Durga Puja, the most important festival of Bengal is coming soon. Christmas in New York, Rio Carnival in Brazil, and the La Tomatina Festival in Spain summed up cannot beat the magnitude of the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata, India. Pujo spans 10 days filled with packed elaborate rituals, great food and a stunning display of creativity and art in the form of innovative themed pandals and idols. People deck up in new clothes, flock to the pandals and soak themselves in the festive spirit. The whole city transforms to a festive mood, work comes to a halt as the Pujo spirit hits Kolkata.
It is absolutely impossible to pen down the experience of “Durga Pujo” in words. Nostalgia, memories, food, and Durga Puja festivities are inseparable. Did you know that the first grand worship of Goddess Durga is said to have been celebrated in the late 1500s?
In Kolkata, the real celebration starts months in advance. Construction of the pandals starts way before the Pujos. The idols are mainly made at Kumartuli. It is an alley of the potters, where gods and goddesses are born (read created) in the skilled hands of mud sculptors who are in the profession of the clay idol making for several generations. In the lead up to Durga Puja, thousands of artisans (many who are hired from other areas) toil diligently in approximately 550 workshops to complete the idols of Durga in time for the festival. This place is located in North Kolkata and easily accessible. If you love art, do try to visit Kumartuli.
Preparations involve shopping for new clothes and gifts for families and friends. The month preceding Durga Puja is always hectic. Everyone is in a joyous mood thronging stores and shops offering great sales and discounts, scouring for new sarees, salwar kameez and kurtas or dhotis for Durga Puja. Witnessing the city and its people gearing up for the festival is as exciting as the festival itself!
Mahalaya – The start of Durga Puja
The baritone of Birendra Krishna Bhadra reverberating the autumn dawn – Ya devi sarvabhuteshu – courtesy All India Radio (AIR) signals the arrival of Ma Durga. I usually miss it in the morning on radio, but I make it a point to listen to it in the course of the day. Not for religious reasons, but more for nostalgic ones. When Bhadra sings, “Yaadevi Sarva Bhooteshu, Shakti Roopena Samsthitha, Namastasyay, Namastayay, Namastasyay, Namoh Namah…”, one can feel gooseflesh, as the voice seems to come out of the heavens to echo in the pre-dawn hours.
The idols are prepared several months before the celebration, except for one part: their eyes. They are only drawn on ‘Mahalaya’ that is one day before the ten-day festival commences. This process is known as ‘Chokkhu Daan’, meaning the Goddess is invited to earth. The best place to witness this ritual is Kumartuli.
Traditionally, idols are only placed in the pandals from the 6th day onwards. And so begins the pandal hopping. The highlight of the Durga Puja is ‘pandal-hopping’! You’ll find a different unique theme in every pandal across Kolkata. Pandal-hopping is one activity every Bengali enjoys to the T during Durga Pujas! Eat and drink, eat and drink! Once you’ve started pandal-hopping, that’s all you’re going to be doing for the rest of the might. This is the only day of the year when your parents don’t expect you to be home before your ‘in-time’. Best way to absorb the Pujo fever; is to choose a region (South / North / Central / Salt Lake) and start walking through the streets. The roads and streets are so crowded that if you took a vehicle, you would eventually end up spending the pujo in that car itself. Everyone is out the whole night visiting pandals and hanging out (read “adda”) with friends enjoying the Pujo.
Bhog and the infinitely long queues
We not only celebrate Durga Puja; we actually breathe it! For the Bengalis, Durga Puja is more than culture and beyond religion. Our Puja is not to mention kind of incomplete without good food and naturally, we prefer to no to think about the calories at least these four-five days. After early morning prayers and long hours of the previous night’s pandal-hopping, everyone deserves to skip cooking at home and spend some time with families and friends over meals.
There are many great options in town, but the best lunch, “Bhog” is served at the pandals. The bhog is the blessed food of the Durga Puja, a ritual meal lasting five days of the annual religious ceremony. It is eaten at lunch, traditionally by rows of persons seated on the puja bari floor, ladled out by volunteers rushing around importantly, holding large pails of steaming khichuri, straw baskets of fried vegetables and the eagerly-anticipated kheer in delicate pots. The bhog is laced with business-like shouts between eaters and servers (“Dada, eikhane baigune aaro laagbe!” More fried brinjal here, my brother!), sweetened by banter, even amongst strangers.
The ten days pass by so quickly and just like each year, the calls of “Ashchhe bochhor abaar hobe” resound the air. It means “We would have it again next year.” Sure, we would!
Hope you enjoy this year’s Durga Pujo.