Abiding childhood Dassehra memories are of an unfailing trip to the famous Cuttack Chandi Mandir and Gada Chandi Mandir in Cuttack on the morning of Vijaya Dashami. My father who remains a stoic non-believer in anything in the realm of the religious, stays unmoved and completely uninvolved in rites and rituals throughout the year. But year after year, on the morning of Devi Paksha Dashami tithi, he devoutly maintained his trysts with these two goddesses who blaze beauty, grace, power and love, inspite of being coated with the puranic veneers of fearsomeness and destruction.
The tale of Goddess Chandi is narrated in the Markandeya Purana in the form of “Durga Shaptasati” or “Devi Mahatmyam” consisting of 700 verses. Chapters 81 to 93 of the Markandeya Purana comprise the “Chandi Paath” which is regarded as one of the most powerful treasures of Hindu spirituality. “Chand” in Sanskrit means to “tear apart”. “Chandi” therefore refers to “She who tears apart evil thoughts.” The Durga Shaptasati begins with the following oft-repeated verse.
~ sarva mangalmangalye shive sarvaartha saadhike
sharanye trayambakye gouri naaraayani namastute ~
I bow to You, O Gouri Narayani. You are the cause of the auspiciousness in the universe. O three-eyed Goodness incarnate – You grant every wish of the devout who takes refuge in You.]
Recitation of the “Chandi Paath” is intended to invoke the “Chandi” residing within every human being in order to cleanse the mind of all conflicts and negativities, so that peace of mind is restored. As always our ancient spiritual literature, folklore, and tradition have used myth and metaphor to drive home intense lessons on human conduct and the right path. While we read about the conflict between the Goddess and many demons in the “Durga Shaptasati”, what our intuition and insightfulness must grasp from within it is the vital essence transmitted by the scripture – that “Chandi” is our own true inner self, the divinity within, who has to be awakened periodically to wage war against the demoniac forces of ego, hatred, fear, violence, greed and pride that we have internalized within our psyche. “Chandi” therefore is not a goddess to be feared – rather she is the internal reserve of Power to be invoked to fight fear and wrongdoing, and thereby restore a sense of karmic and mental equilibrium.
My personal favourite recitation of the “Chandi” is without doubt the “Chandi Charitra Ukti Vilaas” from the holy Dasham Granth scriptures authored by Guru Gobind Singh. A master of narrative, the great saint-seer deftly wove “Bhakti Raasa” with “Veerya Raasa” through the stories of Chandi in the Markandeya Purana in order to inspire and energise the spirit of the Sikh soldiers. As a metaphor, Guru Gobind Singh described in “Vaar Shri Bhagwati ji ki”, how the “devas” were defeated in war by the “daityas” and therefore went to seek refuge at the feet of the goddess Durga or “Bhagwati”. Bhagwati taking on the form of “Chandi” quelled the demons Madhu, Kaitabha, Mahishasura, Dhumra Nayan, Chanda-Munda, Raktabeeja and Shumbha-Nishumbha and helped the gods to regain their lost paradise. “Vijaya Dashami” commemorates the vanquishing of the demons by the all-powerful goddess. The word “Bhagwati” in this rendition of the “Chandi” refers to the “Sword”. Guru Gobind Singh wanted to convey that it is the power of the physical sword that could annihilate the enemies or demons that were waging war against the people of India while it is the sword of the positive mind that could annihilate the inner demons of fear and sloth and thereby motivate the soldier to go to war with rejuvenated strength and valiance.
The origin of Maa Cuttack Chandi is steeped in quaint folklore. The Raj Purohit of the ruler of Kanika was grazing his cows in an open field. As he sat down to rest awhile on a mound of mud, he was perplexed as he felt some kind of vibration from the earth below. That night the Goddess appeared to him in a dream telling him to dig her out from that very spot where he had sat. The purohit reported his dream to the king. The king then ordered the digging up of the mound. It is believed that forty bullock carts of vermillon was dug out before the idol of the goddess Chandi emerged. The idol was consecrated as Maa Chandi and worshipped by the Raj Purohit. Hereditary rights of the land and worship of the goddess was granted to the family of the Raj Purohit and with the passage of time, this temple has become almost symbolic of the heritage silver city of Cuttack. People of Cuttack rever Maa Cuttack Chandi as the living goddess. Gada Chandi on the other hand resides near the Barabati Fort, obviously installed and worshipped by the kings and soldiers as a goddess of war and protection for the warring armies.
Puja fervour in Odisha is synonymous with the city of Cuttack. Lacking any frills of sophistication and coldplay, Cuttack exudes an embracing warmth of a spirit of festive bonhomie and gaiety. Like Kolkata, Cuttack has a rich tradition of Durga Puja celebrations which started in the 16th century as “Sharadiya Utsab” when Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had visited Cuttack and installed the idol of Durga at Binod Behari Mandap. Traditional puja pandals, rich in grandeur like the “Chaandi Medha” at Choudhry Bazar merge harmoniously with modern day interpretations. Cuttack Chandi is worshipped with “shodasha upchaar” during this “Devi Paksha”. For die-hard puja pandal-hoppers, Dassehra remains incomplete without a night jaunt of pandal-hopping in Cuttack. I must add here that “Chandi” is also a term of endearment in odia language applied to female offspring or girls in the family who are assertive or short-tempered.
With my maternal grandparents and a large part of the family residing in Cuttack, visits to Cuttack were frequent and each visit was almost always capped by a visit to Cuttack Chandi temple. Engagements of cousins used to take place there in the mandap on the side as were many negotiations of marriage alliances when the boy and girl would first be made to “see” each other. As kids we used to prance around the temple premises, eating the most delectable gulabjamuns which were offered as “Prasad” to the goddess, and inhaling the tantalizing fragrance of incense and the smell of burning ghee in the hundreds of lamps lit by devouts. I was always fascinated by the gleaming sword of “Maa Chandi” and while the idol seemed dimunitive cloaked in layers of garlands of bleeding-red hibiscus, she radiated a power of attraction that is difficult to describe. During the Pujas, we used to do the customary rounds of some of the more famous pandals, the temples, visit friends and relatives, capping the trips with icecream at the erstwhile “Health Store”.
Visits to the temple and to Cuttack on Dassehra have been far and few in between but it is no exaggeration to say that while being in Bhubaneswar, my heart rests at Cuttack, especially during these festive days of Durga Puja when I am overwhelmed by the sepia tones of nostalgia.
~ tvayaa etd dhaaryate vishwam, tvayaa etat srijayate jagat
vayaa etat paalyate devi, tvam atsyante cha sarvadaa. ~
[O Great Goddess … This Universe is born out of you. You are the Creator of this Universe and You Protect it. And You O Devi, also consume it at the end.]
May Maa Chandi empower us with the Swords of Intellect and Discrimination. May every woman appeal to the “Chandi” within herself to grant her the power to stand up to injustice and to fight for her right. May every man appeal to the “Chandi” within himself to grant him the valour to protect and rever the “Chandi” in every woman.
Sharadiya Abhinandan to all my friends … wishing you all a very blessed and happy festive season!
This photograph of Maa Cuttack Chandi in Chandi-Harachandi vesha is by ace photographer from Odisha, Avinash Khemka.