Durga Puja: The Ultimate Bengali Experience
This is a guest post from Arnab of Travel Andy.
Durga Puja: Calcutta’s Carnival
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.
Debipaksha (fortnight of the goddess) begins with Mahalaya, seven days before the actual festival begins. On this day, every Bengali worth his rice and fish curry wakes up at 4am to tune in to All India Radio (it’s about the only time they listen to All India Radio) and listen to a programme called Mahisashurmardini (Vanquisher of the Buffalo Demon). This gets everyone in Puja mode.
From then on, Puja organisers run around day and night to finish readying the pandals (marquees inside which the Durga idols are placed) before Shoptomi, the seventh day of the fortnight when the festival officially begins. People finish their last-minute shopping because no one wants to be in old clothes during Durga Puja! And students wait for their holidays to begin.
Here are seven things you should do if you’re in Kolkata during Durga Puja.
1. Get someone to tell you the Durga legend: When the Buffalo Demon took control of the earth and heaven, none of the gods could defeat him alone. That’s when they pooled their powers and created Durga. The goddess had ten hands in which she held various weapons offered by different gods. Riding a lion, she went to the demon’s lair, and after a nine-day fight, she defeated him but spared his life.
Durga Puja is a celebration of the victory of good over evil and of all things good. This is the occasion on which the goddess, along with her sons and daughters, pays a visit to earth, where her parents live.
2. Go pandal-hopping: A must do! Each Puja organiser sets up a pandal. Inside the gorgeous pandal, there is an idol of Durga (made of clay), which depicts her defeating the Buffalo Demon. On her side are her two sons and two daughters. Unless you see it, you cannot imagine the number of ways in which the pandals and the idols are presented.
Themes are common with various big organisers. This is a Hindu festival, but don’t be surprised if you see a pandal shaped like the Titanic, Hogwarts or even Saddam Hussein! Some of these take months to build. In 2013, there was one shaped like a super huge sitting camel. The idols were seated in the balcony of a Rajasthani building inside the camel!
Get a car and go around the city through the night (you will not be able to see the awesome lightings during the day), stopping at different pujas. Some of the bigger ones are really crowded, and it could take you more than an hour to get inside the pandal.
3. Gorge on street food: Kolkata is known for its peoples’ love for street food. Thousands of kiosks selling a variety of fast (and otherwise) food are set up all over the place during the festival. Try out whatever looks good! It’s probably yummy. It’s advisable to avoid restaurants during the four days because there’s usually a long queue, and you could have to wait for two hours or more before you get a table. Eat on the street!
4. Wear new clothes: No one likes to go out in old clothes during Durga Puja. If you don’t have ones that look new, buy some! You’ll find plenty of budget options.
5. Experience Maddox Square: While some Pujas are known for their elaborate pandals, some others are famous for their carnival nature. The pandal and idol in Kolkata’s Maddox Square (actually a park) is pretty regular, but thousands of young people from near and far get into this park where some event (band performances, TV shows broadcasting live, etc) or the other is going on all the time. It’s also a place where you are very likely to meet at least one person you know.
6. Go out of Kolkata for a day: Go to the suburbs, and possibly a village, and see how they go about Durga Puja. Though the festivities there are not as grand as in the city, the involvement of the community is more in depth. Elocution and drawing competitions involving local kids and song and dance performances by local people are common. Check out some pujas that are organised by individual households. Some of these pujas have been going on for hundreds of years, and each has its unique story. Some of these households may even invite you to join them for lunch, if you’re around at that time.
7. Watch the immersion: Go to one of the immersion sites by the Hooghly river, which flows by Kolkata on the west, and witness hundreds of idols being immersed in the water at the end of the four-day event.
The festival days pass in a blur and the countdown for the next year begins right then.
Arnab Nandy, aka Andy, is from Calcutta, India. He runs the travel blog Travel Andy, which focuses on budget travel. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.