This weekend hundreds of Washington-area Bengalis will gather together to celebrate the annual Durga Puja festival, a day of devotions, dance, food and merriment. It is the honor of the goddess Durgo, destroyce, food and merriment. It is the honor of the goddess Durgo, destroyer of othe half-man, half-beast demon Mahishasura.

To millions of Hindus she is a fearsome and loving protectress, the mother goddess who personifies the triumph of good over evil. The program is scheduled for Saturday, and will be held at the Colonel Joseph Belt Junior High School, 12721 Goodhill Road, Wheaton.

The program begins at 10 a.m. with puja (devotions) followed by pushpanjali (communal offerings) at noon. Prasad , sweets and fruit which have been offered to the deity in the puja ceremonies, are then distributed to those present. Lunch follows at 2, with a menu of home-prepared Bengali delicacies -- rice pulao , goat-meat curry, sweet chutneys, vegetables and a milk-based dessert, payash (rice pudding). milk-based dessert, payash (rice pudding). Several families prepare portions of the food at home, and it is then served at the community lunch. Participants contribute towards the cost of the food.

The puja ceremony will interest even the casual observer. The image of Durga is an elaborate carving made of a soft white wood called "shola" which grows in India's Bengal region. It looks and feels somewhat like ivory. Intricate and delicate handiwork is evident here.

Several years ago, a renowned artisan from Bengal, Anant Malakar, was brought over to the United States to build the Durga images in cities with large Bengali communities -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington. The deity painstakingly built by him is used every year in Washington's Durga Puja festival. Though fragile and susceptible to oxidation when it comes in contact with air, it is a treasured possession of the Bengali community here.

Some 300 guests are expected to attend Saturday's event. It is sponsored by members of Sanskrit, a non-profit cultural organization based in Silver Spring. For further information call Rangit Dasgupta at 949-3294.