Bazar Bari, the colloquial term for Uma Villa, is the centre of activities in Janai, a sleepy hamlet in Hooghly, during Durga Puja. The house is where Umakanta Mukhopadhyay had started Durga Puja almost 450 years ago. He had left his ancestral home in the same village to establish his own a little further away. Umakanta started his life from a mud hut, but later, his son Chandi Prasad converted the hut into a concrete structure and held on to the traditions introduced by his father. “Our ancestors were not zamindars. Our predecessors, Umakanta and his son Chandi Prasad were government officers during the British Raj. However, the later generations of the family, had taken it to the pinnacle of success. My father and his two elder brothers bought shares in tea estates and formed Anandamoyee Agency. They also owned the second best CA firm in India, M Mukherjee & Co. The brought grandeur and lavishness to the family and Durga Puja,” said Rathindranath Mukhopadhyay, a fifth generation descendant of the family and youngest son of Makhanlal Mukherjee. Incidentally, Rathindranath is the only among 11 siblings who was born during Durga Puja at the old house in Janai.
Through four centuries Durga Puja is organised at Uma Villa and the family upholds the traditions and rituals of the puja. Every year, Mahalaya marks the commencement of Puja with Chandipath performed daily at family deity, Sridhar’s room. Family members, now settled in Calcutta and other cities, congregate at Janai for the five days. Other participants who arrive are the dhaki-dulis from Dhanekhali. Wood-fired clay ovens in the special kitchen are fired and prepared to begin cooking for the goddess.
Durga is ushered in on Sashthi through Bodhon. At this house, the goddess also gets a toothbrush from a thin slice of bamboo. “The women of the family, who have already taken diksha (initiation) are permitted to cook bhog. The community meals that are served to all our guests are cooked separately. Also, local villagers are invited to lunch everyday. We get a gathering of at least 300 to 400 people at the house everyday. Earlier the number would go up to 1,000 per day,” said Sanchita Mukhopadhyay, wife of Debnath Mukhopadhyay, a younger member of the family.
The deity’s bhog is an elaborate spread of steamed rice, spinach, sukto, fritters, chholar dal, phulkopi-bandhakopir torkari, mochar torkari, and payesh. “These items are mandatory and they have to be cooked in the traditional methods. The payesh is made with a mix of milk and rice taken from pot while it is boiling and we have to follow this ritual all the time. Earlier, bhog was cooked in earthen pots, we have only recently introduced brass utensils,” said Sanchita. All sweets offered to the deity are made at the house. After four days of elaborate meals, the deity is offered a cold ‘panta’ (cooked rice soaked overnight in water) on Dashami morning.
Animal sacrifice is an integral part of the puja. Three goats are sacrificed on Saptami, Ashtami, Sandhi Puja and two on Navami. “One of the Navami sacrifices takes place at home. The other happens at the local Kali temple,” said Rathindranath.
Although electricity is available at Janai and also Uma Villa, the thakurdalan is kept separate from these modern facilities. A large chandelier and lanterns around the hall help illuminate the thakurdalan. “We have maintained this to uphold the beauty and serenity of the thakurdalan,” said Mukherjee.
Durga Puja expenses come from the coffers of Durgamoni Trust, named after Rathindranath’s grandmother. “A handsome amount has been saved up by my father, Makhan lal and uncles Manmathanath and Pramathanath, who formed the debuttor trust to fund all expenses of the Puja,” said Rathindranath.
Sindur khela is not a ritual in this family. Instead lathi khela during the deity’s boron is a great way to entertain. Immersion happens at a nearby waterbody. But the women are not allowed to step outside. “We wait at a distance and watch the deity leave on the shoulders of bearers and the men of the house,” said Sanchita. Durga’s departure brings a feeling of melancholy , but the ensuing round of homemade bonde and goja for Vijaya Dashami bring back the mood. Everyone bites into the sweets while seeking blessings from the elders and preparing for another year-long wait.