Kumari Puja, literally means ‘virgin worship’. During the course of nine days, Goddess Durga is worshipped in different forms, primarily in the form of Mother Goddess, then in the form of a warrior goddess, etc. But one of the forms of worship is in the form of a virgin. The virgin form of this shakti is considered to be very powerful.
For this a girl with a calm and quite personality between the ages of one and sixteen, who has not attained puberty, is selected. The age of the girl selected denotes a different name for the goddess, for example a one year old girl is called Sandhya while a two year old is referred to as Saraswati and so on right up to sixteen.
This kind of a puja is found in
and generally in all places where the female form of divinity is worshipped, especially in some of the Shaktipeeths. Nepal
Bengal, this form of worship was made popular by Swami Vivekananda in the early 1900 and the practice is still followed in the Order created by him at Belur Math, in the outskirts of Kolkata. So what is behind such worship? Our religious texts have insisted on Kumari Puja ‘to evolve the purity and the divinity of our women in the society.’
Durga Puja was a regular practice at Belur Math from the very beginning, except that it was done without the installation of any idols and was more of a celebration of the Order. Swami Vivekananda first started the practice of idol worship of Durga Puja. It is important to mention that the ‘western ways’ of the Swami was not very well accepted by the locals then – things like not believing in caste system and his free mixing with foreigners was seen as unconventional, to put it mildly. The beginning of idol worship at Belur Math was to get the people to accept that the monastic ways were not different from the Hindu-way and that the Swamis were a part of the society.
The Swami during his visits to the western countries was convinced that the advancement of a society was mainly due to their treatment of their womenfolk, as that of equals. His observation was that the same was not happening in our country and that the neglect of Indian womenfolk was amongst the main reasons of the general backwardness of our country. His idea was that institutionalising the Kumari Puja would bring people’s attention on the neglect of the womenfolk and also bring out the inherent divinity of women and the much needed respect they deserved. It is pertinent to recall that back then girls were not given education, were given away in marriage at early ages and sometimes to men much older than them and the ill-treatment of child-widow’s was also quite prevalent. So way back in 1901, when the first Durga Puja was conducted at Belur Math, Swami Vivekananda undertook the Kumari Puja of several girls, not just one. He wanted to highlight the elevated position women deserved and more importantly, needed.
This is a perfect example of sending social messages through religious rituals. An example of contemporary interpretation of an otherwise archaic ritual.