Every year when Durga Puja approaches, a certain Kumortuli in Kolkata is thrown into frenzy. Kumortuli is the land of artisans in North Kolkata. They supply the idols to most of the pujas . Making the idols of Goddess Durga, along with Goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati and Lords Ganesha and Kartikeya is a daunting task in itself. For the entire puja to be auspicious, the idols need to be created with the right mixture of punya mati or blessed soil.
Mud from the banks of Ganges, cow dung and cow urine and a handful of soil from the nishiddho pallis or forbidden territories go into making that blessed mixture. So, where does one find this auspicious soil from a nishiddho palli ?
For the uninitiated, Sonagachi is Asia’s largest red-light area , which is located in Kolkata. The area contains several hundred multi-storied buildings with an estimated 11,000 sex workers.
Every sex worker is cooped up in an abysmally small room. The rooms there are ill-lit and dingy, the walls stained and the living conditions dismal. But that is the better hand the sex workers have been dealt in life.
No one is sure how and when the custom of getting punya mati from this forbidden territory came to be. But as it goes, the priest must beg for the soil from a sex worker. It is as if irony had decided to pull a prank. And while the soil is being scooped and handed out, the priest must recite a particular mantra.
But why is the soil from this irredeemable land considered auspicious?
Along the years, many reasons have surfaced. Mostly, it is believed that when one visits these women, they leave their virtue and piousness at the doorstep to enter a world of sin. So, the soil at the doorstep is said to have imbibed all the virtue and piety of all those who visit.
This easy transformation from piousness to sinfulness is only highly questionable. But that is a discussion for some other day.
Some believe that this custom is an attempt to include the section that is considered fallen and sinful. Most of these women are considered beneath any social standard. So, why do this once a year and shun them again after the puja is over? Why do this at all?
Then there are others who believe that this custom originated as a tribute to the courtesans, who were known for their proficiency in the arts. But of course, the definition of courtesans has been vastly altered in the course of time.
No one has answered these questions. And the residents of Sonagachi still remain perturbed by them.
Whichever way, the custom still holds. By the time you read this, punya mati from the nishiddho pallis would long be gathered and the idols about half-made for this year’s Durga Puja .