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Durga Puja: Soak in an immersive experience in Kolkata

A durga puja pandal in Kolkata   | Photo Credit: KR Deepak

If you are one of those who doesn’t mind walking an extra mile for the best kathi roll, or can sleep like a child with the dhak sounding next to your ear — in short, be a Calcuttan for a few days — pack your bags and head to the City of Joy for an immersive experience that Durga Puja truly is.

The idol of Goddess Durga being carried on boats on River Ganges after having been bought from Kumartuli

The idol of Goddess Durga being carried on boats on River Ganges after having been bought from Kumartuli   | Photo Credit: PARTH SANYAL / PS

“It’s a total assault on your senses,” I was warned. But after several autumns spent to the beat of the dhak mixed with the cacophony of traffic, I realised Kolkata’s Durga Puja is much more than just worshipping the Goddess. It’s a celebration of life, and art.

“From being a community affair of the Bengalis, Durga Puja has become perhaps one of the biggest tourism events in the world,” says Raj Basu, founder-director of Help Tourism. “Approximately two lakh tourists arrive in Kolkata just to experience Durga Pujas every year,” he adds. This figure does not include visitors staying with relatives in the city. From this year, tourists holding foreign passports will be given special guest passes by the Government so that they can skip long queues while hopping pandals.

Hop or skip

Pandal hopping is at the core of the Durga Puja experience. Puja pandals are the nerve centres of the festival. It is here that humanity converges, in their new “puja clothes and shoes”, to seek the blessings of Goddess Durga. Every year thousands of artisans and craftsmen work round the clock to put together around 2,000 big and small pandals in the city, making it the greatest street-art festival on the planet.

Festive fervour: Scenes from pandals across Kolkata

Festive fervour: Scenes from pandals across Kolkata   | Photo Credit: PTI

I once spent a Saptami (the seventh day of Navaratri) morning on board a ferry, on a tour organised by West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation. You could offer anjali (an offering of flowers) to the Goddess while cruising, far from the madding crowd, on the Hooghly, and are brought back to land after a sumptuous Bengali meal and a traditional programme.

For crowd-shy people these tours may be a good consolation. It’s all right to dislike large gatherings and do your own thing — shopping, reading or meeting people. Celebration is in the air and it will catch you wherever you are. But for the “real feel”, don’t skip the hopping. Or you can book a walking tour offered by private companies such as Calcutta Walks or Heritage Walk Calcutta.

Pick and choose

It is important to plan in advance. Since it is not humanly possible to check out every pandal, the ideal thing is to pick a few and spread them over three-four days, exploring one part of the city on each day. It’s best always to savour the tradition of the North and creativity of the South separately.

Traditional drummers perform at a Durga Puja in Kolkata

Traditional drummers perform at a Durga Puja in Kolkata   | Photo Credit: PTI

Saptami (seventh), Ashtami (eighth) and Navami (ninth) evenings see the most crowds with queues stretching to kilometres at the award-winning pandals. However, nowadays they open to visitors from Sashthi (sixth day of the festivities) or even (the fifth day) or Chaturthi (fourth day). It is a good idea to hit the streets on these days when the crowds are less; it’s also interesting to watch the final touches being applied to the Goddess and the set-up.

Or, if you only have the last four days — public holidays — in hand, the sole way to avoid the evening crowd is by making use of the daylight, though you miss out on the grand lighting that comes alive once the sun goes down. “I prefer to do the pandal hopping during the day. In the evening, I like to enjoy the ambience from the balcony with a kathi roll or a plate of biryani in hand,” says Rajdeep Chakraborti, a Madrid-based researcher in financial studies, who is a “pandal hopping veteran”, having done it in Kolkata over a dozen times.

Pandals are a good place to know what Kolkata is thinking about, or protesting against. The issue of the controversial National Register of Citizens that has threatened the citizenship of lakhs of people in Assam is a theme at Haridevpur New Sporting Club this year. While Behala’s Barabagan Cultural Association is portraying the marginalisation of sexual minorities, Shibmandir Puja Committee is focussing on the loneliness of the elderly.

Culture cauldron

Mudiali Club, with one of the best-known pujas is showcasing mainly two traditional Bengali crafts, the dhokra and patachitra scroll-painting. “For our 84th puja celebrations this year, we have decided to use Bengal’s folk art,” said Manoj Sahu, a puja committee member.

A pandal replicating ''White Temple'' of Thailand ahead of the Durga Puja festival at Deshapriya Park in Kolkata

A pandal replicating ''White Temple'' of Thailand ahead of the Durga Puja festival at Deshapriya Park in Kolkata   | Photo Credit: KR DEEPAK

Ekdalia Evergreen Club, promises to showcase Goddess Durga in her traditional finery, something which the club is famous for. “Our Goddess will be decked up in original Benarasi,” said Pratap Mukherjee, joint general secretary of the puja committee. “The pandal will be a fibreglass replica of the Brihadeshvara temple in Tanjore.”

Pujas organised by Kolkata’s bonedi families—the erstwhile landlords—in their private palatial residences offer a glimpse of the city’s rich heritage. The more-than-two-centuries-old pujas at Shobhabazar’s Rajbari and Rani Rashmoni’s residence near Esplanade are the best-known.

And what is a Kolkata experience without a good adda? Head to the Maddox Square lawns and watch people; eat jhaalmuri, and chat about just anything under the sun.

Food

Eating at restaurants may be a painful affair because of the long queues: the whole of Kolkata is eating out on puja days. If you do get lucky, a traditional Bengali meal at 6 Ballygunge Place or Kewpie’s is rewarding.

“While pandal hopping, eat light, like kochuri, mishti and doi, and keep walking,” advises Chakraborti. Kolkata’s street food scene comes alive during this time with makeshift eateries coming up in every conceivable open space. The surroundings of puja pandals even end up looking like a food court offering everything from Chinese to Mughlai, both of which are must-haves from the festive food menu. Chakraborti “highly recommends” Campari roll in front of Singhi Park and the green mango lassi at Paramount on College Square.

Do not miss the Puja bhog — an offering of khichuri (made of rice, pulses and spices) and mixed vegetables, at the pandals.

Farewell

Dashami or the 10th day, signals the end of the much awaited celebrations.

In the evening, find yourself a vantage spot at Babughat and watch idols being immersed in the Hooghly. The best way to watch bisarjan (immersion) is from the river itself, so booking a boat tour (₹700 per head) with the WBTDC is a good idea. Or get to the Red Road to watch the Durga idols being taken in a procession to the ghat for bisarjan, as revellers chant slogans of “Aasche bochor abar hobe!” (It’ll happen again next year!)

Tracing celebrations

“The first recorded large scale Durga Puja celebrations in Bengal took place in the 16th Century in a few houses of zamindars,” says Tathagata Neogi, co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta. Among the oldest surviving ones is the Guptipara puja in Hoogly District, the origins of which date back to 1583, he says.

It is also interesting to note that during the National Movement, Durga was often seen as a representation of Mother India and the puja signified the defeat of the evil (British colonial power) in the hands of the good. That is when it became immensely popular in Bengal, especially in Kolkata and assumed a more secular character, adds Neogi.

There’s never a dull moment with musical programmes, drama, quiz competitions, sometimes a fashion parade, cooking and art competitions being added to the celebrations. Around the mid-1980s, to add a touch of excitement, competitions started taking place, awarding prizes to the best themed pandal. The tradition still continues.

The regular contenders for the top honours every year include puja pandals in Sreebhoomi and Lohapatti in North Calcutta and a bunch in the South including Ekdalia, Tridhara, Ballygunje Cultural, Suruchi Sangha among others.

(With inputs by Priyadarshini Paitandy)


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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 11:25:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/the-goddess-of-good-times/article25179072.ece

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