Proverb says that the Bengalee Hindus have 13 festivals in 12 months. Factually, this saying is correct. Gandheswari Puja is one of those main festivals. Gandheswari is a combination of two Bengali (also Sanskrit) words- gandha (smell, fragrance) and iswari (goddess). So, Gandheswari means the Goddess of Fragrance and Gandheswari Puja means worship of the goddess who carries fragrance. Gandheshwari is the family goddess of Gandhavanik community of the Bengalee Hindus and they are the main organisers of this festival. Gandhavanik is also a combination of two Bengali words – gandha (scent, aroma) and vanik (merchant, trader). Therefore, Gandhavanik means traders of various scented products viz. cosmetics, perfumes, spices, incense, camphor and sandalwood etc. Cosmetic, perfume, incense, camphor or any spice is normally fragrant. Spice is a daily necessity in every Bengalee kitchen irrespective of caste and creed. Perfume and cosmetics are also widely used in almost every household. Probably for this reason traders of these scented items are known as Gandhavanik. They were initially worshippers of Lord Shiv, but later they became Shakta worshippers. Chinese tourist Fa-Hien referred to these perfume traders as the Hindu merchant community.
This is an annual festival observed on the full moon day of Baisakh or Jyaistha. The day is fixed but as Bengali almanac is followed the date is changed every year.
For this year, the date of the annual festival was Wednesday, 12th Jyaistha, 1428/26th May, 2021. The day is very important to the Buddhists also because their greatest religious festival Buddha Purnima is held on this day. It is a rare occasion that two festivals of two different religions are observed simultaneously.
History and existence of the Gandhavanik community dates back to Dhanapati Saudagar, Srimanta Saudagar and Chand Saudagar, the wealthy merchants who travelled the world for trade. In ancient times, merchants set out for trade on Mayurpankhi (boats designed like peacocks). On the way here was fear of storm, rain, flood, robbers and ferocious wild animals et cetera, but they believed that Goddess Gandheshwari would protect them from all these dangers. Worship of Gandheshwari started from this belief. On this day, they place their business items, ledgers, calculators, computers (if any) and weighing instruments in front of the goddess and pray for prosperity of business. Now-a-days they are modern businessmen who have diversified their business into other items like medicine and chemicals.
Gandheswari is thought to be a manifestation of maternal power and a part of Goddess Durga. The form of Gandheshwari is almost similar to that of Jagaddhatri. She has four hands, holds a conch, a chakra (a sharp wheel), a bow and arrow in her hands. The goddess is seen seated on a lion that is standing on a demon Gandhasur. The four-armed goddess is seen killing the demon with her trident. In traditional paintings a young woman is seen seated near the deity’s feet. This is Gandhavati (a woman with fragrance) who worshipped the goddess to save her from Gandhasur.
According to scriptures, though the shape is different, actually everything is an outward manifestation of the super power. Other sources inform that one great power is the origin of all goddesses. Worshipped or currently forgotten goddesses like Manasa, Chandi, Sasthi, Shitala, Bon Durga, Pragya Parmita have been born from one primordial power. Gandheshwari is no exception to it. In Sri Sri Chandi when Sri Adi Shakti (original power) Parameshwari (the supreme goddess), surrounded by other goddesses, was fighting with demon Shumbhasur, Shumbha angrily said to the goddess, “You arrogant! You are fighting with the help of other goddesses. Don't be so proud.” Hearing this, the superpower said, "Ekai bahang jagat atr dwitiya ka mamapara." - Who in this world is second to me? Look, all these are my manifestations. So, they are all being dissolved into me.” Then all the goddesses were dissolved into original power and Parameswari alone defeated the demon.
A good number of items are required for worship of goddess Gandheshwari which are mainly - an idol of the goddess, sindur (vermilion), panchagavya (five products from cow – milk, butter, ghee, yogart etc.), panchasasya (five types of crops), pancharatna (five types of gems), panchapallab (five types of leaves), ghot (a small round shaped earthen pot), darpan (mirror), green coconut with stem, atap (sunned) rice, dhoti of Lord Shiv, Narayan and Asur, sweetmeat, bilwapatramalya (garland of wood apple leaf), sesame, haritaki (yellow myrobalan), panchapuspa (five types of flowers), conch, a piece of iron, naivedya (sacred offering for god), sandalwood, betel leaf and nut etc.
In Bangladesh, there is a statue of Gandheshwari along with other Hindu deities in the Buddhist monastery of Paharpur though it is not as old as that monastery. There are Gandheswari temples at Bansberia (Hooghly) and Chorbagan (established in 1343 BS, North Kolkata) in West Bengal. Apart from annual worship and distributing prasad on the festival day the Gandheswari temple authority at Chorbagan conduct philanthropic and cultural activities like running charitable dispensary for 133 years, providing hostel facilities for poor students from remote villages, helping distressed women, educating underprivileged children, publishing magazine (Gandhavanikpatra) for 75 years etc. Though a particular community of the Bengalee Hindus is the main worshipper of Goddess Gandheswari, others also enjoy the fragrance and beauty of this festival with due respect and emotion, pleasure and devotion.
The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes