Durga Puja is that time of the year when all things look bright and beautiful. It is autumn that is marked by azure sky pleasant breeze. Though the sky of Shillong is always overcast but at times blue sky is visible with golden sun rays bearing the message of autumn, and people feel the essence of puja everywhere. People throng all prominent markets in the town to prepare for the great festival. Puja shopping is a special tradition of the Hindus.
The Durga Puja celebration in Shillong is completing its glorious 127 years. Over the years, the puja witnessed many ups and downs, and arduous situations in Shillong. The first 51 years of the festival (1896-1946) was performed during the British period without any interference. Initially, the organisers who started the puja had to face problems due to transportation inconvenience and erratic water supply, among other things, but they had the full support and co-operation of the administration. During that time, the idols would be brought from Kolkata because there was no idol maker in Shillong. But the British government helped with free transportation of the idols from erstwhile Gauhati to Shillong to facilitate the puja, and the British Chief-Commissioner/Governor of then Assam province would visit the puja pandal.
After independence, from 1947-1971, Shillong was the capital of Assam; and the puja was performed as usual without any problem other than natural calamities. In 1972, Meghalaya was born, and Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya. During that time, 36 community pujas would be performed in Shillong by the non-tribal Hindus of Shillong.
Till 1978, the annual Durga Puja was performed peacefully with full cooperation from the government and the public. In 1979, political insurgency in Meghalaya polluted the serene atmosphere of Shillong and affected the puja destructively; even curfews had to be imposed by the government to control the volatile situation.
The gravity of the situation prompted some of the thoughtful, learned citizens of Shillong to come up with a solution of such unruly situation during puja, which was undoubtedly hurting the religious sentiments of a community. Hence, the inception of the Central Puja Committee Shillong, which today stands with great success and credibility. Of course, there was full support from the government and a large section of the public of Shillong who even subscribed generously to the puja fund and prayed for peaceful celebrations.
The Central Puja Committee Shillong was formed in 1993, with Dr. Subrata Das as the founder president, Manas Chaudhuri as vice president, Jayanta Lal Das as founder secretary; and Ardhendu Choudhury, BN Dutta, Koushik Bhattacharjee, BB Chettri, Mohit Lal Das, Hironmoy Dhar, Abu Das, Dhyan Sharma, Sontosh Saraf, Babla Murdani, KJ Poudol and many other prominent citizens as members and patrons of the committee.
The main objective of the committee was to ensure peaceful performance of Durga Puja and other religious activities of the non-tribals in Shillong without any interference. First it was named as Central Puja Committee (CPC) Shillong. Later in 1999, when the National Commission of Minorities New Delhi approved CPC, it was named as The Central Puja Committee Meghalaya.
The Central Puja Committee, Meghalaya is an apex coordinating body of puja committees and Hindu institutions of the state, acknowledged by the National Commission of Minorities and the Government of Meghalaya. This organisation is committed to reinforcing the secular fabric through regular engagements aimed at building harmony and amity among all sections of people, according to Naba Bhattacharjee, the working president of CPC Meghalaya.
The contribution of the Central Puja Committee Meghalaya towards different communities of the state deserves an extraordinary importance, credit and applause. It is a vital part of the society as well as of the government. The committee holds an annual programme before the puja to spread the message of concord and harmony. The programme includes all religions’ meet, goodwill visits to the pandals by members of different communities, felicitations to recognise the genuine personalities of quality and credibility, and ‘Sarad Sanman’ every alternate year. The CPC also provides aid to the victims of natural calamities and other disasters. It has been involved with the recently formed ‘Save Wah Umkhrah and Umshyrpi’ task force. The main principle of CPC is to uphold unity and amity among all sections of people residing in Meghalaya and it has been successful to a great extent.
Peaceful coexistence and mutual respect for each other’s religious beliefs are the vital requirements of every citizen of the country, where social and philanthropic organisations play an important role. And CPC Meghalaya is one of the extraordinary organisations that has achieved it.
The Durga Puja festival now beholds a glorious place among the annual festivities of Shillong and of the state as a whole. However, it is perhaps worthy having a look back to see how it has evolved over the years in this land.
The Durga Puja celebration in Shillong was pioneered by the Bengalees of Laban, Harisabha, in 1896 (Also read: Years under the divine light), and it was a tremendous effort on the part of the people of Laban when there was no sculptor in Shillong, no motorable road connection with Guwahati or Sylhet or any other place. But braving all these problems, they could make it possible, bringing idols from Krishnanagar in West Bengal and collecting puja paraphernalia from Sylhet.
The priest also came from Sylhet crossing the hills on foot and carried by a thapa (a person carrying commuters in cane-chairs). The idols were carried by bullock cart from Guwahati to Shillong, and the cart was pulled by the youths of Laban so that the idols were not damaged. The puja was performed perfectly at the cost of Rs 75. It is a historical event of Durga Puja celebration in Shillong.
Durga Puja is a socio-religious festival that aims to unite all, irrespective of caste or creed, under the shelter of the Divine Mother. Durga Puja may therefore be taken not only as a religious festival of the Hindus, but as a great festival of universal concord and harmony, the importance of which in national life can hardly be ignored. Our prayer goes as:-
‘Devi Prapannarti Hore, Proseedo,
Prossedo Matoh! Jogoto Okhilosya
Prossedo Visweswari Pahi Viswam
‘Twamisweri Devi Characharasya.’
The meaning of the verse is, ‘Oh goddess! The Protector of the universe! Be pleased with us, protect your people, protect the whole universe from all evils O Mother Salute to Thee!’
(The author is former principal of Government Girls’ High School & has authored several books on Shillong)
Also read: 100 years of faith & integrity