A community organizing Durga Puja in New Town, Kolkata has decided to break the age-old tradition and decided to worship a Muslim girl as Goddess Durga for the Kumari Puja. The Muslim girl, Nafisa, is an Eight-year-old living in the Pathuriaghata area of the town, has been chosen by the all-women committee of Mrittika Club for their first-ever puja with the intention of promoting religious harmony and inclusivity. Kumari Puja is an essential part of Durga puja, it is celebrated on the day of Navami where an unmarried girl who has not yet attained puberty is symbolically worshipped as a goddess.
The secretary of the Mrittika club, Prathama Mukherjee, said “Our motto is to promote unity, blur all societal divisions, and send out a strong message of brotherhood. We ourselves were victims of divisional politics in the previous Durga Puja committee. The women felt ignored. So, we broke off and are organizing our own puja this time.” According to the tradition only Brahmin girls are chosen as ‘kumaris’ but the community decided to take inspiration from Vivekananda who, while traveling the country, requested a Muslim boatman to allow him to worship his four-year-old daughter as Goddess Durga. Vivekananda offered Kumari Puja at the Kheer Bhawani temple in Srinagar and bowed down to touch the feet of the little girl as part of the ritual. He introduced Kumari Puja at Belur Math in 1901 and the puja is performed to this day.
“Many of us are inspired by the teachings of Belur Math, and so this also played on our minds. When Swamiji could have worshipped a Muslim girl more than a century ago, why can’t we do it now,” said Mukherjee. The organizers stated that Nafisa’s mother, Saba, who is working as a domestic help was extremely excited to be part of the ritual. “She was surprised and didn’t know how to react initially. But when we explained the customs, she agreed happily,” said Shatabdi Ganguly, Nafisa’s teacher. This is not the first time a muslim girl was worshipped for the Kumari Puja, as the Baranagar Friends Association in north Kolkata worshipped a six-year-old Muslim girl as ‘kumari’ on the occasion of Khuti Puja that was on the same day as Eid-Al-Adha. Khuti Puja is performed before construction work starts on a pandal. The Bengali word, ‘khuti’, literally translates to a “pole”.
Pritha Gehlot, a schoolteacher and a member of the all-women Mrittika Club’s puja organizing committee, said that when she heard the idea of worshipping a Muslim girl for Durga Puja she was immediately on board and went on to convince other members of the committee and the block. “We want to send the message that a small child is like a flower. She needn’t be bound by the borders of a particular religion. She has a pious heart that is worth worshipping,” said Gehlot. Saswati Auddy, a resident of New Town’s Action Area II B, said she had seen Muslim families actively participating in Durga Puja but this was the first time she would be part of one where a Muslim girl would be worshipped as a goddess. She said, “In this hour of social crisis and communal tension, this is the best initiative that can be undertaken to spread the message of harmony. God lives in every human being, whatever the religion, and we are here to portray this.”