If you want to experience everything that identifies the Bengali culture and personality, you must experience Durga Puja (worshipping of Goddess Durga) in Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta). Just because I mentioned the word “worshipping,” don’t assume this is an overtly religious festival! The religious part is more of an excuse for the mega carnival. Happiness fills the heart of the people of West Bengal as they patiently await the arrival of Durga Puja, with enthusiasm and excitement, thinking about all the fun they would have and how much they would enjoy the happy days of Durga Puja.
We started celebrating Durga Puja in our ancestral house 8 years ago with pomp and galore. This was my first visit to my ancestral home for the Puja celebration; we usually visited every year in Diwali. I made it a point to visit the Pandals on the day of Chaturthi, Panchami and Shashti as the crowd would be less (recommended by my cousins). They told me if you truly want to experience Durga Puja , go on foot and go early(preferably morning), as in the night the crowds go crazy. My cousins have stopped visiting the pandals ages ago as the number of people has grown in number and it would take a long waiting in the queue for your turn and it would take hours. Still, even if you have visited all the major pandals it would not be enough in ten days. It would roughly take you a month to fnish all the pandal hopping. Such is the beauty and competitive spirit.
So on Chaturthi I set out with my mother and aunt to see some of the Pandals at Ultadanga, KarBagan, Salt Lake and Dum Dum Park. While some pandals were aesthetically crafted with customary Bengal motifs and designs, many were innovatively inspired from current happenings around the world. It wasn’t surprising for me to note new themes almost every year. I was told that each one of these was endorsed by a core committee of Bengalis who worked for months to make the pandal as impressive as possible.
On the day of Panchami, we welcomed the Goddess in our house with celebration and music on the beats of Dhak. The priest performed Puja and welcomed the idol, and we were in for some delicious mishti. But the main Puja would start on Saptami as guest would start pouring in. On Panchami evening, me and my dad went to see the much advertised and publicised 88 Feet Goddess at Deshapriya Park. The traffic was crazy, it took us good 2 hours to reach Deshapriya Park and upon arrival we were in treat for a wild crowd. With much hustle and bustle we made it to the park. Made out of fiberglass, the Durga idol was created by over 40 artistes under the guidance of the well-known sculptor Mintu Pal, who had created a 62-feet tall idol for the FD Block pandal. Having earned a place in the Limca Book of Records and the organizers have written to the Guinness Book of World Records to list it as the World’s tallest Durga idol. The idol has been created in association with Star Cement.
Attracting hundreds and thousands of people every day, the unprecedented crowd led to a stampede, which resulted in the police shutting down viewing of the idol with a cloth covering its face. So if you do get to visit it, do please take care of yourself. Thus the park was closed for the rest of Durga Puja as reported by the local news tv channel. Phew, I consider myself lucky to have seen the Pandal and survived.
On Shasthi, we performed the Kola Bou Snan, it’s a young banana tree draped in saree and all the ladies of the house applies vermillion to it. It is a plant-form of Shakti. In afternoon we started yet again for pandal hopping, the crowd was double in number and police did a not-sucha-good job of closing all the main roads and thus all lanes were one way, with no place for parking. We were reduced to walking on our foot. But all that was okay when we reached the pandal safely at College Square. In playgrounds, traffic circles, ponds, wherever space may be available, elaborate structures called pandals ‘are set up, many with nearly a year’s worth of planning behind them. Wherever i went, I could see pandals mushrooming up. Word of advice, always take a driver who knows the way around Kolkata, and nooks and crannies. That day we also went to see some of our local Puja at Birati. Yes, thats the place where I stay. One is called the Siddheshwari Bazaar Kali Temple Puja and other one is the Kalyan-ner Puja.
As the day dawned on Saptami, fun and festivity start off with everybody dressed in new clothes and Pujo began and early as 7 o clock. Followed by Anjoli and breakfast. Guests started pouring in the afternoon for a sumptuous Bhog. In the evening our little terrace pandal and the house building was lit up. On MahaAsthami, everyone was eager to give Anjoli after a fast. The Sandhi Puja was performed and we lighted about 100 diyas and everyone retired for an afternoon siesta after a heavy bhog. In the evening as the tradition goes, we organised quiz competition and played lotto. Anjoli, Bhog and evening activities are a part of our tradition. Guests praised our feast and our cook, as she shared recipe after recipe. As the day of Navami came, my relatives grew sad as the Puja was nearing end. But when the last day of the festival arrives-Bijoya Doshomi, everyone’s heart was filled with sadness. They now have to bid farewell to Goddess Durga as she returns back. On that day the idol is taken for immersion in a procession amid loud chants of ‘Bolo Durga mai-ki jai’ (glory be to Mother Durga’) and ‘Aashchhe bochhor abar hobe’ (‘it will happen again next year’) along with drumbeats and a merry dance to the river or water body where the idol is cast in the water symbolizing the departure of the deity to her home with her husband in the Himalayas. After this, in a tradition called Bijoya Doshomi, families visit each other and sweetmeats are offered to visitors. Doshomi means the ‘tenth day’ and bijoy means ‘victory’. Although this last day signifies the end of the festival, but all the happiness shared and experienced during these six special days remain glowing in people’s minds like glittering jewels whose shine will never fade. The people eagerly wait for the next Durga Puja which will again arrive the following year… doesn’t really matter if we have to wait for another 365 days.