If there is one festival which brings together Bengalis from all over the world, it is the annual Durga Puja, the autumnal worship of goddess Durga who makes this annual visit to her father’s home with family, having killed the asura - the demon who had threatened to destroy creation.
Even if you take the mythological story with a pinch of salt, Bengalis find this five-day festival an excuse to celebrate, eat, drink and be merry without a care in the world.
Though the religiosity of the Durga festival often pales in comparison to the carnivalesque spirit that takes over the community, the beautifully handcrafted idols of the goddess and the grand pandals are of primary importance.
However, you’ll appreciate them even more if you see the effort that goes into making them, especially in the City of Joy, Kolkata.
Most of the idols of the goddess and her family are crafted in an area called Kumortuli in north Kolkata, which even exports the deity to the rest of the world.
Kumortuli literally means “potter’s locality” and the area is inhabited by a group of potters who work hard, year after year, to give shape to the goddess.
If you visit the area on the occasion of Mahalaya (around a week before Durga Puja starts), you’ll be able to see the eyes being drawn onto the statues in an auspicious ritual called Chokkhu Daan. It is
indeed time for the goddess to come alive.
And what is more interesting is the fact that here, several artisans from different communities work together to bring out a beautiful idol.
When communal disharmony has become a part and parcel of everyday news reports, the story of Muslim artisans making statues of the goddess epitomises what really “Unity in diversity” means.
Apart from the tableaux, they have also been involved for years in making the gears of the goddess like the head gears, earrings etc especially those which involve “zari” work (golden threads).
Rituals that unite
The highlight of Durga Puja is no doubt visiting the star pandals of your city, each with a unique theme. This activity is often referred to “pandal hopping”. There are thousands of pandals in Kolkata so it’s only possible to visit some of them — and even then it requires a bit of strategic planning as they’re spread out all over the city.
The most popular time for pandal hopping is at night when they are beautifully lit up.
However, if you go during the day, you can avoid some of the jostling crowds. Veteran artist Subrata Gangopadhyay, the creator of several award-winning idols and pandals, tells Millennium Post: “Kolkata looks like an art gallery at this time.
With the art market slowing down, the art of idol making sees so many creative brains at work for days and nights together. Artists imagine the rarest of themes theme — while artisans from districts like Bankura and Birbhum put them together after endless labour lasting months”.
Some of the abiding themes are science and spirituality, our very own matinee idol Uttam Kumar and of course, Mother Teresa.”
If there is one ritual that one cannot miss on Ashtami morning, it is the freshly bathed Bengali beauties who wear red-and-white saris for offering pushpanjali, her kohl-laden eyes filled with joy and emotion enhanced by the incense and ambience of the pandal.
She may be wearing mini skirts or jeans all year round but on this particular day, young sari-clad Bengali beauties are as big a crowd-puller as the goddess herself.
Of course, the pandals are packed with devotees and the not-so-devoted alike and each one has to offer flowers and mishti and sometimes a sari to the goddess to the accompaniment of Sanskrit mantras chanted by the purohit (priest).
But Durga puja officially gets underway on the morning of Saptami, the seventh day of Navratri. A special ritual is performed surrounding a banana plant called Kola Bou (banana bride).
Accompanied by dhakis (drummers) and the chanting of mantras, the “Kola Bou” is bathed and purified in the river. It is then dressed up in a sari with a red border and carried in a procession back to the idol where it’s placed alongside Lord Ganesha (son of Goddess Durga).
Many people consider the “Kola Bou” to be Lord Ganesha’s wife. The best places to soak in this ritual are the ghats of Bagbazar and Ahiritolla in north Kolkata.
Another ritual which unites the community falls on the last day of Durga Puja, known as Dashami. The festivities commence with married women placing sindoor on the idols of the goddess.
They then smear it on each other, as the cell-phones and video-cameras go click click. In the evening, idols are immersed in the Ganges, signifying the end of the annual festivities.
One of the most crowded immersion points is Babu Ghat, although you’ll be able to catch the action at any of them alongside the Ganges.
Try seeing it from the water as the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation offers special immersion cruises.
There is never a better time to follow your nose and sample Kolkata’s famous Bengali cuisines.
The festival isn’t complete without food! You’ll find a wide array of it everywhere — on the streets, at the pandals, and especially in Bengali restaurants.
Pandal hopping is tiring, so eating out is a must. The food served to visitors at the pandals is called bhog (offerings to the god which are distributed).
It commonly consists of piping hot khichudi, mixed vegetable curry, a sweet dish, fried items, and chutney.
The bhog is offered on one day of the Puja at least to the public, when everybody sits together at long wooden tables close to the pandals and partakes of this offering. Kolkata’s Bengali restaurants also have exclusive Durga Puja menus packed with authentic delicacies — both buffet and a la carte.
Long queues are seen outside the outlets till late afternoon since most households do not want to take the trouble of rustling up a meal during these five festive days.
Though Durga Puja is one of the biggest festivals of the world — especially for Bengalis — it is not necessarily a Hindu festival.
The goddess is worshipped on all five days but the participants are not just Hindus. Muslims and Christians turn out in large numbers to visit the pandals and savour the delicacies offered at various food stalls and restaurants.
Some of the big clubs which organise Durga puja in Kolkata are also guided by Bengalis who are Muslims. Culture: This word unifies Bengalis during Durga Puja all across the globe. For all Bengalis, who believe in song and dance and theatre, this is the perfect time to project their prowess and be a show-stopper.
To the accompaniment of tea and vegetable chops, fish fries, jhaal muri or good old phuchkas, the rehearsals become all the more interesting.
Or is it plush auditoriums and weekend Pujas that the Bengalis in Europe and USA are so used to? Wherever and whatever it is, for a Bengali, these five days mean sheer magic, memories of which linger on for the rest of the year as does the hope and optimism with prayers for a better future.