There are hundreds, possibly thousands of religious and non-religious festivals around the world. But rarely will you find something that measure up to the Durga Puja, particularly in Kolkata in India. The entire city is magically transformed on the occasion. There are small and big community pujas everywhere. Many homes too have their own family pujas.
Kolkata is a city of 4,486,679 people if you consider the larger metropolitan area according to the last census. It is the third most populous city in India, and the seventh in the world. The Durga puja or Durgotsava, as it is often known as, is one occasion when everybody comes together to enjoy the festive spirit, irrespective of the caste and religion, or economic background. Yes, even people from other religions are seen pandal hopping. Add to that the thousands of people who come to the city from the villages and neighboring areas, and what you have is a massive occasion. Nobody wants to miss this.
It’s the community participation and mass-scale that makes it different than any other festival in the world. Sure enough there is the Carnival in Rio, Songkran in Thailand, St Patrick’s Day in Christian communities, and even the Chinese New Year festivals, Mardi Gras of New Orleans, and other large festivals elsewhere, but once you have seen the Durga puja in Kolkata, you’ll understand why it is so much different than anything else anywhere.
What is the Durga Puja?
In Hinduism, Mother or Devi Durga represents shakti or the divine force that governs all cosmic creation, existence itself and change. Durga puja is the annual festival that celebrates Devi Durga’s destruction of the evil force Mahishasura. It is said that Durga came from the collective energies of all the gods including Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. It was necessary for the gods to come together to unite their forces because they were unable to destroy Mahishasura individually.
But Durga is not just about brutal force or shakti. She is actually seen as the compassionate power, as the savior of all humanity. Durga is also the mother of Kartikeya and Lord Ganesh. She is the form of Shiva’s wife, Parvati. She stays with Shiva in Kailash, and visits her disciples once every year during the Durga Puja. The Bengalis see this as the married daughter’s return to her home, and once the festival is over, it’s the married daughter’s return to her “sasural”. So they bid her farewell for a year with tears. Bengalis, and now, people from non-bangali communities too, make her travel arrangements, while requesting her to come back again the next year with loud cheers (asche bochor abar hobe – she will be back again the next year).
In this, Durga comes down from her high podium and becomes one with the masses. She is not the God anymore, or all the all-powerful cosmic force, but an ordinary girl, a mother, wife and daughter, who has to stay with her husband and can visit her people too infrequently.
This is one aspect that makes this festival so much different than anything else. Rarely will you find any religious event, if any, where the God becomes an ordinary mortal person, so much like us.
Days of the Durga Puja in Kolkata
The festival is held over ten days, though the actual number of puja days is just four or five. These days are marked as sasthi (6th), saptami (7th), asthami (8th) and so on. It starts with the Mahalaya or the day when the Devi leaves her home in Kailash to visit her disciples. The Mahisasuramardini song (Ya chandi, madhu kaidabhaadi daithya dalani, Ya mahishishonmoolini…) is played at dawn. This is supposed to be the time when Durga starts her journey. People in the city would also go to the river (Ganges or Hoogly) and offer prayers to their ancestors on this day.
The actual puja starts from the sasthi or the sixth day. There are separate pujas on each day sasthi (6th), saptami (7th), asthami (8th) and nabami (9th), with the asthami puja being the biggest one. Devotees would all visit the pandal to offer their prayers on this big day. They would pray with flowers (pushpanjali) and ask the Goddess for good fortune and health. The pushpanjali mantra goes like this – Om Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalini. Durga, Shiba, Kshama, Dhatri, Swaha, Swadha Namahstu Te.
There is the smell of incense sticks everywhere. There is also the rhythmic beating of the dhak, a musical instrument, and women chanting “ululu”, which is believed to be very auspicious. Incidentally, ululu is repeated again and again during Bengali marriages too as it is auspicious. After the puja for the day is over, the priest and organizers would distribute prasad among the devotees.
The tenth day (bijaya dashami) is the saddest day of the Durga puja, as Devi Durga has to return to her home in Kailash. She will go back with her sons Ganesh and Kartik, daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati, and friends Bijoya and Jaya. But before that, there is the traditional sindur khela (vermilion). Married women from the Bengali community would smear each other with sindur and pray for a long and happy married life. They would also offer sweets to the Goddess.
Puja organizers would then take the idols and immerse them in a water body (the river, a lake or even small ponds across the city, depending on the size). There are huge processions for large community pujas and a lot of music. City bands are invited to play popular songs and tunes.
From the evening of dashami, and for the next few days, people in the city, would touch the feet of elders to seek their blessings. This is also the time of the year when they would visit their families and friends to seek blessings. It’s the one time of the year when everybody is sad because Durga has returned, but they are still remembering the good times they had during the festival days.
Themed Pandals and Idols- the Center Points of Durga Puja in Kolkata
Planning for the puja starts months before the actual event. In recent times, themed pandals and idols have become very popular in Kolkata, though some puja communities opt to stay traditional, and they are a big draw too. Local puja committees would meet to decide the theme of the year. The theme could be anything – an old zamindar house, a temple, a pandal made from bamboo or rice or sticks and such other things, the recreation of an entire village with bullock carts and palki, theme from a popular movie or book, and everything else you can think of. Sometimes such pandals are very artistic as well, and it is such a waste to see it all taken out once the festival is over. Of course the idol is selected to go with the pandal theme. Organizers would then visit artisans for custom making the idols.
Students from art schools are engaged for designing the pandals and idols. They are guided by their teachers. It’s a nice opportunity for them to showcase their creativity. Sometimes there are controversies too. One year, a puja in Kolkata recreated an entire Harry Potter movie. JK Rowling, the author, came to know about this, and said that it was a copyright infringement, until she was personally invited by the organizers to see it all herself. Rowling came and was very much impressed with everything. Not only did she love the Durga puja, but she even personally complemented the organizers for everything.
Another year, a puja committee recreated the Titanic set after the movie release. That year it rained a lot during the puja and there was water all around the pandal, which was a lookalike of the ship. It seemed for a while that all this water logging would bring the pandal or the ship down.
Most famous artisans all live in a small area of the city known as Kumartuli. They create the idols of not just Devi Durga, but all Hindu gods and goddesses. People from the Pal family are the most respected ones of them all for their exceptional skills. The idols they make are costly, but they are in great demand. Many of their idols travel the world as well, as organizers from Canada, the US and UK, Australia and elsewhere place their demands months in advance.
Durga Puja Shopping in Kolkata- A Grand Affair!
Everyone wants to wear new clothes during the pujas, and so shopping is a major event just before the festival. It’s not just about new clothes, they would get new shoes as well. And most people would get new clothes for each day of the pujas too. So Bengalis, and non-bengalis too would get at least three to four sets, but they would be happy with just a single pair of new shoes. Families would go out together and visit malls, bazaars and shops for buying them. The stores will often redesign their interiors and windows to attract the attention of Durga puja shoppers. There are special stock clearance sales just before the festival for those who want to buy at special discounted prices and save money.
Evenings of Durga Puja in Kolkata
The evenings of the puja days are times for cultural events. Almost every community puja will organize separate cultural events that include dramas or plays, music concerts, dance performances, magic shows for kids, and a lot more. Often participants are from the local community itself. It’s a great opportunity for the locals to show off their talents. But a lot of the committees are now inviting guest bands and celebrity performers from Mumbai and other places as well. These are naturally huge draws. Money is not a problem because many committees are extremely cash rich anyway as they are funded by large corporate houses and also through donations collected from the local community.
Not to forget, evenings in Kolkata during Durga Puja are also about dressed up crowds moving like waves of sea! Traffic police have a huge role to play during these puja days and to their credit, they manage it so well though they themselves sacrifice their Puja days to make the people of Kolkata happy! You can see huge queues too outside some pandals and you may well be assured that either the Durga Idol or the themed pandal, or even both, here are something to see! These artistic pandals get popular through word of mouth and may even win the Pandal decoration competitions declared by many organizations.
What is Durga Puja in Kolkata like!
Themed Pandals, Huge artistic idols of Maa Durga and her companion gods and goddess, huge crowds all over- in markets, in pandals, on roads, long queues in front of the year’s most popular pandals that sometimes become as long as few kilometers on road, happy children, dressed up men, women, old, youngsters all excited to offer ‘Anjali’- the morning Puja, eating the famous Bengali sweets, new clothes, evening aratis with the exclusive ‘Dhunochi’ dance, sounds of ‘Dhak’, sound of mantra chanting from all corners of the Kolkata city, street foods and even the packed restaurants and hotels, late night visits to Durga Pandals that sometimes last for the whole night, excitement mixed tiredness and that unique joy of ‘Pujo in Kolkata’!
Howsoever one tries to recreate the magic of Durga Puja in Calcutta (yes some people love to still call the city Calcutta and not by its new name Kolkata),it can never be tied down in words! The Durga Puja in Kolkata! Yes! One has to be there to feel it!
If you are still not convinced about visiting Kolkata during Durga Puja, know some more amazing facts about Durga Puja in Kolkata