For the last three decades, Sukumar Paul has been crafting the idol of the Hindu goddess Durga for the state-run Dhakeshwari Temple in Dhaka. He started to sculpt the idol two months ago this year as Hindus in Bangladesh prepare to celebrate Durga Puja, their biggest annual festival, with fervour after a two-year pandemic lull.
Paul is passing a busy time right now as the festival is knocking on the door. He painted the idol all night long in a bid to complete the work by Friday.
The artisan and his assistant were in a rush as they have to sculpt three more idols for different puja venues outside Dhaka, along with the one for the Dhakeshwari Temple this year. He is now waiting to apply the finishing touches to the idols at Bangladesh’s national temple.
“It won’t take long to complete the idols after the painting work is done. We two are trying our best to complete them by Friday,” Paul said.
Puja preparations, including the final decorative touches to the pavilions and idols of the goddess Durga, are underway throughout the capital. The idols of other deities, including Saraswati and Laxmi, are being sculpted with grandeur for each puja venue in Dhaka.
Potters at some venues in Dhaka are trying to complete the decorations and other preparations by Friday night as the main chapter of the puja will begin with the Bodhan and Shashthi rituals on Saturday. It is scheduled to end on Oct 5 with the immersion of the goddess's idol.
This year, Durga Puja will be celebrated at 32,168 venues -- 50 more than last year -- across Bangladesh. As many as 241 marquees are being set up in Dhaka city for the festivities. The number of pandals is 154 in Dhaka’s South and 87 in the North.
Old Dhaka’s Sutrapur has the largest number of marquees this year, with preparations currently underway at 25 venues, according to leaders of the Dhaka Mahanagar Sarbojanin Puja Committee.
Ratan Paul, the chief artisan at Dhaka’s Ramna Kali temple, is preparing the main structure of the marquee for the goddess Durga this year. He is adding the final decorative touches to the pandal with his aide Bibekananda Paul.
“We collected all the materials for the idols from Gopalganj. The first layer of paint has been applied. We are hoping to complete the rest of the decorations soon. Goddess Durga will bless her devotees within several hours,” Bibekananda said.
Bibekananda crafted 11 idols in the last three months. He had five orders in Dhaka, three in Barishal, and one each in Faridpur, Gopalganj and Nilphamari.
Utpal Saha, president of Ramna Kali Temple Puja Committee, said the authorities are preparing to mark the occasion with grandeur this year after two years of muted celebrations due to COVID. Devotees are expected to turn up in large numbers this time.
Durga Puja is the biggest source of income for idol makers. They get a minimum of Tk 70,000 for sculpting idols for a marquee.
Nishi Paul, who has been working as an idol maker for 25 years, said he earned Tk 150,000 from a job in Rangpur, which is the highest payment he received this year. He is trying to complete several other idols at Kali and Durga Mata Temple premises in Old Dhaka’s Banglabazar.
Aside from the subdued festivities during the pandemic, the anti-Hindu violence in several districts including Cumilla cast a shadow over the festival last year.
Nirmal Kumar Chatterjee, former general secretary of Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad, hopes that hordes of devotees will visit puja venues this year as there are no pandemic restrictions in place.
Preparations have been taken by the authorities to tighten security at puja venues this year, he said. "Police personnel will provide round-the-clock security. We hope no unsavoury incidents will take place during the festival.”
CUMILLA IN A FESTIVE MOOD AGAIN
Putting the horrors of the communal violence that rocked the district last year behind them, Hindus in Cumilla are looking forward to the celebrations to the fullest.
Cumilla Durga Puja Udjapan Parishad leaders said extra precautions have been taken by law enforcers and the administration ahead of the festival. This has brought some relief to the Hindu community, with last-minute touch-ups being made before the celebrations.
Four temples, seven puja venues and homes and shops owned by Hindus were attacked after a copy of the Quran was found at the makeshift puja venue in Nanuar Dighir Par, a neighbourhood in Cumilla, on Oct 13, 2021.
Days after the Cumilla incident in 2021, Noakhali’s Begumganj, 65 kilometres away, erupted into similar anti-Hindu violence during the Durga Puja, the most important 10-day festivity for the community.
Hundreds of Muslim hardliners, with chants to kick off a “holy war” in the name of Islam, swooped on the Hindu worshippers and attacked the temples and their houses.
Later, Begumganj police said more than 200 attackers beat and stabbed to death a member of a temple committee in Begumganj.
Reports emerged steadily from across the country with details about how mobs desecrated idols and started riots against Hindu worshippers.
At least seven people -- five Hindus and two Muslims -- died in senseless riots across the country.
The incidents left a deep scar and with Durga Puja once again on the horizon, Hindus in Nanuar Dighir Par are looking forward to the celebrations with a mix of excitement and angst.
But Achintya Das Titu, general secretary of Cumilla Durga Puja Udjapan Parishad, described last year's clashes as 'stray incidents'.
“The incident last year turned our joy into sorrow. This year, law enforcers assured us we could celebrate safely. Although the Hindu community is not scared, the wounds from last year's incidents are yet to heal," he said.
But he hopes that Hindus and Muslims will be able to celebrate the festival together to solidify communal harmony.
As many as 794 Puja venues have been prepared in 17 upazilas and Cumilla City Corporation areas for the festival. The district administration, police and other law enforcers beefed up security at all puja venues, holding preparatory meetings with people from all religious groups.
Cumilla District Awami League chief AKM Bahauddin Bahar MP announced that tight security measures will be implemented everywhere, including the makeshift puja venue in Nanuar Dighir Par.
“We won't spare anyone who tries to attack puja venues. All conspirators will face stringent punishment. The Awami League and its affiliates will have their volunteers at every puja venue," Bahar said.