The following travelogue takes you on a delightful journey focusing on the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. Read on to know how the “City of Joy” celebrates this much awaited annual festival.
Autumn arrives and I am where else but in Kolkata. I hear the frenzied beating of dhaak drums. Their maddening rhythm can mean only one thing, it’s Durga Puja, the biggest celebration for Bengalis all over the world. It is time to worship Goddess Durga, slayer of Mahishasura, a demon in the guise of a buffalo. Legend has it that the gods tormented by the demon, invoked Durga, and armed her with their special weapons which she carries in each of her 10 hands. The warrior-goddess then set on her mount, a lion, to battle the asura and emerged victorious.
The celebrations are known as akal bodhon (untimely invocation). Untimely because in the hoary past the puja was done in the spring, but after Lord Rama called upon the goddess in autumn to seek her blessings before his battle with Ravana, it has been performed at this time of the year. In Bengal, it is believed that this is also when the goddess makes her annual visit to her parents’ home along with her children, Kartikeya, Ganesha, Saraswati and Lakshmi. And on the tenth day, Dashami, she returns to be united with her husband Lord Shiva, which is symbolically played out through her immersion or bishorjan.
Durga Puja preparations begin not days or weeks, but months in advance. Shops brim with saris and new styles of panjabis for women and dhoti kurtas for men. On sale are gifts and sweets, flowers and makeup, shoes and jewellery, and much more. People throng the markets, big and small, and walk back home laden with shopping bags full of goodies.
One of the hottest shopping destinations in Kolkata is New Market on Lindsay Street. Perhaps, the most sales are recorded by sari shops, the outfit of choice for Bengali women, especially married one, is still the six-yard wonder. There are traditional ones like taant, tassar, dhakai and garad saris and contemporary ones from top designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee to choose from. With the puja bonus in their pockets, the mood of the people is one of shop till one drops. They only come to take a break and to get a bite. Enticing aromas waft from restaurants and street-side stalls. Favourites are the famous chicken biryani from Biryani House and seekh kebabs and kathi kebabs from Nizam’s restaurant.
Preparations are also on to build pandals. Thousands of them are springing up everywhere, every locality, para, club and park has one. Money, time, energy and creativity pour in to make each bigger and better than the next. When I was a young boy, I remember standing at my window to watch the first bamboo poles being brought to the pandal construction site in the early hours of the morning, I still feel the same excitement, as I look at pandals being built. I remember that while running small chores to help the pandal committee, my legs forgot pain and my stomach hunger, such was the euphoria and anticipation of the festival.
Over the last two decades, theme pandals have become all the rage. Current events, both national and international, are inspirations as are ancient civilizations. Egyptian pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Titanic and Harry Potter are things that have already found their way to pandals. One year Osama bin Laden took the place of Mahishasur under Durga’s foot with her trident piercing his heart. Everybody, including art and architecture students, pitch in to make these spectacular structures.
Far away from these community pandals are the bonedi baari pujas, or pujas conducted by rich and the landed gentry. These are family affairs. Uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, young and old, NRI cousins and those from the ancestral village, all gather to celebrate the big day together. Children run around playing hide and seek and stealing roshogollas from the puja thaali. Young lads, take time off from eyeing pretty girls, to help get flowers, vegetables, fruits, banana leaves and other things needed for the puja. The women, most of them in traditional saris, busy themselves decorating the Durga idol and preparing the feast. The men, they just holler instructions to the decorators, builders and painters. And, of course, keep track of expenditure.
The traditions and customs at these pujas go back a couple of generations. At the famous Shobha Bazar Raj Baari, celebrations commence on the day of the Rath Yatra, when the wooden framework of the idol is worshipped. After that the Durga idol is made inside the house. For the Deb family, the Goddess is none other than the daughter of their household deity, Gopinath Jeu. In earlier days, cannons were fired here at Sandhi Puja. Today, guns have replaced cannons. However, these private pujas throw open their doors to the public as well. I have fond memories of many visits to see these magnificent examples of tradition.
Most of the idols of Durga are made in Kumortuli, an area in North Kolkata. The history of this potters’ quarter goes back to the era of the East India Company. The company demarcated the area for workmen. This is when Kumortuli — kumor meaning potter and tuli meaning locality — came up. Not only are the idols worshipped in Kolkata made here, but are also exported to the UK, the US and to other places where Bengali communities thrive.
The entire process of creating the murtis is considered holy, and prescribed by rites and rituals. On Akshaya tritiya, clay for the idols is collected from the banks of the river Ganges. An age-old custom requires the makers of Durga idols to collect a handful of earth from nishiddho pallis (forbidden alleys), where sex workers live, to be added to the clay that will go into the making of the Goddess. A walk down the alleys of Kumortuli, is an amazing experience. Myriad idols, some finished some unfinished, line the area. It is estimated that over 15,000 idols are made every year in Kumortuli.
The countdown to Mahasaptami begins with not just Bengal but the whole country awakening to Mahishasurmardini, a radio programme that has been broadcast by All India Radio continuously since 1932. Shashthi (the sixth day) is important as it is on this day on which bodhon, or unveiling of the face of the idol, is done. After which the eyes are painted, symbolic of giving life to the murti. Shashthi is one of the busiest days of the puja, it is the first lap to the celebrations. The evening is spent pandal hopping and greeting friends and family, especially relatives in the city from near and far.
The actual worship of Durga starts from Shaptami (the seventh day). In the early hours of the morning, nine leaves from nine trees — representing the nine different forms of Goddess Durga — are tied to twigs of the white Aparajita plant with yellow threads. These are then bathed in water from the Ganges. The day marks the first day of the battle between Durga and Mahishasur. The next day, Maha Ashtami, is when she is said to have slain the demon. The dhaak beats nonstop as devotees crowd around the idols to make offerings of flowers. The rituals are followed by lunch which comprises the offerings made to the Goddess. In the evening, sandha aarti is performed. The final rituals of the puja are done on navami, and the Goddess departs for Mount Kailash, on dashami.
A highlight of the celebrations is pandal hopping. Men and women dressed in splendid traditional attire set out to see the different tableaus and feast on dishes such as shondesh and fish curry and rice. The routes are decided well in advance. For me it was shashthi with local friends, shaptami with school friends, ashtami with parents and relatives and navami with tuition friends. Each day was further divided into different zones — something like, if it is shashthi morning, it must be south Kolkata, and evening north Kolkata, and so on.
During puja, it is difficult to find anybody indoors. More often than not, afternoons are reserved for a visit to the nearest pandal to partake of bhog prasad. The main item on the menu is khichdi made from a special rice called gobindo bhog. My mouth waters at the thought of the accompaniments: labra (a mixed vegetable), fried potato, fried brinjal, chutney and a sweet dish.
Kolkata is known for its sweets, so it is no surprise that tonnes are made and sold during this special season. K.C. Das, Ganguram and their lesser known competitors vie with each other to make the mishti of the month and win customers. Special to the pujas are payesh (a milk and rice pudding), narkel naaru (a coconut) and jaggery laddoo; chandrapuli (a mixture of sooji, khoya and coconut); patishapta (a pancake roll with sweet coconut stuffing); nolen gurer shondesh (a sandesh made with nolen gur, which is found only in Bengal); and the always popular and justly famous, soft and spongy roshogollas.
Dinner, on the other hand is usually at a restaurant or one of the food stalls at the numerous pandals. Chaos reigns at most puja venues. All manner of stalls, selling anything and everything, mushroom in and around the area, Iike a mela. Vendors selling balloons and jhal murri do good business as do stalls selling books, curios, trinkets, household items and other small knick knacks. Everywhere one looks, there is a sea of people. Traffic comes to a standstill. Policemen are at their officious best regulating the crowds milling in and out of the pandals.
Food forms an integral part of the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. Food kiosks are the most popular, selling cuisine from almost all regions of the country — Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil, you name it and it will be there. Rolls are a staple — egg roll, chicken roll, mutton roll, vegetable roll, potato roll, egg chicken roll, double egg double chicken roll, egg mutton roll, double, chicken egg double mutton roll, all permutations and combinations are available. Other foods include mughlai paratha, biryanis, chowmeins and different kinds of chops and vadas. Outlets set up by famous restaurants are popular, with long lines queueing up awaiting their turn.
It’s never dark in Kolkata during Durga Puja. Decorative lights are everywhere. Green lights, blue lights, pink and yellow lights, lights that form a figure, lights that flicker, lights that are still and lights that move. And lights that depict scenes from the city’s daily life as well as her favourite sons and daughters. The place to go and buy lights is Chandan Nagar where they are manufactured. Of late, however, Chinese lights are flooding the market and giving the homegrown ones a run for their money.
No puja is complete without the dhaak. It’s vital to the celebrations. All senses come alive when one sees a dhaaki dancing to the beat of his drum. Dhaak competitions are major attractions as are dhunuchi naach contests. Danced in rhythm to the dhaak, the dhunuchi naach is performed holding wide-brimmed clay pots filled with a smoking mixture of camphor, incense, tinder and coconut husk, called dhuno. Remember the scene where Sanjay Dutt does it in the film Parineeta? The dancing is frenzied. As the beat gets closer to the cresendo, dancers performs twists and turns, still holding the claypot. In a bid to show off their prowess, the dancers take up additional pots, one to hold in the mouth, and two in the hands. Good moves and good timing take away the prize.
On the margins of the festivities, cultural programmes are held. This is one of the best highlights of Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. Famous Rabindra sangeet singers enthrall aficionados of traditional music, and Bengali rock bands have the young and the restless grooving and hooting and dancing to the rhythm of the guitar and drums. My favourite venue to rock and roll is Maddox Square. In fact any youngster’s. It is here that every Bengali rock bands worth his hilsa converges. I am reminded of a performance by the famous Bengali rock band Cactus — their fatafati beat made the crowd go crazy. It was my first experience of a live performance, that too by Cactus. Bliss. So if you are in Kolkata during Durga Puja, grab the opportunity to attend the concerts, you won’t be disappointed. Maddox Square is also the place to meet the ladies. They turn out in traditional finery, perhaps the only time of the year when they do so. So the occasion is special.
Dashami is the last day of the Durga Puja. After the Maha Aarti, married women smear Durga and each other with vermillion powder and exchange sweets and paan. The ceremony has been captured on celluloid in the film Kahaani — a scene has Vidya Balan walking amongst a bunch of women who smear her face with sindoor. Men embrace each other to express their joy and the young touch the feet of their elders as a mark of respect. Then it is time to take the idol on its last journey. Amidst singing and dancing and chants of Joy Ma Durga, the idol is taken out in procession to its final resting place in the waters of the Ganga.
Treat this as a travel guide to experiencing the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata like a true Bangali! If you have some time on your hand, you can explore some other places to visit in Kolkata.