DURGA PUJA – Why you must travel to Kolkata in October

DURGA PUJA – Why you must travel to Kolkata in October

“Back to the city of joy”

While many may speak against idol worship and may not be impressed with ‘puja’ of any sort, there are perhaps, many of us who believe in praying for inner strength. Prayers serve as a reminder that within each one of us, is a firmness; a supreme force that we can awaken, if life so demanded. We ought to be aware of that force. It has to be nurtured and harnessed. Making a ritual of it, is a choice, a means to revisiting that strength.

Let’s start right from where it should.

Durga Puja (worshiping the deity of strength) is however, not just a ritual. It is now a festival – so grand, so spectacular, arousing such interest worldwide, that’s ‘why you must travel to Kolkata in October, at least once in a lifetime, ”–merits to be written about.

The most common representation (form of the idol):A female deity with thick, long flowing hair –strikingly beautiful in her rage, riding a lion. With ten outstretched arms, she is holding war weapons;slaying a demon with a glistening trident.

THE PLACE OF WORSHIP:A large tent, known as a Pandal, is converted into a make- believe setting. It could be an ancient, mystical temple, a grand palace in Rajasthan, someplace in Kashmir or the Vivekanda rock in Kanyakumari. It could even be an international setting like the Dragon Festival in Spain, the Disneyworld in Florida or a Football Stadium in Johannesburg. Creativity has no limits when it comes to themes for the Durga Puja in Kolkata. Pandals may easily be mistaken for permanent structures – such is the quality of their build and intricacy of the craftsmanship.

THE SETTING: Somewhere in the background, a voice trembling with emotion is chanting a prayer in reverence (Chandipath) . A chorus of drums (Dhakis) is building a crescendo. There is a whiff of flowers and incense. You are right there but really in a spiritual realm – transcendental; difficult to explain.

THE SURROUNDING: While inside the pandal, you may be literally transported to a bygone era, witnessing the battle unfolding in front of your very own eyes, right outside of it, is a carnival of sorts. Every lane, every alley seems to be hosting one. Almost each one of them merits a visit. There is an abundance of art, complete with detailing all around you. The city itself, is an exhibition of lights. The resonance of laughter & music along with a visual treat of colours and glitter will soak you up.
Surrounding the pandals, are makeshift fairs, giant wheels, food stalls, little games or even a separate stage for cultural performances. The autumnal breeze and the tantalising aroma of delicious food wafting through the air make you feel you could as well be in Heaven.

THE MYTH BEHIND THE PUJA & THE ASSOCIATED RITUALS: The artists’imagination is fuelled by three myths about the Puja.Each is an elaborate story, complete with Gods,demons,fantastical creatures, battles but ultimately, they are stories of triumph of good over Evil. The stories are unique in that they recognise the Ultimate Source of Power as feminine.

The first introduces a demon, Mahishahur, who, blessed by Lord Brahma, could not be destroyed by any man or deity. The knowledge of this power made him fight the Gods and try and establish reign over Heaven. In order to stop him, all Gods combined forces to build a feminine source of power and bestowed upon Her, their strengths in the form of weapons. Mahishashur, who was initially amused at the prospect of a woman killing him, kept changing forms to trick Durga. He finally attacked in the guise of a Buffalo, She recognised him, and after a fierce battle that raged for almost fifty minutes, killed him. The Idol that is worshipped today mostly depicts this scene. These forty eight minutes, to be precise, known as the Sandhikkhan have a special place in the rituals.

Many centuries later, in the Hindu Epic Ramayana, Lord Ram was to fight an equally powerful demon by the name Raavana in order to save his wife Sita from his clutches. It is believed that he had invoked Goddess Durga to seek Her blessings so that She would descend upon earth to help him win the fierce battle. She had obliged and once again helped Good to triumph. Invoking her at an untimely Autumnal season (the Pujas initially happened in Spring) required extreme dedication and sacrifice on Ram’s part. He had presented the Goddess with a range of offerings in order to please her and as per some ancient scriptures had even agreed to ‘sacrifice’ an eye. A great deal of the Puja rituals today, tries to emulate the same – by lining up offerings. In some places, even sacrifices are common. Goats and Buffaloes were reportedly killed in the past. Today, thankfully, due to large scale protests, pumpkins, bananas and sugarcane have replaced animals.

THE DISPLAY OF TALENT: The Lighting experts of Chandannagar decorate the city into an unbelievable pageant of lights. Whether it is on a canvas by the side of a large water body reflecting itself, or life sized statuettes flanking the main roads; an array of lights mounted on wires, build images of characters in motion. Dhakis from Malda and Midnapore travel to perform in sync with the daily aratis. Large Pujas see women and men participating in a special dance form holding a dhunuchi. Dhakis provide the main accompaniment, infusing energy into the performers, leading them to a frenzied trance of sorts. It is a presentation not to be missed.
Idol making is the next noteworthy talent. Although most of it happens with clay and bamboo, in the recent years, some experiments have been recently conducted with other ingredients. For example, a 16 tonne monolith was transported from Jodhpur by a well known artist who carved out a Durga Idol of it and received many accolades. However such experiments are few and far between, given that the tradition of making the clay idols in a potter’s town called Kumartoli dates back three centuries. Kumartoli, otherwise a no descript place, just before the Pujas, beams with energy and activity. Within the lanes of the small area, a breathtaking exhibition unfolds itself. Small establishments housing hundreds of idols, soon to be transported to the city are given their finishing touches. You can capture glimpses of artists embellishing the Idol, draping a saree around her and most importantly draw the eyes – an event literally called bestowing vision – The ‘chokkhudan’. This completely fascinating experience is a must have for all those who enjoy art in any form.

THE HISTORY OF THE PUJAS: While many homes in Bengal used to celebrate the Puja in a modest way till 1757, that year has gone down in history for the first ever grand Durga Puja. Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur of the Sovabazar Rajbari organised a spectacular celebration which was attended by Robert Clive and General Hastings. This grand affair was termed by some as ‘Company Pujo’ as it coincided with the fateful Battle of Plassey which established the British East India Company’s rule over Bengal. Although there has been a major debate around the purpose of this puja, what can be said with certainty is that it was the first large scale one. This changed completely, the way the festivities were held. The grandeur since then has only increased and Kolkata Pujas today are estimated to be a 25,000 crore affair.

THE HISTORY OF THE PUJAS: While many homes in Bengal used to celebrate the Puja in a modest way till 1757, that year has gone down in history for the first ever grand Durga Puja. Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur of the Sovabazar Rajbari organised a spectacular celebration which was attended by Robert Clive and General Hastings. This grand affair was termed by some as ‘Company Pujo’ as it coincided with the fateful Battle of Plassey which established the British East India Company’s rule over Bengal. Although there has been a major debate around the purpose of this puja, what can be said with certainty is that it was the first large scale one. This changed completely, the way the festivities were held. The grandeur since then has only increased and Kolkata Pujas today are estimated to be a 25,000 crore affair.

THE CURRENT DAY SENERIO: Maharajas and Zamindars of the past have been replaced by regular officer goers, students and homemakers. Everyone however, assumes a ‘position’ in the Puja Committee set up especially to organise the local festivities. Being a Puja Committee member is assuming serious business – funds need to be collected from all participants and brand advertisers, the pandal craftsmen need to be brought on board early, idol makers need to be commissioned and caterers need to be booked. Personal attention to detailing and great team work is required for this purpose. A little squabble over ideas, a small disagreement or even a mini duel are all reconciled with a drink or two in the evening or over samosa and chai. People get competitive amongst committees and vie for awards sponsored by corporate groups.

Not only is it an excuse to get together, to parade around in your dapper best and to prospect the other gender, Durga Puja in Kolkata is a chance to showcase serious talent –be it by lighting experts, dhakis, idol makers, or notable Pandal artists. Not only do Kolkatans, especially Bengalis, travel from all across the world to be a part of this splendour, artists travel from all corners as well.

PANDAL SHOPPING– what and how:As a pandal hopper, you are in for a complete visual treat. Watching the myriad themes of the festival will take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions simply by the sheer variety of artistic interpretations. Awe now, bewilderment next, sudden excitement, sombreness soon after. One moment you could be looking at an anti human cloning campaign and ten minutes later you would be staring at superhuman creatures hanging in the mid air. From anti rape to 100 years of India cinema the plethora of ideas have fascinated tourists and artists all over the world. You could be in any part of the city, either at the prominent places or in the alleys, you would continue to get amazed. Pandals are known to have been using rural art in India. Handicrafts such as cane baskets, cloth dolls, mat work, and bamboo-work have been used over the years to create pandal themes. Lately, innovative articles like buttons, ceramic tiles, vases, bottles have left the spectators amazed. I was very excited to know that recently, West Bengal has collaborated with cross border neighbours by inviting Bangladeshi and Pakistani artists. Alliance Francaise du Bengale has brought about French collaboration as well. The artists have notably commented on how great it is to see the openness of Indians in embracing themes. Interestingly, these collaborations were brought about because of previous visits by people of different nationalities, aided by travel enthusiast groups. Gazing at pandals can be an all night, never ceasing activity.

Your feet will tire but your eyes will still be hungry and the immediate strength you will be praying for will be the stamina to keep walking, not wanting to miss any action at all. Air conditioned buses organised by the West Bengal Tourism Department, city tours by the Taxi Association, barges on the river Ganges, hired cars and any other transport you can think of, will lead to make-believe heavenly abodes.

A little bit more participation by the West Bengal Government, ease in transportation and families offering home stay like in some other countries will go a long way to invite and collaborate with many more guests in future.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: Talking about treats, Kolkata is known for its exceptionally sumptuous street food. The variety of food stalls that mushroom during Pujas promise a treat to every foodie. Indulge in road side phuchkas, kochuri aloo, luchi and kosha mangsho, mishiti doi and innumerable other delicacies. If you are at the Pandal, offering prayers to the Goddess, you will be treated to a delicious bhog – food cooked for the Goddess, which is a combination Khichuri, labra and Payesh, guaranteed to make you indulge your taste buds in a manner you would reminisce for long. Many temples and housing societies sponsor free food to the under privileged and street children during this time and you are most welcome to contribute to this fulfilling gesture.

Like all good things must come to end, so does Durga Puja but not with a heavy heart. Bengali women, dressed in traditional beige and red sarees come to bid the Goddess fairwell and instead of an air of melancholy what sets in is the mood for another mini festival – the Sindoorkhela. Women splay vermillion on the Goddess’ forehead and do the same to each other adding a dash on the cheeks, a splash on the wrists. It is fun to watch how each one reciprocates and suddenly a group of beautiful women start looking even more beautiful with Sindoor all over their faces and hands and the air fills with giggles and mirth.

It is a pity that all those beautifully sculpted pandals are brought down and it is time for Visarajan. Since Idol worship invokes the Goddess in a form, the deity is requested to depart. The form then, is immersed in Holy water. Families get together again and walk up to the ghats where people stand and simply watch, or give a hand to hold the large idols so that they maybe gently immersed in water.

Whether you have family or friends in Kolkata or are just visiting, the boisterous spirit of the festival will charm you. The spirituality behind the revelry will strike a chord deep within.

“If you visit once, like Durga in the legend, you may want to come back every year, not only to celebrate but to pray and replenish your energies within.”

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Kazi Ali
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7 Comments

  1. Nasima Begum

    A Very good post for the non bongs like me .. I will surely visit Kolkata this October to have fun. Thankyou

  2. Jahid Kazi

    Puja is a tradition of Bengali, not only Bengali also for Indian. In this post u covered all the enjoyments and tradition of Bengali. Good enough for all Bengali or Non-bengali to know about the Puja in Kolkata. Welldone dude.

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