The significance of Mahalaya lies on two counts:
Firstly the day marks the end of Pitripaksha or the fortnight of the forefathers in heaven which is marked by their progenitors paying tribute to them and praying for the peaceful habitation of their souls in the other world, by performing penance or ‘tarpan’ along the banks of the holy river. According to our Puranas, during pitripaksha, the departed souls move very close to towards human habitation on earth, Manushyalok so that their surviving progenies can feel their presence and it is believed that this meeting between the souls of the departed forefathers and their progenies takes place under the instruction of Bhagwan Brahma.
Hindus are supposed to perform five types of Yajnas or sacrifices and Pitriyajna is one of them. This Pitriyajna constitutes of offering water to the souls of the departed to quench their thirst – a ritual which is known as Tarpan. The meaning of the word tarpan is provide solace/satisfaction to others. Since these ‘others’ donot remain limited to one’s forefathers alone but for the entire universe at large, the said ritual, too is performed for the peaceful habitation of all the departed souls. The Tarpan mantra reads thus :
Tripyanta pitaroh Sarbe matrimatamahodaya: ..
Abrahamastambaparyanta jagat tripyatu”
The above mantra is a prayer to all – the devatas, rishis (saints), our forefathers and all human beings to accept the water and other offerings being provided for the peaceful habitation of their souls. Since our departed forefathers move very close to earth during pritripkasha, it is believed that our offerings made to them during any day during this period will reach them easily. The last day of Pitripaksh is the day of The Great Revelation when it is time for our forefathers to move absolutely close to us before they depart for their abode in the other world. Hence it is auspicious to perform the Puja and offerings for the holy souls on that day. It also believed that it is on this day that we seek refuge for our forefathers in Pitrilok, their abode in the other world which is their ultimate destination and hence the day is known as Mahalaya or The Great Abode signifying the Pitrilok.
Secondly on Mahalaya, the end of Pitripaksh also marks the beginning of Devi Paksh, marking the advent of Maa Durga on earth. The dark Krishnapaksh ends with the darkness of the new moon (‘Amavas’) on this day and brings forth the bright Suklapaksh during which the mother goddess descends on earth to deliver us from all evil forces.
Mahalaya, thus signifies the commencement of the major hindu festival of Durga Puja or Navaratri, the nine day long festival. Durga Puja is primarily celebrated in the eastern part of the country – in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Odisha and Bihar, though the rest of India also join in the festivities with autumnal Navratri and also Durga Puja. It is the most important festival of Bengal and is celebrated with pomp and gaiety by hindus on either side of the border, not only in West Bengal, India but also in Bangladesh, defying the odds of persecution and iconoclasm by the majority community in that country.
As per Bengali Folklore, Maa Durga begins her annual journey to her parental abode on earth on this day, along with her four children – Ganesh, Kartick, Lakshmi and Saraswati, where she stays for nine days and then returns to her home with her husband, Shivji in Mt. Kailash on the day of Vijaya Dashami. The nine days of her stay at her parents’ home are marked with celebrations galore and is that time of the year which the quintessential Bengali waits for throughout the year, whichever part of the world he or she is in.
The legend of Maa Durga goes thus :
Mahishashura was an extremely brutal demon king who was born with the head of a buffalo, to the diabolical demon (asura) king, Rambha and a she-buffalo, Mahishi. After the death of his father, Rambha, he inherited his kingdom. Being over-ambitious, his intense desire was to rule over all the three realms of the universe – the heavens, the earth and the netherworld. To achieve his desire, he needed to defeat the devas in battle. With that end in mind, he performed a deep and difficult penance to satisfy Bhagwan Brahma, the creator and seek a boon of immortality from him. Bhagwan Brahma was happy with Mahishashura’s penance and offered him a wish. The pride and arrogance of power overtook Mahishashura who demanded immortality from Brahma. Brahma immediately refused him stating that all living creatures have to die someday as per the basic rule of nature. However, the sly Mahishahsura found a way out to get his wish granted and he prayed that should not be killed by any man or animal on earth. Brahma happily granted his wish with a caveat that he may be killed by a woman.
Mahishashura laughed it off as he was confident that no woman can ever get ven close to killing him due to his might and brute power. Armed with Brahma’s boon he set upon a quest to conquer the heavens and earth. After defeating Indra, the king of the gods, he drove the devas out of their abodes and wrecked havoc on all living creatures after gaining absolute control over the two realms of heaven and earth. The petrified devas sought refuge in a mountain and prayed to the Trinity of Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar (Shiv) to deliver from the clutches of the deadly demon king, Mahishashura.
The combined power of the gods then created a a mass of pure energy which was a manifestation of their inner power and strength. It appeared as a fiery pillar of light in the sky , so bright that even the gods found it impossible to look at it. From it they created a feminine form, a goddess, who would be strong enough to vanquish the mighty Mahishashura, because, after all, he could be defeated only by a woman in accordance with Brahma’s boon. She is Adi Shakti, the source of all positive energy in the universe.
According to Durga Purana, she is the source or the womb from which the universe was created.
Once her creation was complete, the gods started giving her the form that would enable her to kill Mahishashura. Shiva created her face, Vishnu gave her arms, and Brahma provided her with legs. Varun, the god of the oceans gave her a red sari and a diamond necklace.
Vishwakarma presented her with earrings, bracelets and other jewellery he had made himself. Thus all the gods presented her with various ornaments.
After dressing her fully, the gods began arming her with powerful weapons to defeat Mahishashura. Vishnu began by giving her a discus (Chakra) akin to the one he carries. Shivji gave her a trident (Trishul), Brahma gave her a kamandal (small pot) full of ganga water, Varun gifted her with ever-blooming lotus flowers and a mighty conch (sankh), Agni presented her with the sadagni—a weapon that could kill thousands, Vayu provided her with a bow and a quiver holding an endless supply of arrows, Indra gave her a thunderbolt similar to his own, Vishwakarma armed her with an axe, Yama with a staff and Kuber gave her a cup of wine, Surya presented her with his blinding rays, Tvashta gave her the kaumodoki, the divine mace.
Armed with all the powerful weapons gifted by the devas, mounted on a lion, which showcased her strength and aggression even further, Maa Durga set off on her journey to destroy Mahishashura. She let out a such a mighty roar that the mountains shook and huge tsunami-like waves formed in the oceans causing Mahishashura to come out from the bliss of his current refuge, Amravati, to enquire as to what was happening. When he found out that a female warrior was challenging her to battle, he waved her off nonchalantly. Not considering her worthy of a battle, he sent his army of demons or ashuras to fight her. Maa Durga fended them off easily, creating an army of female warriors with her breath. She killed the deadliest of them all, Chanda and Munda, at a time between the eight day or Ashtami and ninth day or Navami, of the battle – a time at which Sandhi Puja is performed to this day.
Mahishashura, who was well conversant with sorcery, kept on making futile attempts to deceive Maa Durga, by changing his form off and on and appearing as different animals. Maa Durga easily saw through his façade and beat him every time he tried to befool her. On the final day of the battle, Mahishashura appeared in his most authentic form, that of a buffalo. Maa Durga made no mistake of overpowering him, piercing his chest with the trident (Trishul) and then severed his head with the discus (Chakra). Thus, Maa Durga ultimately killed the vile demon king, Mahishashura on the tenth day of their battle, i.e on Vijaya Dashami earning her the name of Mahishashurmardini – the lady who killed Mahishashura and Durgatinashini – the lady who rids one of all miseries. Mahalaya may also refer to seeking refuge or ‘alay’ in our divine mother who provides us with shelter against everything that is evil and everything that is negative on earth.
Every year, on the day of Mahalaya, a debate ensues as to whether Mahalaya should be considered as auspicious and a joyous occasion or not. Some are of the view that Mahalaya is a sombre occasion because on this day we remember our departed near and dear ones and perform ‘Tarpan’ in their memory. However, tarpan in the memory of departed souls is an integral part of all hindu rituals – from weddings to all major pujas. Hence this should not render Mahalaya inauspicious, more so because Mahalaya marks the advent of Maa Durga on earth and the beginning of all festivities which can only bring joy to all.
Last but not the least, any discussion on the significance of Mahalaya is incomplete without a mention of the immortal voice of the legendary radio broadcaster from Bengal, Birendra Krishna Bhadra performing Chandipath, being aired by Akashvani on every Mahalaya at 4 in the morning. “Ashwiner Sharad prate” or “At the break of the Autumnal dawn in the month of Ashwin” he begins setting out ripples of joy through the veins of each and every Bengali as the realization dawns upon them that the pujas, for which they wait with all eagerness throughout the year, has finally begun. The iconic narrator immortalized the Mahalaya special programme aired by Akashvani for the first time in 1931 – the programme called “Mahishashurmardini” organized by the legendary Bengali film actor-cum singer/composer of the 1930s-40s, Pankaj Mallick and composed by writer, Bani Kumar, so much so that no other programme mrking the day could ever replace it. Mahalaya, for the average Bengali is synonymous with Birendra Krishna Bhadra and his rendition of “Mahishashurmardini”.