The Durga Puja altar arrived at the museum in its original Indian packaging. The goddess has a detachable halo that, once put into place, makes the statue even more impressive. Photo: Pilvi Vainonen, Finnish Heritage Agency.

Durga Puja Altar

Object of the Month - August 2018

Late last year, the museum’s independence era collection received a donation that sheds light on both multicultural Finland and a significant Hindu ritual. The artefact is an altar relating to the Hindu goddess cult – an important sacred object from the Vantaa-based Pujari Finland association’s Durga Puja ritual in 2012–2017.

The 10-day ritual (puja) of worshipping the goddess Durgā is popular in Bengal, for instance. Many members of the Pujari Finland association also originally come from the Bengal cultural region in India and Bangladesh. As a result of migration, the annual Durga Puja festival has spread from South Asia to other parts of the world.

In Hindu rituals, deities are summoned for appearance and worship using statues representing them. The altar with its deities donated to the collection is modern and made of fibreglass and plywood. In the original areas where the cult is practised, the statues are traditionally made of straw and clay. After the end of the ritual, they are destroyed by sinking them into a river or the sea, thereby sending the deities back to their sacred abodes.

The central figure of the Durga Puja is the goddess Durgā, who first and foremost represents motherhood, protection against all evil. She is shown riding a tiger or lion, holding weapons and symbols in her many hands to prevent threads from any direction. In the altar collage, the goddess is surrounded by other deities, such as the goddesses Lakṣmī and Sarasvatī as well as Durgā’s children Kārttikēya with a swan and peacock and Gaṇesha, the elephant-headed god of new beginnings who is always honoured first. With her left foot, Durgā is pushing the buffalo demon Mahisāsura down onto his knees, and a buffalo head depicting the severed head of the demon lies in the foreground, symbolising the victory of good over evil.

The altar and its canopy (pandal) will be displayed to the public in the autumn, when a small Durga Puja exhibition will be put up in the pop-up facility of the National Museum of Finland. The exhibition will also feature other artefacts relating to the goddess from the collections of the Museum of Cultures. The exhibition and its additional programme are implemented in cooperation with the University of Helsinki’s subjects of museology and South Asian studies. The Durga Puja will be displayed from 16 to 28 October 2018.

Pilvi Vainonen

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Making ritual statues out of clay. Bishnupur, West Bengal, India. Photo: Pilvi Vainonen, Finnish Heritage Agency.