My mother told me this story a long time ago. I don’t really remember whether she ever sat me down to tell me this story, or happened to mention it when she was trying to get me interested in the early morning ritual of listening to the Mahalaya, which is somewhat like a ballad in praise of Durga’s battle against Mahishasura and used to be played on the radio when we were growing up. Now it is a different story, it can be downloaded and heard or watched any time the desire seizes you. The Mahalaya was a must-listen in almost every Bengali household as it heralds the start of Puja and sets the mood for the days of revelry and feasting that follow. I found it a chore because it meant getting up at 4 a.m. and straining my ears to catch the meanings of the words being sung but nevertheless I was caught up in the overall drama of the season and I don’t think we missed any Mahalaya day during my growing up years.
I asked my mother recently if she could tell the story one more time. She said she didn’t remember it too well but maybe my aunt (Mamie) in Kolkata would be able to help. She did and even dug up a reference book and helped me fill in details that I didn’t remember. I wrote it all down and filed it in for the archive. But stories gather a life of their own and this one had decided that it wasn’t done yet. My uncle (Chotokaka) called from Kolkata and said that he too had found out something about the story. Yes, my mother had called him and told him that I was writing something and could he help. And he told me this: Two sisters Aditi and Diti were wives of Kasyapa. Diti’s sons were the Daityas and Aditi’s sons were the Devas. They never got along with each other. But we must remember that not all Daityas are Diti’s progeny and not all Devas are Aditi’s children.
With that caveat in place, must this story be read:
Durga had just vanquished Mahishasura, the Asura king who had thrown the heavens into turmoil and whom no god could defeat. Her victory had sent tremors down the Asura kingdom. Many had decided to accept the supremacy of the gods instead of taking on the goddess in battle, but there were a few challengers who decided to take on the might of Durga.
The brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha of the Daitya race, were in deep grief at the death of their compatriot, Mahishasura. Their grief stoked a desire for vengeance against the woman who had caused his end. They refused to accept the Devi’s supremacy. Nor would they, they announced, let the gods rule over the world just because a woman had brought them victory.
Shumbha and Nishumbha were powerful though cruel kings. They were feared, not only among the Daitya clan, but also among the Devas who had been at the receiving end of their wrath for a very long time. The brothers despised the gods; they had sworn to destroy them and Indra, their king, for having murdered their third brother Nomuci. Over the years they had built a huge arsenal of weapons and an army whose might and prowess had sent the gods cowering in fear. Even Indra had run away from his kingdom and no one knew where he had hidden himself.
After the death of Mahishasura, Shumbha and Nishumbh felt that it was time to reassert the supremacy of the Asuras. Word of Durga’s valour, her strength and phenomenal courage had reached them, but that did not deter the brothers or their courtiers. So they sent out spies to find out more about this goddess who had wreaked havoc on their kingdom who came back with more stories about the goddess’s phenomenal battle skills and also about her incandescent beauty. Durga shone like fire and gold when she took to the battlefield they reported.
After listening to the reports of their spies, the brothers decided that they would make the goddess an offer. They sent word out that they would be willing to marry her and that she should hand herself over to them. Durga did not turn them down. But she had a condition: she would marry the one who could defeat her in battle. The brothers did not believe that they should fight a woman so they sent their general Dhumralocana to bring her to them. But he was beheaded by the goddess.
The brothers were enraged and ordered their valiant generals Chanda and Munda to bring the goddess to them in chains. Chanda and Munda had won many battles for their kings and were the most loyal soldiers that any king had ever had. However the two were no match for the Devi who sent them scrambling for their lives. Bruised and too embarrassed to go back to their masters, Chanda and Munda hid in a pond of water. (In some versions, Chanda and Munda are beheaded by Chamunda Devi who is a form of Durga and is usually found around cremation grounds)
When Shumbha and Nishumbha heard about their generals’ plight, they sent one of their fiercest soldiers called Raktabeej. Raktabeej had the power to regenerate himself; every drop of his blood that fell on to the ground would produce another Raktabeej. He fought a long and hard battle against Durga who, faced with this unique challenge, summoned Kali — a violent and ferocious form of herself. As Durga struck Raktabeej with her sword, Kali drank his blood and thereby ensured that not a drop fell down and together they destroyed him.
With Raktabeej defeated, there was no option but for the brothers to jump into battle. They were mighty warriors and so they engaged the goddess in a combat that went on for many days and many nights. Finally Durga, with a fell swoop of her sword, beheaded the two.
And thus was the world rid of Shumbha and Nishumbha. The Danavas lost their control over the world and Indra, reclaimed his kingdom.
STORY COLLECTED BY: Arundhuti Dasgupta Singhal
STORY TOLD BY: Sumitra Sen, Ashok Dasgupta and Kasturi Dasgupta
TEXT SOURCE: Vamana Purana
LOCATION: West Bengal