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Goddess Durga’s Own Town

October 2007
Goddess Durga’s Own Town

Standing inside the workshop of a potter in Kumartuli, a suburb of Kolkata that predates the city itself, the spell of history, blended with divinity, overpowers you. As the deft hands of the kumar (potter) lend finishing touches to the idol of Goddess Durga, you are uncannily beckoned by a distant past.

And what a rich past it is for Kumartuli, which can aptly be described as Durga's own town, thanks to a thriving legacy of potters who specialize in creating clay idols of the Goddess Durga, in a region deeply entrenched in the cultural and spiritual traditions of Durga puja.

Today, besides fulfilling the increasing demand within India for their clay creations of the divine Mother, the roughly 250 families of kumars make for a formidable handicraft industry trying to cope with the similarly increasing demand from overseas, thanks to the exodus of Indians to foreign countries in recent decades. This year, the town sent about 12,300 clay images of Durga to 93 countries around the world, including the USA, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Poland, and other parts of Europe.

Although the worship of Mother Goddess or Shakti (female divine force) dates back to time immemorial in Bengal, the first historically recorded Durga Pujas were in 1606. The credit for spreading the custom and industry of the clay idols of Durga, as per some accounts, can be traced back to a single individual – Raja Man Singh, a General in Emperor Akbar's Army. Though serving a Mughal army, he was a devotee of Durga. In the mid 16th century when he came invading Bengal, he was fascinated by the nascent work of some of the potters making clay models of the Goddess. Man Singh was successful in constructing several Durga temples in Mewar, Rajputana and other parts of Mughal India, while simultaneously encouraging the clay artisans in their interest of making Durga idols. He was also instrumental in popularizing the Dussera festival in those areas.

Thanks to these efforts, by the 17th century, the zamindars, rajas, maharajas and prominent personalities of Bengal celebrated Durga Puja with extreme gusto. For many, it was a matter of status and social prestige. And the idols made by the kumars of Kumartuli had become a part of the landscape of Durga pujas. It is thus that this humble town came into existence before the "London of the East" or Kolkata was born. Today, it is a suburb of the bustling metropolis, nestled just a stone's throw away from the famous Nimtolla Ghat, north of Howrah Bridge.

According to the Kumartuli Shilpi Sangha (KSS), an association of craftsmen, demand for Durga images is rising in countries like Spain, Italy, Norway, Sweden, South Africa, Denmark, Uganda, and Kenya. In particular, the demand rose substantially in Eastern Europe and Russia after 1990 due to the collapse of the Communist governments there. The collapse opened the flood-gates for Indians to migrate there, along with their traditions such as Durga puja. Naturally, the importance of Kumartuli also rose: today, it sends over 3,000 clay images to different nations of Eastern Europe, USSR, and other erstwhile Communist nations.

About 826 agents in Kumartuli and Kolkata procure the clay images for shipment around India and the world. They pack the images and dispatch them by air and by ship.

In recent years, Kumartuli has become quite a tourist spot, drawing about a million foreign tourists each year. Out of them, many are diaspora Indians (NRIs) who prefer to come personally to procure their images. The visitors throng each year to observe how the potters work to create from clay, not only Goddess Durga, but also her children, and other forms such as that of the formidable demon lord Mahishasur.

There, the tourists see what had impressed Man Singh in the sixteenth century – the way the craftsmen create the idols, stage by stage: first the preparation of the structure with hay and wood; second, the adding of solid clay to give shape to the goddess; and third, adding color to the image and decorating it with ornaments. Till today, the same traditional method is maintained.

The final stage of preparation of the images is Chokkhu Daan or adding eyes to the goddess Durga. This is done ceremonially, since addition of chokku or eyes to the goddess means instilling life into it. This most vital part of the creation of the clay image is done by the oldest kumar of the family—a tradition continuing since generations.


Photos by Manish Sinha

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