‘Kola-bou’ – The Banana Bride

The red benarasi sari was quite heavy because of the zari embellishments and I had to wrap my arms around it to make sure I had a tight grip. Kola-bou was just dismantled and someone had handed over the sari to me. I stood there with a heavy heart watching our Durga idol being immersed into the stream, a portion of which was temporarily stagnated for the purpose. The intoxicating divine fragrance emanating from the sari was impossible to ignore. Not surprising, this sari was draped around Kola-bou who was worshipped for the past four days. I thought I could quite literally smell the Goddess.

This Durga Puja I was home after 15 long years. Quite surprising, given that this is the most important festival for Bengalis. A few of these years I spent in Kolkata, a few in Bangalore, and the rest I traveled and trekked. I hadn’t realized that so many years passed by and I did not visit our Shillong home during this time of the year. This wasn’t by chance, though. Rather a choice attributed to certain personal reasons. This year circumstances forced me to be here, and I attended our family puja after a very long time. As a result, my Durga Puja celebration turned out to be quite good, while most people had no celebrations at all. Thanks to the pandemic.

Pic 1: Ma Durga with her children. Sons – Ganesha and Kartikeya; Daughters – Laxmi and Saraswati.

Durga Puja is a 5-day event entailing a host of rituals and celebrations. Ma Durga is the most powerful and fearless Goddess, who slays the buffalo demon Mahishasura to protect the earth. She is the supreme power created by combining the powers of all other Gods. The Mother of the Universe, she ensures creation and preservation. The Destroyer of Evil, Ma Durga’s mythology revolves around victory of good over evil. The word ‘Durga’ literally means impassable and inaccessible. It is believed that earth is the maternal home of the Goddess and she comes here every year with her children – Ganesha, Kartikeya, Laxmi, and Saraswati. People celebrate the Mother Goddess, characterized by her ten arms carrying various lethal weapons with the lion as her vehicle.

There are many fascinating aspects of Durga Puja. One of these is the Kola-bou, which is a young banana tree dressed like a Bengali bride. Kola-bou is also known as Nabapatrika – ‘Naba’ meaning nine and ‘Patrika’ meaning plant. It consists of nine plants that are symbolic representations of the nine forms of Ma Durga.

  • Banana plant – represents Goddess Brahmani
  • Colocasia plant– represents Goddess Kalika
  • Turmeric plant – represents Goddess Durga
  • Jayanti (Jubilee) plant – represents Goddess Kartiki
  • Wood apple leaves – represents Lord Shiva
  • Pomegranate leaves – represents Goddess Raktadantika
  • Asoka (Saraca) leaves – represents Goddess Shokarahita
  • Arum plant – represents Goddess Chamunda
  • Rice paddy – represents Goddess Lakshmi

In olden times, Kola-bou was a symbol of Mother Nature herself and worshipped by farmers for a good harvest. As Durga Puja gained popularity, Kola-bou or Nabapatrika got inducted into the ceremony.

Pic 2: Kola-bou or Nabapatrika is always placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga.

The ritual of Kola-bou in our family puja constitutes the sanctification of all nine plants on Mahasashti, which are then carefully kept aside. The next day, on Mahasaptami, these plants are tied together using yellow threads and twigs of Aparajita (Clitoria) plant. Kola-bou is then draped in a benarasi sari and orna, (dupatta) and dressed like a bride. There is another ritual of ceremonial bathing of Kola-bou in River Ganges, which is not followed in our family puja.

Kola-bou is then placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga. The position of Kola-bou could be associated with Lord Ganesh being considered as the creator of the eighteen medicinal plants, for which he is also known as Astadasausadhisrsti. Maybe, that’s why some people consider Kola-bou as Lord Ganesha’s wife.

On the last day of Puja, Dashami, Kola-bou is dismantled and immersed through chanting of mantras. The dismantling of Kola-bou needs to be done in seclusion. The Immersion Ghat remains crowded with people. Hence, a large cloth is used to form a barrier that covers Kola-bou from all sides while the priest and head of the family perform the ritual of dismantling. This is interesting as Kola-bou is Ma Durga herself and her untying and uncovering needs to be done respectfully. The idol is immersed in the water only after Kola-bou immersion is completed.

Rameshwaram – The Temple Town

It was somewhere towards the end of February. Covid-19 had already arrived in India and by then three cases were reported, all of which were from South India. Oblivious about the implications, we set out on a trip to the temple towns of Rameshwaram and Madurai. Dhanushkodi, which automatically is associated with Rameshwaram, was on our list too. This trip was for my parents.

The thought of having gallivanted all those places with my parents as Covid-19 lurked around the region gives me the chills today. Especially so, for my septuagenarian father with ailments like high BP, hypertension, heart disorders, chronic pulmonary disorders, and so on. My parents have always loved to travel. During his heydays, my father had taken us on quite a few family trips. That is highly commendable given his limited means with all the responsibilities he had at that time. All that was hardly enough to satiate his wanderlust. Now, they have the means but not the health – ironies of life. It’s my turn now and I try my best to travel with them at least once a year.

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Pic 1: East-end Gopuram at Ramanathaswamy Temple 

I was eight, when my father had taken us on a South India trip. We visited many places, including Madurai but Rameswaram hadn’t happened. My parents would always rue about it. Hence, taking them to Rameshwaram had been on my mind. The timing of our visit happened to be the weekend of Maha-Shivaratri. This was completely unintentional, something we realized after the flight and hotel reservations were done. Rameshwaram was expected to be overcrowded during that weekend. Nevertheless, we decided to go ahead. Not for once did the thought of Covid-19 bother us even though the existing cases weren’t very far away.

When traveling with parents, everything needs to be planned to a T. At the same time, we need to be flexible as plans may have to be changed on the fly. It’s a lot different than how I otherwise experience a place. Consequently, the trip was more curated than I would have otherwise liked. I sure do have to visit Rameshwaram once again.

Here’s a brief of the places we visited at Rameshwaram.

Ramanathaswamy Temple

The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in India. Mythologically, Rameshwaram and this temple is associated with the epic Ramayana. The sanctum has two Shiva Lingas – Ramalingam is made of sand, believed to have been built by Lord Rama and Vishwalingam, believed to have been brought by Hanuman from Kailash.

Architecturally, the unique aspect of this temple is its three strikingly long corridors. The first and innermost corridor is around the sanctum sanctorum. The second corridor has 108 Shiva Lingas and a statue of Ganapati. The third and outermost corridor is adorned by 1212 brightly coloured pillars set on an elevated platform and is said to be the longest pillared corridor in the world. The temple also has 22 holy tanks. One is supposed to take a ritualistic bath with water from each of the tanks before visiting Ramalingam. We didn’t do that though.

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Pic 2: North gate of the temple. The east-end Gopuram seen in the background.

The temple has four entry ways, in all the four directions – North, South, East, and West. Two Gopurams stand tall at the East and West gate. The North gate of the temple was just a little walk away from our hotel. We visited the temple twice. My mother accompanied us once. My father was content with seeing the temple from the outside afraid of being unable to manage himself in the crowd. Though the crowd was much lesser than we had anticipated.

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Pic 3: The colourful outer corridor with 1212 pillars. Mobile phones are not allowed inside and it’s not possible to click such pictures. However, when we entered for the first time nobody stopped us at the entryway and we had our phones with us. So, just a chance photograph.

Other than the colourful corridors, something else caught my attention inside the temple. It was a powerful message from Swami Vivekananda, who had visited this temple is 1897. The message is prominently displayed at the main entrance of the temple. Below is an excerpt, you can read the entire message here.

"It is in love that religion exists and not in ceremony, in the pure and sincere love in the heart. Unless a man is pure in body and mind, his coming into a temple and worshiping Shiva is useless. The prayers of those that are pure in mind and body will be answered by Shiva, and those that are impure and yet try to teach religion to others will fail in the end. External worship is only a symbol of internal worship; but internal worship and purity are the real things. Without them, external worship would be of no avail." ~ Swami Vivekananda
Agni Tirtham

Agni Tirtham is a beach located on the eastern side of Ramanathaswamy Temple. The norm is to dip in the waters of Agni Tirtham, followed by the ritualistic bath in the 22 holy tanks inside the temple, and then offer prayers to the deity. We did not quite intend to dip in the crowded Agni Tirtham and just paid a visit late in the evening. Consequently, I don’t have any pictures of Agni Tirtham.

Rama Tirtham and Lakshmana Tirtham

Rama Tirtham and Lakshmana Tirtham are water tanks with temples associated to each. These are water tanks where apparently Lord Rama and his brother Lakshmana had bathed.

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Pic 4: The water tank at Rama Tirtham

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Pic 5: The water tank at Lakshmana Tirtham

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Pic 6: The vibrant colourful pillars inside Lakshmana Tirtham temple.

Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir & Floating Stones

A huge black stone statue of Lord Hanuman with five faces welcomed us in this temple. Our interest in this temple was because we were told it displays floating rocks. Rocks that are believed to be of the kind that were apparently used to build the Ram Setu towards Lanka. The rocks were quite a letdown as they were way smaller than we had visualized. I didn’t click any pictures here.

Gandhamadhana Parvatham Temple

This is a small temple situated atop a little hillock. We loved the quietude in this temple. The cool breeze and the view from the temple made it even better. It is believed that Lord Hanuman took off from here towards Lanka to fight the demon King Ravana and his army.

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Pic 7: View from the temple.

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Pic 8: At the terrace of the temple.

Pamban Bridge

We traveled to Rameswaram by road from Madurai and hence drove over Pamban Bridge or Annai Indira Gandhi Road Bridge. This bridge on Palk Strait connecting Rameswaram with mainland, is India’s first sea bridge. A little more than 2 Km., crossing it was a scenic experience. A rail bridge runs parallel to the Pamban Bridge, which has a functional double leaf bascule section midway to allow ships through. We had plans of coming back and spending time on the Pamban Bridge and rail bridge but that didn’t materialize.

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Pic 9: The rail bridge as seen from Pamban Bridge.

Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Memorial

This is a museum dedicated to former President of India, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, that showcases his life and work. It is a memorial built at his burial site and displays selected photos, paintings and miniature models of missiles and other artifacts. Dr. Kalam had passed away in Shillong on July 27, 2015. Seeing the name of our hometown didn’t fail to delight us though.

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Pic 10: Outside the Kalam Museum