearly establishes the creation of Durga to kill the arrogant Evil to establish peace and joy on earth. In the Markandiya Purana it is written that many dark, primordial moons ago when evil went stampeding through the heavens in the form of Mahisashura, the buffalo demon, the gods in their hour of need turned to Shiva and Vishnu. The darkness that had settled on the world burst open in a dazzle and of the effulgence was born the sound and fury of blazing wrath that is Devi Durga, difficult to attain destroyer of all evil. Fiery red in hue, clad in the blue of the firmament her many arms fanned out to fill the sky as she received the martial equipment that each god separately created out of his own special weapons-a trident from Shiva, a discus from Vishnu, staff of death from Yama, a club from Kubera, a battle axe from Vishwakarma, a thunder bolt from Indra and many more. The gods watched in wonder and relief as she went riding to battle on a lion, her dreadful laughter mingling with its roar the three worlds echoing with the sound of fury as she made her way to the Vindalyas to seek out Mahisashur.

In a final burst of triumph, she pinned Mahishashur down with her foot drove the trident into his heaving chest as he strove to hold back his escaping life-breath. Thus the demon met his doom, gazing into her frenzied eye; for the glance reread his doom-and his deliverance. Exquisite idol craftsmanship can still be seen in Bangladesh as some of the families of idol makers who did not cross over during Partition still try to hold on to the traditions. 

Tahirpur is still known as the fish-stone-paddy hub of Bangladesh and houses the one and only limestone mine of the country. Tahirpur Palace stands on an area of about 3.84 acres of land. On the east and north the palace is protected by ditches. On the south and west it is surrounded by some tanks. At present one can view the main palace room and a number of ruined temples. The Andar Mahal, Kitchen, Mahafez Khana, Hawa Khana etc. have been destroyed long back. In 1967 Tahirpur College was established in this Rajbari which then underwent some structural changes. The entire palace was built on a platform with ten rooms which are arranged centering around the main hall. The room situated on the south-west corner of the building contains a hexagonal staircase extending up to the upper storey. While the rooms of the ground floor are without any window, those of the upper storey have windows on the external wall. This palace is virtually without any ornamentation. The wall surfaces have been simply coated with layers of plaster. But it is still famous for the centuries-old Puja that was started by the erstwhile zamindars and goes on, despite political and communal divide that tend to rock the world these days. Legends state the 1480 Puja that started in Tahirpur might be the oldest Durga Puja of the Indian subcontinent. 

Source: Rajshahi Zamidarder Prasad-sthapatya (1793-1950) Dhaka: Bangladesh Asiatic Society, 2009.

Palaces of zamindars
Architecture, Cultural Survey of Bangladesh Series-2, Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2007.

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