Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Soil Theory
Why soil from sex workers’ doorstep is necessary for making Durga idols:
  • To make otherwise ostracised members of society feel included
  • Clients visiting ‘houses of vice’ leave their virtues outside the door, making the soil here virtuous
  • To purge prostitutes of their “sins”
  • As a fertility ritual
  • To honour ‘courtesans’, traditionally famed for their proficiency in the arts
Long before it became politically incorrect to call sex workers by any other name, it was considered inauspicious to worship the goddess Durga without seeking out the
blessing of courtesans, even if they were otherwise stigmatised and ostracised by society. Thus originated the little-known, age-old custom of collecting a handful of soil (punya mati) from the nishiddho pallis of Calcutta, literally ‘forbidden territories’, where sex workers live, and adding it to the clay mixture which goes into the making of the Durga idol.
“It is an integral ingredient of the holy mix, which also includes mud from the banks of the Ganga, cow dung and cow urine,” says veteran potter and idol-maker, Ramesh Chandra Pal of Kumartuli, home to Calcutta’s biggest clay idol manufacturing community for over 300 years. “It is a vital part of the ritual of Durga Puja,” agrees pujari Haru Bhattacharya. The 30-year-old, fourth-generation pujari goes personally to Sonagachi, Calcutta’s biggest red light area, “on an auspicious day” about a month before the onset of the festive season, around the time when potters begin to start work on idols, to collect what he calls the “virtuous dust from the doorstep of beshhas (prostitutes)”.
This process is so sacred, explains Bhattacharya, that on the morning of the visit he takes a holy dip in the Ganga and chants mantras from the scriptures all through the soil-collection process. He says, “The most auspicious method of collection is to beg it from a prostitute and have her hand it to you as a gift or blessing. If it is taken from the ground, the pujari must know the correct way of doing it, including knowing which mantras to chant and how to position the fingers in a yogic mudra while scooping up the soil.”