Recently, I was invited to be a part of the Mahalakshmi pooja, to be performed by one of my relatives in Pune - the cultural hub of Maharashtra.
Having absolutely no clue of what this ceremony was all about, I approached my husband to enlighten me on the details. He informed me that this ritual is about worshipping the Goddess of wealth and prosperity - the Mahalakshmi - by married women in the first five years of marriage. The interesting thing is that women join in a ritual of blowing air into earthen pots which induces hyperventilation... some women feel they've been possessed by the great Goddess herself. He warned me not to ask silly questions or to make any kind of expressions when and if I witnessed such a possession! :-)
It was Navratri time... there were huge pandals set up for the Goddess Lakshmi in almost every street. In the evenings, there was (loud) music in the air and people dancing with fervour to please the deity that was colourfully decorated with silk cloth and various flowers.
On the given day, my mother-in-law and I arrived early at the hall where the pooja was to be conducted. After breakfast and a round of introduction, we decided to get on with the pooja. We were 9 of us in all who would perform the pooja. I was asked to put swastika (with vermilion) on my feet and to sit in a place set up for the ceremony. We all placed our respective goddesses to be worshipped on a small platform and started off with the rituals. There were 2 lady priests who guided us through the ceremony and chanted mantras (that too without any books!).
Chanting of mantras, according to me, is a real talent - it needs a deep study of the Sanskrit syllables, clear and correct pronunciation, breath-control and memory!
The ceremony went on for about 2 hrs. At the end of it all, we all individually had covered our idols with turmeric and vermilion powder, tulsi leaves, durva grass, fragrant flowers and small green bangles. Overall, the place looked smoky and smelt fragrant thanks to the agarbattis. Finally, all present recited the devi's aarti. The collective sound effect and the knowledge that the ceremony was nearing its end made me enjoy the aarti.
To me, God is everywhere. I do not believe in idol worship, as perhaps, I have not yet felt its power. For me, praying is a way of asking God to make things -that are not in my control – fine; and for that, I do not feel the need for ceremonies. Yet, I was here, doing all that was told, worshipping the Goddess. I realized that I was here for many reasons - for the person who so lovingly had requested me to be a part of this ceremony, for my mother-in-law, for making new friends and acquaintances - and for myself - to see what this pooja is all about.
As we began to clear up the place, one lady whispered, "she's possessed!!"… I left everything I was doing just to see who and how! One elderly lady was chanting something and making actions that one would describe as "being possessed by the Goddess". All ladies began to apply turmeric and vermilion and take her blessings. I was stunned and decided to stay in the background in an attempt to observe her. In about 2 minutes, a lady right next to her also started off with those actions... again the ladies rushed for blessings. After some time, both sat down in peace and asked for something to eat.
During lunch, my mother-in-law introduced me to a lot more elderly ladies. I learned that some ladies were specifically invited as they had the power of being possessed on such occasions!
Soon after lunch, the hall had to be cleaned up for the evening pooja and celebrations. A statue of the Goddess in a nine-yard sari covered with loads of gold ornaments was placed on a platform. A face made of rice-paste was made by an artist (who was here just for that) and replaced the existing face made of plaster. Overall, it was a statue of a beautiful and very rich Goddess! :-)
After helping set up things and decorating the place with flowers and rangoli, I went back home for a short nap and got back in the evening (refreshed) with my husband.
The hall was filled with smoke when we arrived in the evening. The statue of the Goddess was placed at one side of the hall; at the centre, few elderly ladies with pots in the hands were dancing in front of the deity and people were sitting around at the sides along the walls. Having done the pooja in the morning, I was told by an old lady with a completely red forehead to blow 5 times into an earthen pot. I looked around to find many pots kept on a side table and was handed over a pot that had some smoke in it. When I blew into it the first time, I started coughing. The lady kept staring at me. I quickly blew 5 times into the pot and looked at my husband wondering if he would say, "Good...that was enough". Instead, he was laughing! He asked me to dance like the ladies and signaled to his father to hand over the camera to him to click a picture of me with the pot. I felt extremely foolish doing what I already thought was silly. Disheartened, I looked at my mother-in-law...I guess she understood my plight as she said, "Okay, keep the pot". Relieved, I quickly kept the pot, took blessings of the Goddess and literally ran into another room. I remained in the background till my husband walked up to me with a bored look and asked if we could leave. I was glad to get out of the hall, into the coolness of the night.
We got back home, watched a movie on TV after which I felt normal once again. As usual, we sat down together to discuss the day’s events. Overall, I enjoyed the process of the ceremony. Apart from it being a social gathering, the purpose for which these customs and rituals were started seems less significant in today’s times. I wonder how much of this will cascade to our future generation! My only prayer to Goddess Lakshmi, world peace and prosperity! :-)