Funded by the Tripura government for the past over seven decades, the 500 years old Durga Puja commenced by the then existing royal dynasty continues to draw devotees from different parts of India and the neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh.
Tripura, governed by the Left and non-Left parties since it merged with the Indian union 73 years ago, is possibly the only state in India where the government continues to sponsor an over five century-old Durga Puja, that is also closely overseen by the erstwhile royal family.
With ‘Maha Sasthi’ or ‘Bodhan’ — the welcoming of the Durga idols — the five-day Puja began on Saturday at the famed Durgabari temple, located in front of the 121-year-old Ujjayanta Palace, one of the biggest royal mansions in eastern India.
According to 57-year-old Jayanta Bhattacharjee, the head priest of Durgabari temple, a few years after the beginning of the royal era in Tripura the kings started Durga Puja over 500 years ago.
“The capital of the princely dynasty along with the royal temple moved to three different places – Udaipur, Amarpur and Puran Habeli before the state headquarters and the capital city along with the Durgabari temple was settled in Agartala 184 years ago in 1838 by Maharaja Krishna Kishore Manikya (1830-49),” Bhattacharjee told IANS.
Bhattacharjee’s family has performed the role of head priest or priest to worship the Durga idols for six generations.
He said that West Tripura’s district magistrate and collector before starting the rituals of Durga Puja had to report in writing about the preparations at Durgabari to the former royal family and submit a final report after completion of the mega puja.
Now, this traditional practice has been slightly changed. However, every detail of the Durga Puja is approved by the surviving elderly royal family member, Bibhu Kumari Devi.
Bhattacharjee is supposed to get Rs 8,500 as a monthly honorarium from the state government as head priest of the Durgabari temple but as he is an employee of the power department he is not getting this honorarium. However, his younger brother is getting an honorarium of Rs 6,500 as a priest.
Bhattacharjee, who assisted his father and former head priest Pandit Dulal Bhattacharjee for many decades, said it is on the final day of Dashami that the real splendour of the festival unfolds.
The idols of Durgabari that lead the Dashami procession are the first to be immersed at Dashamighat here with full state honours, with the state police band playing the national song.
“The state government like in previous years has sanctioned Rs 5 lakh this year for the Durga Puja at this royal temple,” said Bhattacharjee adding that after three years the sacrifice of animals would restart this year.
“A young buffalo, several goats and pigeons are sacrificed during the five-day festival at Durgabari in the presence of thousands of devotees – all at government expense,” the head priest said.
People For Animals (PFA) chairperson Maneka Gandhi, former union minister of women and child development, in a letter to the district magistrates, had earlier asked them to stop the “cruel killing of animals in the temples” during religious festivities.
A division bench of the Tripura High Court comprising the then Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice Arindam Lodh in a landmark judgement on September 27, 2019, ordered that no person including the state government shall be allowed to sacrifice any animal or bird within the precincts of any of the temples in the state of Tripura.
The Tripura government subsequently moved a Special Leave Petition (SLP) before the Supreme Court against the Tripura HC order.
Historian and writer Salil Debbarma said that Tripura is the only Indian state where the state government, be it of the Left or non-Left parties, is at the forefront of funding such a Hindu puja.
The tradition has been going on since Tripura’s merger with the Indian union and has been on during Communist rule in the state as well, he told IANS.
A part of the fortress and royal mansion continues to be the abode of the former princely family and the remaining palace area served as the Tripura assembly till 2009. It has now been turned into eastern India’s biggest museum conserving the history, life and culture of northeast India.
Debbarma said that at the end of the 517-year rule by 1,355 kings, on October 15, 1949, the erstwhile princely state came under the administrative control of the Indian government after a merger agreement signed between Kanchan Prabha Devi, then regent maharani, and the Indian governor-general.
The merger agreement made it mandatory for the Tripura government to continue the sponsorship of temples run by the Hindu princely rulers. This continues even seven-and-a-half decades after Independence.
A full-fledged division – Debarchan Vibhag – under the district magistrates in four of Tripura’s eight districts now bears this responsibility and the entire expenditure of over 15 temples, including that of Durgabari, is met by the government.
“Before starting the five-day-long worship of Durga and her four children, a procession led by the head priest, escorted by Tripura Police, goes to the palace to seek the consent of the former royal family to begin the puja of the deities at Durgabari,” said an official of the west Tripura district administration.
Historian Pannalal Roy, who wrote many books on the royal era, said: “The Durga Puja in Durgabari temple is unique in the sense that the prasad (holy offering) includes meat, fish, eggs, liquor and, of course, fruits.”
Though at least 2,570 communities and about 100 family Durga Pujas are being held in Tripura, the Durga Puja at the Durgabari temple remains the main attraction for numerous reasons, including for its centuries-old customs, kept alive by the royal family and the government.
Traditional themes, prevailing issues and events continue to dominate puja pandals in the state with historical events forming part of the themes for decorations.
“After the Covid-19 pandemic induced faltering economy in 2020 and 2021, the number of Durga Pujas has also increased by 450 in urban, rural and remote areas,” a Tripura Police spokesman told IANS.