Kolkata: Pre-pubescent girls were worshipped as goddesses across West Bengal Saturday to mark Maha Ashtami - the most auspicious of the five-day Durga puja festival.
Devotees from across the country and abroad gathered at Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission near here for the Kumari puja which initiates Maha Ashtami celebrations.
The ritual of Kumari puja, a significant part of Maha Ashtami worship, was started in 1901 by the founder of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission (RMRM), Swami Vivekananda.
An unmarried girl between one to sixteen years of age, who has not yet reached puberty and is bereft of desire, worldly pleasures and anger, is selected for the ritual, which highlights the importance of women.
West Bengal Governor M.K. Narayanan too was part of the large gathering at Belur Math in Howrah district, about 10 km from the state capital. The gathering of devotees from across the world watched in awe as monks carried out the ritual.
Depending on their age, the girls are worshipped in various forms of the goddess.
Seven-year-old Kankana Chakrabarty was chosen as the Kumari at Belur Math Saturday and worshipped in the "Malini" form of the goddess.
At break of dawn, the Kumari was bathed in Ganga water, draped in a red sari, adorned with flowers and jewellery, with a "sindur (vermillion) tilak" applied on her forehead.
The young Kumari fasts the whole day until the puja is over. She is made to sit before the goddess's idol on a decorated chair with priests chanting hymns and dhak (traditional drum) being played in the background.
According to religious belief, after the puja, the divinity of the goddess descends into the Kumari.
Kumari puja was also conducted at many other community pandals and traditional households across the state where Durga puja is organised.
Throughout the state, festive fervour peaked on Maha Ashtami as the young and old alike chanted hymns, taking part in anjali (offerings to the god) and stood in long queues before idols of the goddess Durga.
Braving a steady drizzle, revellers, in their best outfits, gorged on the Ashtami staple of luchi-aludum (flat-bread and pressure-cooked spicy potatoes) or khichuri (dish made from lentils with cauliflower).
Upholding tradition, the nine manifestations of the goddess - Durga, Jayanti, Mangola Kali, Bhadra Kali, Kapalini, Kshama Dhatri, Siva, Svaha and Svadha - were also offered tributes.
In the evening, Sandhi puja was performed. It is done at the juncture when Maha Ashtami ends and Maha Navami starts. It is believed that Devi Chamunda appeared during this time to kill demons Chando and Mundo.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee greeted people on the occasion of Maha Ashtami.
Durga Puja, one of the biggest annual festivals in eastern India, marks the victory of good over evil, with the slaying of demon Mahishasura by goddess Durga, astride a lion.