Those Saraswati pujas

February 10, 2019 02:42 AM Usha Pokharel

As little children we had no idea why Saraswati Puja was celebrated. We thought doing so would bring us good grades in the exams

The other day I was turning the pages of my album of old pictures and saw some black and white pictures of me along with some other children, wearing sari.  That was a picture taken in Kolkata (Calcutta) many years ago. Looking at the picture I believe I was about seven years old.   That was the fun part of Saraswati Puja in Kolkata.  All children were allowed to wear a sari.  They even sold saris for children and still do in Kolkata but we wore our mother’s sari with much relish.

We all looked forward to Saraswati Puja at the time. There were various reasons for that.  One of them being we got to wear sari and jewelry even if it was for a day. 

The other reason was that, we were allowed to participate in the preparation of puja. The fun part was that we did not study that day. We were told to worship all our books, copies, pens and pencils along with Maa Saraswati.  Hence we placed everything related to studies and music and craft on the floor near the idol. As a rule none of things placed near Maa Saraswati were to be used on the day of the pooja. That meant no homework and plenty of running around and dancing with the loud music in the pandal where Maa Saraswati’s idol was placed.   

We were also allowed to fast till puja around 8:00 in the morning. The puja consisted of mantra ucharan and pushpanjali.  We wanted to know what the mantra meant and so we asked the purohit.  I still faintly remember snippets of purohit’s explanation of the mantra to us. Mantra described her as being white as the moon, clad in a white dress, decorated in white ornaments, radiating with beauty, holding a book and a pen in her hands representing knowledge. 

Pandals were set up and an idol of Maa Saraswati was installed even if it was just for a few days. Little children running around and dancing to the hit music playing loudly on the loudspeaker was the best part for us. Maa Saraswati’s idol looked like a beautiful woman dressed in white, seated on a white lotus, symbolizing light, knowledge and truth. Her decorations were mostly white themed: from dress to flowers to swan, all symbolizing Sattwa Guna or purity, representing true knowledge, insight and wisdom.  The prominent feature of Maa Saraswati was the presence of veena, a musical instrument in her hands.  I did not know at the time the presence of veena.  Later I found out that it represented creative arts and sciences, and Maa Saraswati holding it symbolizes knowledge that creates harmony.  

Maa Saraswati is always shown with a hamsa or a swan at her feet.  In our mythology, hamsa is considered a sacred bird with the ability to separate milk from a mixture of milk and water, thus symbolizing its ability to discriminate between good and evil. Ma Saraswati is also referred to as Hamsavāhini, which means “she who has a hamsa as her vehicle”. The swan is also a symbolism for spiritual perfection, transcendence and moksha. I still remember feeling peaceful every time I looked at her.

As little children we had no idea of the reason for celebrating it at the time. All we understood was that doing Saraswati Puja would assure good grades for us.  As we grew, Saraswati Puja gradually unfolded many other aspects.  We understood that Saraswati Puja fell on ‘BasantPanchmi’ that heralded the arrival of spring (Basanta).  In its celebration everyone wore yellow saris. 

Later when my sister was born and was old enough to study, our neighbors talked about Hatey-Khori (placing a pencil in a child’s hand). I had no idea what that meant.  Later I found out that this was the auspicious ceremony, where small kids are made to touch pen and ink for the first time, marking the beginning of ‘learning phase in their life’ with the blessings of Maa Saraswati. Saraswati Puja being an auspicious day people in Bengal usually chose this day for Hatey-Khori. 

Celebration for homage 
For us Saraswati Puja was the celebration to pay homage to Goddess of education.  We also found out that she was considered daughter of Maa Durga in Bengal.  That is perhaps the reason Saraswati is seen with Maa Durga along with her sons Ganesh and Kartik and her other daughter Laxmi during Durga Puja.  In Bengal, Ganesh and Kartik are considered as Maa Durga’s sons and Lakshmi and Saraswati as her daughters.  They have a story that supports this concept. 

Apart from Durga Puja, this was another puja that the youth, specially the teens anxiously awaited for.  This was the day when young adults spent time hanging out with friends watching films and doing fun things together; that too without restrictions. It was a liberation day for the teens and youth at the time. Along with students, people involved in the field of other arts also celebrated the day equally because Saraswati is also known as the deity of art, wisdom and culture. 

Call it nostalgia if you will, but for me celebration of Saraswati Puja continued even after I left Kolkata, in school and college in Varanasi.  In school there was a permanent idol of Ma Saraswati.  On Saraswati Puja we had the day off but were all asked to be present at the school ceremony of Saraswati Puja.  In college it was also the celebration of Basant Panchami, the arrival of spring along with Saraswati Puja.  

As a young adult entering college, I understood Maa Saraswati’s association with anurāga, the love for and rhythm of music, which represents all emotions and feelings expressed in speech or music. This explained the reason for Maa Saraswati being worshipped by people associated with music, drama and other sectors of creative arts at our college, within Banaras Hindu University. 

As a young adult entering college, I understood Maa Saraswati’s association with anurāga, the 
love for and rhythm of music.

When I returned to Nepal, there was not much hype about Saraswati Puja, except one done at home and the ones done at Saraswati temples around the country.  Recently the Indian trend of public worship during different pujas is showing up with some instances of public puja organized by different communities.  Pandals are being made and Maa Saraswati’s idols are placed and worshipped.  

It feels good to see public awareness for puja.  This is a reminder for parents as well as children, that we need to keep our culture and beliefs intact and not get swayed by other people’s cultures and beliefs.  It is also necessary for the family members to talk about these cultural events in detail at home.  Then again parents make sure your children understand well that just performing Saraswati Puja does not ensure good marks. Reemphasize the fact that Maa Saraswati only helps those who work hard. Hard work is always the main factor in one’s success. Maa Saraswati’s blessings and good luck come after that.  

Pokharel is an educationist and author of several children’s books

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