In Bengal, it is believed an idol of the goddess Durga is incomplete if earth from a sex worker's doorstep is not mixed into it. Durga puja celebrations are the year's biggest in the state. Photograph: (AFP)
The sex workers are an integral part of the festivities but they say celebrating it entails too much harassment
The sex workers of Sonagachi have said they will not be celebrating Durga puja – the biggest Bengali festival of the year; in which people commemorate the goddess Durga's slaying of the demon Mahishasura – this year.
This is especially surprising since the sex workers play an integral part in the festivities.
In the Indian state of Bengal, it is believed that an idol of the Hindu goddess Durga is incomplete if earth from the doorstep of a prostitute is not mixed into the clay that goes into moulding it.
The old (and it must be said troubling) thinking was that a man who visited a prostitute left his purity at her doorstep; hence the earth at a prostitute's doorstep is called "punya mati" or pure soil in Bengali.
Potters will therefore collect earth from the "nishiddho palli" or the forbidden territory (read red-light districts). This earth, believed to be a blessing from the prostitutes, is then mixed into the clay used in the making of the Durga idols.
It is no surprise then that two of the largest potters' colonies in Bengal's capital city Kolkata are found next to red-light districts. One of the biggest potters' colonies, Kumartulli, lies next to Sonagachi – which is one of Asia's largest red-light districts – while Potuapara is found next to the Kalighat red-light district.
It is believed the ritual was made part of Durga puja so as to allow the sex workers, generally thought of as outcastes, to take part in the festivities.
But of course things are different this year, with the sex workers of Sonagachi saying they will not be taking part in the festivities. They say celebrating it entails too much harassment.
Bharati Dey, the secretary of the Durbar Mahila Sammanaya Committee, the NGO that works with sex workers in the Sonagachi area, says, “We have been harassed for the past three years. In our bid to celebrate Durga puja, we had to run from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to the police station seeking permission. Sometimes we were not allowed to organise the Durga puja within our district at all. We had to even approach Calcutta High Court for permission the past couple of years.”
“We cannot be doing that every year. We are tired of going to the corporation and the High Court just to be a part of the puja revelry. Hence, we have decided to give up this time and not celebrate the festival,” she adds.
Others in the area say they have been harassed so much in the past that they are left with little inclintation to celebrate the puja this year. “No one from the state government comes forward to make us a part of the festival. No political leaders or representatives of the government want us to celebrate the puja, hence it is best to give up on the celebrations. It’s sad that they do not think that we are humans, too. We live with the taboo (of being sex workers) all our life, but the governments do little to make our lives better,” said a sex worker who did not wish to be named.
Trouble began in 2013 as the sex workers and members of the Durbar Mahila Sammanaya Committee planned the puja.
The police and the municipal corporation refused to give them permission, saying they could not hold the puja on the pavement. They finally had to conduct the puja inside the clinic run by the NGO.
In 2015, they were again refused permission and had to approach the high court, which ordered the authorities to allow them to celebrate the puja and to allot them a community hall for the purpose.