The Hindu Mahalaya Celebration: Invoking the Mother Goddess

Now Synonymous with a Once-a-Year Radio Program

The Idol of Goddess Durga
Invoking the Goddess Durga. (c) Subhamoy Das

Come autumn and Hindus all over the world get infused with festive fervor; and for Bengalis,  Mahalaya is the signal to make final preparations for their greatest festival--Durga Puja.

What's Mahalaya?

Mahalaya is an auspicious occasion observed seven days before the Durga Puja, and it heralds the advent of Durga, the goddess of supreme power. It's a kind of invocation or invitation to the mother goddess to descend on earth--"Jago Tumi Jago".

This is done through the chanting of mantras and singing devotional songs.

Since the early 1930s, Mahalaya has come to associate itself with an early morning radio program called “Mahisasura Mardini” or “The Annihilation of the Demon.” This All India Radio (AIR) program is a beautiful audio montage of recitation from the scriptural verses of “Chandi Kavya”, Bengali devotional songs, classical music and a dash of acoustic melodrama. The program has also been translated into Hindi with a similar orchestration and is broadcast at the same time for a pan-Indian audience.

This program has almost become synonymous with Mahalaya. For nearly six decades now, the whole of Bengal rises up in the chilly pre-dawn hours--4 am to be precise--on the day of Mahalayato tune into the “Mahisasura Mardini” broadcast.

The Magic of Birendra Krishna Bhadra

One man who'll always be remembered for making Mahalaya memorable to one and all is Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the magical voice behind the “Mahisasura Mardini.” The legendary narrator recites the holy verses and tells the story of the descent of Durga to earth, in his inimitable style.

Bhadra has long passed away, but his recorded voice still forms the core of the Mahalaya program. In a sonorous, reverberating voice, Birendra Bhadra renders the Mahalaya recital for two thrilling hours, mesmerizing every household with the divine his narration, as Bengalis submerge their souls in quiet moments of prayer.

An Epic Composition

“Mahisasura Mardini” is a remarkable piece of audio drama, matchless in Indian culture. Though the theme is mythical and the mantras are Vedic, this program is a landmark composition. It's scripted by Bani Kumar and narrated by Bhadra. The enchanting music is composed by none other than the immortal Pankaj Mullick, and the songs are performed by famous singers of yesteryears, including Hemant Kumar and Arati Mukherjee.

As the recital begins, the serene morning air resonates with the long drawn-out sound of the sacred conch shell, immediately followed by a chorus of invocation, melodiously setting the stage for the recitation of the Chandi Mantra.

The Story of “Mahisasura Mardini”

The story element is captivating. It speaks of the increasing cruelty of the demon king Mahisasura against the gods. Unable to tolerate his tyranny, the gods plead with Vishnu to annihilate the demon. The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara (Shiva) come together to create a powerful female form with ten arms--Goddess Durga or 'Mahamaya', the Mother of the Universe who embodies the primeval source of all power.

The gods then bestow upon this Supreme creation their individual blessings and weapons.

Armed as a warrior, the goddess rides a lion to battle with the Mahisasura. After a fierce combat, the 'Durgatinashini' is able to slay the 'Asura' king with her trident. Heaven and earth rejoice at her victory. Finally, the mantra narration ends with the refrain of mankind's supplication before this Supreme Power:

"Ya devi sarbabhuteshshu, sakti rupena sanksthita Namasteshwai Namasteshwai Namasteshwai namo namaha."