For many, the autumn festival of Durga Puja is the most important religious festival in the Bengali calendar. Few other festivals occupy so much media coverage each year or mean quite so much in terms of spiritual fulfillment.

Durga puja still symbolises victory over evil both on a personal level and in society at large. She is Ma, mother, as well as much loved daughter of Himavat, the Himalayas, who visits for a short while and then returns to her mountain home. A glimpse of her face, as in Satyajit Rays film Pather Panchali, evokes a whole range of thoughts and emotions.

The experience of being present in the sight of Durga and her family of Ganesh, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Kartik, of having darshan, is often an emotional one. Worshippers can bring whatever feelings and thoughts seem most appropriate in these private moments of prayer, reflection and meditation.

When the priest gently requests 'ma go' (Mother dear) to listen to the prayers of those attending, his reactions and movements set the tone of the whole proceedings. The involvement of participants at every level of the proceedings, including the choice of flowers and cooking the food, the raising of the funds and sending out invitations, ensure that Durga puja is a lively social occasion. Physical contact with the images during puja such as the offering of bhog and sindur brings the worshipper in closer spiritual contact with Durga too for those fortunate enough to attend celebrations.

Swami Vivekananda, who inaugurated Durga puja in 1901 at the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math, Kolkata using a clay image from Kumartuli, best sum up the way to think about the worship of the image of Durga: 'The Hindu does not worship an idol made of wood and clay, he sees consciousness within the earthiness and loses himself in it.' This is the religious experience of Durga Puja.