The day starts with mahasnan of Devi Durga on a mirror using various materials. This ritual is soon followed by shodashopacharapuja, an elaborate worship of the Devi with sixteen items (shodashopacharapuja). The other deities, attendants and other objects associated with Devi are then worshiped.
But what sets apart today (mahaashtami) from the rest of the days, is that today Devi Durga is worshipped as Mahishasur-mardini ,the killer of demon Mahishasur. Today is the day as per the mythology, when the fierce battle between Ma Durga and the demon king Mahishasur took place. Hence, today she is described as Dasha-prahara-dharini, having ten arms, each wielding a weapon.
Once the image is consecrated, and the Deity is invoked in it, it undergoes a transfiguration. Today she is no longer a clay image but the living Goddess, radiating power, shakti, knowledge, love and joy, the benign Mother of the Universe who has come to bless her children and assure them to protect like fortress (durgo), hence adding meaningfulness to her name Durga.
The image of Durga as Mahishasuramardini epitomizes the Chandi that glorify Shakti. Chandi, popularly known as Chandi path in Bengal is an essential ritual (priest recite the chandi path) that is being followed all nine days since Mahalaya, in addition to the regular puja. Chandi, also known as Devi Mahatamya or Durga Saptashati scriptures of 700 verses is part of loftiest of Puranic composition, Markandeya Purana (one of the oldest 18 mahapuranas). Here worship of the Divine Mother assumes an independent, supreme status.
On Ashtami, nine small pots with flags of different colours attached are installed and the Nine Shaktis are invoked in them and worshiped, followed by worshiping of sixty-four yoginis. This is then followed by worship of Nava Durga (nine aspects of Durga)- Goddesses Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalani, Durga, Shiva, Kshama, Dhatri, Svaha and Svadha.
This is then followed by maha Ashtami pushpanjali, offering flowers amidst chants, mantras and prayers.
Kumari Puja – Another important aspect of Maha Ashtami puja is that in many parts of Bengal and elsewhere (not everyone follows this tradition though) Kumari Puja / kanjak puja is done. Kumari is another form of Devi Durga and young girls between the age of one and 12 (those who hadn’t attained puberty yet) are believed to represents various forms of Devi Durga like Sandhya, Saraswati, Tridha, Kalika, Shubhaga, Uma, Shiva, Mahalakshmi, Ambika and so on.
This tradition is more prominent in Belur Math since the time of Swami Vivekananda who had initiated this tradition, and if you happen to be part of Belur Math Durga pujo, this is the most spectacular event there. Sri Ramakrishna has said that the Divine Mother manifests herself more in a pure-hearted girl and that is why Kumari Puja is done.To imagine the Goddess in the mould of a Kumari is an age old concept. The Puranas mention the Kumari form of Chandika.
Young girls are worshiped first, then the priest seek their blessings (as they represent Ma Durga herself) and was then offered gifts like cloth, gold or silver and a lunch of luchi / poori and sweets and other items.
Sandhi puja – is another important aspect of MahaAshtami pujo.
The last 24 minutes of Ashtami and the first 24 minutes of Navami (a total of 48 minutes between the two lunar days) constitute the Sandhi or ”Sacred Juncture”. It is considered to be a most auspicious time. At this time Durga is worshiped as Chamunda (that is, Kali who had appeared from Durga’s third eye to kill the demon Chanda and Munda). This Puja is considered to be the highest point in the whole Durga Puja and the most important ritual.
Many keeps fast till Sandhi pujo (mostly nirjala,that is without water and those who couldn’t do it for health reasons or so, they can have tea or coffee but no food.) After sandhi puja is done, people worship Ma Durga by illuminating 108 diyas / earthern lamps, an elaborate arti is done, 108 blue lotuses were offered at goddess feet and then vedic hom-yajna is performed as it marks the sacrifice of the buffalo demon king, Mahishasura, amidst shlokas, chants and vedic mantras
It is customary to perform bali or animal sacrifice at this sacred juncture. Usually a buffalo or goat is sacrificed but now a days in many homes only a symbolic ritual is performed by cutting the white pumpkin or chal kumro.
There is a tradition of serving bhog during all days to Ma Durga and the same is then distributed among the devotees. Ashtami bhog has special significance and no one wants to miss it. A divine platter of bhoger khichuri (sans any onion, garlic, ginger and salt) , labra (a medley of mix vegetable comprising five kind of vegetables prepared without onion/ garlic and salt), payesh ( the most pious and ancient bhog), luchi / poori is offered to Ma Durga and same is then distributed among the devotees. However in commercial pandals, where thousands flock to have the divine blessing of Ma Durga, few items are also added like chutney, papad and rasgulla which is not usually part of divine platter.
Durga Ashtami is strictly pure vegetarian (satvik) day for most of the Bengalis, but being a liberal society we had never made any hard and fast rules. Some follows, some don’t and we hold no grudge against those who don’t. After all, devotion and spiritualism is completely a personal affair, and as liberal and progressive society we must exercise this rule of religious freedom to everyone.
Here goes my MahaAshtami platter in case you want to host lunches with your near and dear ones.