Kolkata: Thousands of devotees gathered at Belur Math, the global headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, to watch 'Kumari Puja', the worship of a pre-pubescent girl, as Durga Puja fervour peaked on Maha Ashtami on Monday.

Maha Ashtami, also known as Durga Ashtami, was marked by significant rituals in the morning, beginning with Kumari Puja where girls are worshipped as personifications of the goddess. Belur Math, in Kolkata's twin district Howrah, about 10 km from here, saw a sea of humanity with people from across the country and abroad, including Governor M.K. Narayanan, watching as priests worshipped a 'kumari' as the 'Mother Goddess'.

According to Hindu mythology, Kumari Puja was started to establish the importance of women. The maiden who is worshipped symbolises the power that regulates creation, stability and destruction on earth.

Kumari Puja was resurrected by religious leader Ramakrishna Paramahansa Deb in the late 19th century. Throughout West Bengal, festive fervour peaked on Maha Ashtami as young and old alike chanted hymns, taking part in anjali (offerings to the god) and stood in long, winding queues before idols of the Goddess Durga.

As evening descended, the cityscape was lit up by intricate lighting. The untiring pandaal hoppers thronged the streets post dusk to see the metropolis resplendent in all its glory.

Touted as one of the best, the Dum Dum Park Yubak Brinda community puja saw visitors appreciating the marquee themed on Kirigamior the Japanese art of paper cutting and folding, a dying art form.

The spectacular marquee decked up with paper lanterns, streamers and unfried poppadums saw an extensive Kirigami workmanship from the ceiling to the floor. Keeping pace with innovation, the Labony Housing Estate's pandal, in the satellite township of Salt Lake, was appreciated by pandaal-hoppers for the Durga idol carved out of the bark of a Simul tree, commonly known as the silk cotton tree.

Rounding up the day with cultural functions organised by various puja committees, the audience applauded the mystic notes of the baul singers, wandering, saffron-robed minstrels of Bengal.

Lending a much-needed helping hand were Kolkata Police officials who handed out route maps of the pandals to visitors. Volunteers of various puja committees also made sure the elderly and the specially challenged had their share of the touring and fun.

The Sandhi puja would be held Monday-Tuesday midnight to mark the confluence of Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami, the exact time when the goddess slayed the demon Mahishasura. Durga Puja, one of the biggest annual festivals in eastern India, marks the victory of good over evil, with the slaying of Mahishasura by the goddess astride a lion.


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