October 2007, Kolkata. Just a little past midnight. Dharthi Krishnamurthy came out of the guest house where she was staying with her husband to catch the early morning flight back to Kerala and almost fainted when she saw what she did. The elderly couple had arrived seven days ago to spend the Durga Puja week with their daughter Radha, who worked here. They had never been to Kolkata before, but they had heard much about the festival of Durga Puja. It was said to be a time when the city of Kolkata went crazy. It was supposed to be a time of suspended reality.
It was supposed to be a time, if myths are to be believed, when the Goddess Durga, the wife of Lord Shiva, descended on earth, her maternal home, from her heavenly abode in the Himalaya and slew the demon, Mahishasura. A time of celebration of good over evil. A time of… . Well, the Krishnamurthys’ daughter, Radha, told her parents that they must experience it once in their lifetime. So they arrived and Radha had them checked into a comfortable guest house. The elderly couple didn’t go out much during the five heady days. There were too many people, too much sound and too much light. But in the evenings, Mrs Krishnamurthy did come out to the guest house balcony just to stare awestruck at a structure that stood in the vicinity. It looked exactly like the Taj Mahal and she was mesmerised by how it shone in the moonlight. In the distance the river Hooghly — the part of the river Ganga that passes through Kolkata — flowed gently by. One of Mrs Krishnamurthy’s biggest regrets had been to have missed seeing the Taj Mahal in the moonlight when she went to Agra a few years ago.
But this was adequate compensation. But today, as if overnight, the building seemed to have evaporated into thin air. The magical mahal was no longer there. An empty field stretched out before her. She gasped. What Mrs Krishnamurthy did not know was that she was under a spell, cast by the magic of Durga Puja. And here is a warning to all the uninitiated…. Beware! Because what you see is not what you should believe. Not if you are in Kolkata during the five days of Durga Puja.What, then, is Durga Puja? Literally, ‘Durga Puja’ means Durga Worship. It is a five-day religious festival celebrating the goddess Durga’s descent on earth to destroy the demon Mahishasura. The demon had become indestructible and Durga is understood to be the embodiment of cosmic divine energy, put together by the gods, especially to kill the demon. You can usually see him in the moment of death, at her feet, trampled on by her lion-mount. Also known to the Bengalis simply as ‘Pujo’ — worship — and to the more Anglicised as ‘the Pujas’, it is the biggest, most important and the bestknown annual event in Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal.
Though ostensibly a Hindu religious ritual, marked by prayer and piety, Durga Puja has increasingly become known as much for the grandeur, lavish scale and secular delights with which it is celebrated. It has indeed gradually become a weeklong carnival of sorts, in which people from all backgrounds, irrespective of their religious views, participate. There’s something in the air The actual dates of worship are from the sixth to the tenth day of the waxing moon in the month of Ashshin, the sixth month in the Bengali calendar. Sometimes, because of shifts in the lunar cycle, Durga Puja also takes place in the following month, Kartika. The corresponding months in the Gregorian calendar are September and October. But the tremor of excitement begins to be felt much earlier. As summer gradually gives way to autumn, you can feel that there is something in the air. And it’s not just a nip.
The anticipation permeating the city hangs heavy. Shops start announcing their Puja sales and the frenzied buying of gifts begins. In most Bengali homes the tradition is to wear a brand new outfit each day of the Puja and gifts are exchanged way before the actual Puja week so that you can get your matching accessories or make alterations, if required, ahead of the week. At the busy Gariahat Market in South Kolkata, Dolon Dhar has just bought seven saris from a handloom store. And it’s only the first week of September. “I should have started muuuuch earlier,” she laments. “It’s going to be difficult to get blouses tailored for these at this stage. It’s unlikely that any tailor is going to accept any more orders.” A visit to the tailoring shops lining Kolkata’s Park Circus area corroborates her fears. “I have so many orders for blouses,” cribs master tailor Hyder Ali. “I don’t know how I’m going to deliver them by the Puja week.”
The Puja week starts becoming a sort of unit for measuring time, and the phrase “before Pujo” or “after Pujo” becomes so ubiquitous, you can hear it being uttered everywhere — by fellow passengers aboard public conveyances, in marketplaces, at restaurants, and bandied about freely by colleagues in your workplace. Many begin planning their annual holidays. After all, it’s rare that you get five days off at a stretch and that too along with other members in the family. Others, and there is a large number of them each year, want to get away, far from the madding crowd. But most Bengalis would rather stay put and take it all in. The mushrooming mahals A few weeks before countdown begins, you suddenly start noticing the changes to the landscape. Busy making your own individual Puja plans, you were hardly aware of the arrival of the artisans, who come in droves from the villages and suburban Kolkata to construct, design and decorate the pandals — the temporary temples — that will house the deities.
The pandals crop up all over the city, tens of thousands of them. Anywhere where there is an iota of space really. Parks and pavements, playgrounds and parking lots — nothing is spared. They are taken over and turned into pilgrimage spots. For instance, one fine morning as you’re driving down your usual route to work, you may suddenly have to stop, turn back and take a detour because a major road has been cordoned off for a pandal. Or you may discover, not without a tinge of irritation, that your favorite jogging spot is now the seat of a Khajuraho temple. Durga Puja for Kolkata’s residents is as much a cause for celebration as it is cause for concern about how to surmount such minor irritants. The structures are mounted on bamboo and usually cloth or canvas is used for the covering, though artisans use a variety of other materials too, such as jute. The pandals are usually elaborate works of art with themes borrowed from history, religion and even current affairs.
Many of them are modelled after famous temples or monuments such as the Taj Mahal and are often as imposing as India Gate. Depending upon the skill of the artists, the structures often look so real that it is impossible for an outsider to know that it’s not a proper, permanent structure. No wonder Mrs Krishnamurthy almost fainted when she found that the Taj Mahal look-alike in the vicinity of the guest house had vanished. She did not know that it had been taken down literally overnight, its off-white marble-coloured canvas cover removed, the scaffolding dismantled and the football field where it stood, handed back to the neighbourhood boys. Of gods and demons Indeed, the first tremors of excitement begin to be felt long before the Goddess or Ma Durga (Mother Durga), as the Bengalis call her, actually arrives, larger than life, riding on a lion — her mascot — her ten arms wielding weapons of war.
At her feet lies the villain of the piece, the demon Mahishasura, the symbol of evil, slain, blood spurting out of his chest, which has just been pierced by her spear. She is flanked on either side by her four children. Her two daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati, goddesses in their own right, one of wealth and the other of knowledge, don’t come unaided either. They are escorted by their faithful mascots, the owl and the swan respectively. Also accompanying Durga are her two sons, the pious Ganesh and the foppish Kartika, piggybacked on their mascots, the rat and the peacock. The clay idols, dressed up in colourful cloth and glittering gems, brandishing an assortment of articles of daily importance like weapons of war and musical instruments, are tall — the minimum height usually being not less than 6 ft. They look formidable when mounted on raised platforms inside the pandals.
The visages of the deities vary according to the imagination and skills of the artists who sculpt them. Sometimes they customise the idols as per the specifications of particular Puja organisers, based on a theme. There have been instances when Durga’s face was made to resemble popular movie heroines or even popular female political figures. The demon’s head too has many a times been made to resemble unpopular public figures, but such experiments court controversy and Puja committees prefer to steer clear of these. Arrivals and departures Now imagine hundreds of such entourages rolling into the city by the truckloads from the heavens, which in this case happen to be the suburban workstations, especially the famous artisans’ village, Kumartuli. Some people come to the city just to witness this spectacle: the arrival of the idols and their departure (immersion in water bodies).
There is no denying that one of the biggest crowd pullers of Durga Puja is the immersion procession, when on the last day of the Pujas (Bijoya Dashami) the idols are taken, usually in open trucks and vans, accompanied by huge crowds to a nearby water body, preferably the sacred Ganga, to be immersed. This symbolises Durga’s return to her husband’s home. Crowds throng to the streets to witness this, lining the procession routes, peering out of windows and hanging out of balconies or rooftops to catch a glimpse. If you are in the middle of one such crowd, you’ll be aware of people around you crying, even howling, as they bid an emotional farewell to their beloved goddess. For a few days, Kolkata slumps into a strange melancholia.
The only consolation is the chant of “Ashchey bochor abar hobey”, (again next year) which, as per tradition, the procession proudly proclaims as it makes its way through the city. Sounds and aromas Once the deities arrive, the city of Kolkata never sleeps. And if it does, it wakes up to a constant sound. There’s the sound of drumbeats and the blowing of conch shells. And there’s the cacophony of a fusion of sounds emanating from loudspeakers — playing anything from Indipop to traditional Bengali Rabindra Sangeet — which almost every Puja pandal is fitted with. It wakes up also to a variety of aromas. The fragrance of burning incense and the aroma of floral offerings. The smell of hot food emanating from thousands of temporary stalls that have mushroomed throughout the city, selling everything from paranthas to pancakes. The city also wakes up to the vision of vibrant colours, which spill into the streets as Bengalis crawl out of the woodwork in droves and arrive from the remote suburbs and villages dressed in their gaudy best. For five days and nights, they hop from pandal to pandal, standing in serpentine queues for a glimpse or ‘darshan’ of the ‘devi’ or goddess. And for five days, come evening, the city lights up like a galaxy.
Lighting work by artisans brought in to decorate the pandals — both the interiors and exteriors — is supposed to be among the best in the world. If you’re in Kolkata during Durga Puja, there is no getting away from all this… even if you think it’s an assault on your senses, you will grin and bear it. Most do and some come back for more. Like Nathan Michael, an art scholar from Chicago, who first came to Kolkata during the Puja of 2006 after reading somewhere that Durga Puja “is the largest outdoor art festival in the world”. Nothing prepared him for what he calls the “attack of light, sound and colour”.
Admitting that “it is incomparable to anything” he has “ever witnessed”, he found himself returning for Puja 2007. He advises visitors not to come with any preconceived ideas about Durga Puja because, according to him, “It is sure to surpass all expectations.” So yes, expect the unexpected. Absolutely. Because where else but in Kolkata can you expect to suddenly discover an Egyptian pyramid in the middle of a parking lot? Or a White House sprawled across a playground? Or a Taj Mahal standing as majestically on the banks of the Ganga as it has always done on the banks of the Yamuna? But then, if you do see one, you are under a spell… one cast by the magic of Durga Puja.
By Dola Mitra
Dola Mitra is the Kolkata correspondent for Outlook, she loves to linger in the city during Durga Pooja.