The azure sky, white clouds, quivering kashful, fragrance of the shiuli and the phenomenal Mahishashurmardini… In the week to come, no matter how humdrum the flow of life in your sheltered nook is – this fresh gush of emotion and nostalgia is bound to overwhelm you.
It’s Durga Puja — it’s time to drift away from stolid melancholy to the grand fiesta. The recollection begins — from over the aegis of the divine to the cantankerous outbursts at the puja pandals for sublime adda, music and friendly epithets.
In Kolkata, Durga Puja induces a city-wide standstill followed by days of gift-giving and eating and pandal hopping, or tours of neighbourhood pujas. The wave of excitement is unlimited, rolling over like the tide coming in to an archipelago.
And who can forget the adda (friendly gatherings) in this whole paraphernalia.
Plugging all emotions in his heart, the fanatic Bengali treads upon to unravel a world of his own during these five days. From shopping to pandal hopping, from pujor kaaj (helping out with the rituals of Durga Puja) to adda; he lives his life to the brim in these few days, storing up all the exuberance for another long, full year.
Though there are pujas happening in every nook and corner of the city at this time of the year, there are still a few specific places or pandals that still hog the limelight where people from all age groups pour in to enjoy the heavenly adda.
The whole ambience, the unchallenged extravaganza and the mammoth celebration fervour add up to everything, soaking up everyone in layers of festive spirit.
Some puja pandals in Kolkata still comprise the meeting point of friends and lovers. Friends and classmates who have been separated for years to earn a livelihood of their own in a faraway land, regroup during the Durga Puja.
Or those middle-aged kakus and kakimas (uncles and aunts) who went to England long back and settled there arrive amid much fanfare with gifts and wishes for one and all also meet up with their friends who have equally kept busy in their rigorous ways of life. And for many, it is a must trip to Kolkata during Durga Puja.
These men and women, with their emotional outbursts and unmatched excitement venture out of their struggle to take shelter in the protected confines of their land and community during this time of the year.
Amid peals of laughter and squeals of giggles, they go on and on for hours discussing life, cinema, politics and of course food! And many, year after year, congregate at particular puja pandals.
Maddox Square, College Square, Bagbazar Sarbojonin, Ballygunge Place Durgabari, Salt Lake’s FD Block, Labony and Vidyasagar are just a few names among them.
“Yes, our puja is a major attraction,” says Ranajit Chakraborty, one of the organisers. “It is because there is a lot of space around the pandal. There are no barricades and other restrictions. It is a huge open area where people from all walks of life come and join the festivities.”
Elaborating on the idol, Chakraborty says Maddox Square’s puja, which is celebrating its 81st year, is a traditional one with one single chalchitra (backdrop). “The Durga idol wears golden ornaments and is more than 30 feet from the ground.
After setting up the chalchitra, it is seven to eight feet more. Artist Karun Pal has been doing it for years now. Earlier, his ancestors used to be associated with us.
We do not believe in themes but we believe in observing the Durga Puja through rituals. One of our major attractions is the massive chandelier and other elaborate light decorations. Interestingly, we are one of the highest electricity payees in Kolkata during this time of the year.”
Another grand attraction for the middle-aged Bengalis is Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee’s very own puja at Bhowanipur 75 Palli Sarbojanin Durgotsav.
She has been inaugurating it for the past 18 years and it has always been a meeting point for those who have been away in faraway lands for years now.
Being one of the oldest localities in South Kolkata, it draws huge crowds these five days of the year with their themes and lighting. The organisers of Bhowanipur 75 Palli have set up Aarshinagar or a ‘City of Mirrors’ where devotees will get to see a huge 45-feet elephant created with cane and paper pulp along with decorative mirror works.
Speaking to Millennium Post, secretary Subir Das says: “This year, the goddess is coming in horse and also returning in horse. This symbolises death and destruction but we as her children, pray that there be good luck, happiness and longevity. Hence we have come up with this unique concept of creating a 45-feet elephant which symbolises what we desire”.
Just like Kolkata, be it Rio de Jeneiro, New York, New Jersey or any other part of the world, total reminiscence prevails.
There is something special in the air during this time of the year, everywhere. Goddess Durga appears on earth with her entire entourage and ushers in the biggest festival of the Bengalis. Everything around captures a different tone… the religious fervour, optimism, warmth and cultural profoundness transcends all imagination.
Arindam Basu, who works in an MNC in New Jersey says: “It is true that we are very far away from Kolkata. But the matter of fact is, we have Bengali friends here (around 10 couples) with whom we spend the Puja days.
And believe me, they are absolutely terrific. We visit the ICC Garden State here which organises a grand Durga Puja every year. Then we meet up at a friend’s place for dinner and gorge on absolutely lip-smacking cuisines from Bengal.
Here we spend quality time remembering our childhood days, the anjalis and the dhunuchi naachs (dancing around with a brass/clay lamp lit up with small flames), the regular addas at puja pandals that has now become so characteristically a Bengali’s way of life.”
In Tokyo, Arani Bhattacharya feels the age-old traditions and rituals revolving around Durga Puja are impossibly moving. Describing the festival there, he says: “There is a large gathering during Puja.
Cultural programmes happen every year and form an integral part of the celebrations. We also have a gala lunch which includes khichdi, beguni (fried brinjal), labra (mixed vegetables) papad, chutney and sweets. Every year, a community hall is hired for Durga Puja. The idol comes from Kolkata’s Kumortuli every five years.”
From bodhon (welcoming the goddess) to sindur khela (playing with vermilion), Durga Puja is all about loads of fun and excitement.
Food is an inseparable element of a Bengali’s life. We talk about food for hours, often planning the next meal while we are still savouring the last morsels of the present one. So even as other religious festivals in India focus on the principles of fasting and abstaining from lavsh eating, food is an important element woven into the fabric of the Durga Pujo experience.
Srabana Patra Banerjee, one of the organisers of the Durga Puja in Salt Lake Vidyasagar elaborates: “Durga Puja is all about good food and sublime adda. Every day at the pandal during these five days, people gather and meet up like family members forgetting all worries and woes of life.
It’s all about togetherness and spending quality time. I see batches of youngsters soaking in the mysticism.”
“With few days remaining for the advent of the grandest festival, we often feel the zeal and zest with which this festival is observed may not be witnessed ever anywhere in the world.
With all its special rituals, age-old traditions and those impossibly inseparable memories, Durga Puja is a prime time for each and every single Bengali living anywhere in this world,” she said.
Talking of traditions, we can’t imagine Kolkata’s Durga Puja without Sovabazar Rajbari which is another hotspot for gatherings.
Soumit Narayan Deb explains: “This Puja began in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey under Raja Nabakrishna Deb. Then, celebrations were huge and overwhelming.
Now, the cost has come down a lot. There is no direct participation of family members in this festival. We have around 15 Bramhins coming in from Utkal, Odisha, who carry out all the rituals in our house for generations on our behalf.
This is because we are not Bramhins and hence we cannot participate directly. We do not have bhog but we give 21 types of sweets and seven types of snacks prepared by our family cooks. Earlier, there used to be animal sacrifices (goat) because Durga Puja is essentially “Shakti Puja” and it cannot be performed without blood as such.
It so happened that when Maharaja Sir Radha Kanta Deb Bahadur was alive he was sitting in the courtyard once during one of the Puja days, waiting for the animal sacrifice to happen. The goat somehow escaped and came up to him and took shelter.
Radha Kanta Deb was so moved that he stopped the ritual immediately and instead Indian catfish (magur mach) is sacrificed every year.”
As a tradition, the idol is prepared in the precinct of the Rajbari itself by artists whose forefathers have long been associated with its making since its inception.
The traditional look has remained the same and the family has preserved moulds that were used by their forefathers for creating the idols of all the gods and goddesses, along with Mahisasur, which are accommodated on a single frame and backdrop (ek chala). Devi Durga’s lion looks like a horse here and the entire puja is carried out following Vaishnav rituals.
Sending off Devi Durga to her consort Lord Shiva’s house is also done in a very special way. The family still maintains the tradition of carrying idols on the shoulder for immersion till the ghat.
On reaching the ghat, the clay idols are carried in two boats to the middle of the Hooghly and lowered. Earlier, two Neelkantha birds or the Indian roller would be released during every immersion to carry the message to Lord Shiva that Durga has left for Kailash with her entourage.
But this practice has been stopped after notifications from the forest department some years ago. But during Sandhi Puja, gun shots are fired and after the immersion, the family members gather around the courtyard for “santir jol” (holy water).
After the customary rites, huge processions of song, dance and music lead to the ghats where the idols are immersed, bidding a tearful adieu to the deity.
For most Bengalis, from Dashami itself, the wait for the next Durga Puja begins because for us, the year is divided between Puja and waiting for the next Puja. It’s pretty definitive and no true-blue Bengali will disagree!