Durga Puja is the biggest festival in West Bengal, celebrated over ten days in Sept/Oct, simultaneously with the pan-Indian Navaratri festival. Durga is a Hindu goddess representing shakti (feminine power). Durga Puja (Durga’s worship) commemorates the victory of the goddess over a powerful demon. Durga Puja is celebrated with unprecedented pomp and scale in Kolkata. Thousands of temporary structures, called pandals, are raised. Hundreds of thousands of people flood the streets to see them. The grand finale is the immersion of the idols in the Ganges.
I’ve heard so much about Durga Puja from Sayak, his friends and family that I knew I couldn’t miss it. It wasn’t the most convenient timing for us- we had to break our journey around South East Asia to see it – but I certainly didn’t regret it. I arrived in Kolkata a week before the start of Durga Puja, very excited with the opportunity to see it with the eyes of the insider.
I started my exploration by visiting workshops of artisans who were preparing sets of idols for the festival. My father-in-law, a treasurer of a local club, took me to pick up the idols for puja organised by his club. They rented three small trucks for that purpose. We went to Kumartuli, the area in northern Kolkata, filled with dozens of such workshops.
A few days before the holiday, most of the work had already been complete. An idol made of bamboo and straw had been plastered with mud and given the ultimate form. All that was left was painting it in bright colours and dressing it up in shiny clothes.
Everywhere inside and outside the artisans’ workshops, rows of idols were waiting for the collection. Some of them were even 4-5 meters high! Most looked as if they came out of assembly line in a factory. Only the more traditional versions, with yellow faces and schematically drawn, enormous eyes, stood out.
Durga is always depicted with ten arms, wielding one type of weapon in each hand. She usually rides a lion, sometimes a white horse. Durga is accompanied with smaller statues of goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi as well as her sons: Ganesha and Karthik. A dying demon Mahishasur and his other form- a black bull -are at the goddess’ feet.
Kumartuli and surrounding streets were buzzing. Porters carried idols on their shoulders or dragged them using ropes. When we were driving through the city, some people shouted ‘Jai ma!’ (hail mother) at the sight of the truck.
What are pandals?
Every local neighbourhood club and many joint families hold their puja (worship). Temporary structures called pandals are raised to house the statues of Durga and her children. The low-budget pandals are made of a bamboo framework and covered with cloth. The largest pandals could accommodate thousands of people. Since the turn of the millennium, a fashion of creating ‘themed’ puja started. The artists who design the pandals have full freedom of expression. Many decide to comment on grim aspects of the Indian society or world in general.
Best time and places to see the pandals
I chose the 6th day of festivities to see some of the pandals in South Kolkata. I left late in the morning to avoid the crowds. It turned out to be a great decision. Only the two most famous pandals were crowded, which meant we had to queue in the scorching sun to get in.
Probably the best time to visit pandals is around 4 am. You could avoid the crowds, enjoy the illuminations and cooler weather. Unfortunately, Sayak wasn’t willing to make this sacrifice. We did ´proper´ pandal-hopping instead, following tens of thousands of others on the 9th evening of the festival. The VIP passes, giving fast-track access to the pandals were some consolation.
To avoid traffic, we took the circular train, which took us to the north of Kolkata. We arrived at Bagbazar station around 5 pm, just when it was beginning to get dark. The first, very traditional pandal we saw at Bagbazar Sarbojanin (celebrating its 100th anniversary) was slowly getting busy.
Standing in front of the statues, I observed men distributing bogh – blessed meal of rice boiled with pulses- with their bare hands. Outside the pandal, a large fair with food and drink stalls as well as carousels spread. I held my hand tightly on my bag since the media warned that hundreds of pickpockets descended on Kolkata.
The streets were swelling with people. Many of them were visitors from the suburbs of Kolkata, coming to see the most famous pandals in the north. The VIP passes helped us to glide smoothly through dense crowds at Kumartuli Park and the nearby Chorebagan Sarbojanin. Nevertheless, the experience of visiting the pandals was far from enjoyable. Nobody was allowed to stop even for a second, so I wasn’t able to see the statues clearly, not to mention taking the photos.
For a completely different experience, we visited the nearby pujas held by the aristocratic families in their crumbling mansions: Sovabazar Rajbari and Chatu Babu Latu Babu Rajbari. Those residences are usually closed to the public, so visiting them was a treat in itself.
Those pujas were perhaps the most authentic as they hadn’t changed much over the past 200 years. There were no pandals on display. Instead, the traditionally made statues stood on a dais at the mansion’s patio.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pass to the ‘must-see’ Muhammad Ali Park. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into until it was too late to turn back. A dedicated lane for the visitors was snaking along the main road for around 400 meters. The sweated crowd was relentlessly pushing forward. The policemen and volunteers were skilfully controlling the situation. Nevertheless, it took us an hour to reach the entrance. Once we entered the compound, I saw the light decorations: a blue elephant moving its ears and an equally tacky pandal. It was a huge disappointment. Even returning home was a nightmare. The buses were filled to the brim. It was impossible to get an Uber. Unless you’re a masochist, I certainly don’t recommend visiting pandals at this time.
The morning of the 10th day I went to see the remaining pandals in south Kolkata. I was relieved that very few people were around. Those pandals were more tasteful and original than most I had previously seen. The ingenuity of the artists was truly impressive. I particularly liked the pandals inspired by the Bengali folklore.
The themed pandals warned about the effects of the destruction of the environment, juxtaposed poverty with hyper-consumerism and even tackled the world refugee crisis.
Some of the pandals were particularly tacky. I remember one featuring a figure of a woman lying on a rotating wheel with a whole flock of creepy looking babies on the ceiling above her.
Pandal hopping is a fascinating experience. For the time of Durga Puja, Kolkata becomes probably one of the largest outdoor art exhibitions in the world, accommodating both traditional and modern art, with a fair dose of kitsch.
The cultural programmes
Although Durga Puja is essentially a religious festival, many people regard it more as a social event. It is an opportunity to eat out, socialise and have a few days off work. Throughout the holidays, amateur and professional cultural programs are held all around the city. I watched one such program, comprising of children dance performance, poetry declamation, Bengali play about a writer talking to a crow and a magic show. All the performers, apart from the magician, were amateurs from the neighbourhood
Durga Puja is a religious festival comprising of many lengthy, complicated rituals. Some of them are fascinating and quite surprising. Below is a summary of the most important ones.
Panchami (5th day): Pandal inauguration
The inauguration of the pandal usually happens on the 5th evening to the sounds of dhak (a kind of drum). Every club hires a band consisting of a few drummers. They would be drumming during every ritual, from 5 am till 10-11 pm.
Saptami (7th day): Kola Bou
On the morning of the 7th day, I witnessed the kola bou (lit. banana bride) ritual. In this ritual, a banana tree is bathed, dressed in a sari and finally placed next to Ganesha’s idol. The devotees decorate the idols with garlands and smear them with sacred substances. The puja lasts over two hours.
Ashtami (8th day): Anjali
The anjali, or the divine offering, happens every morning during the Durga Puja. However, the anjali on the 8th day is of the utmost importance. All women and many men from the neighbourhood turned up at the pandal that day. The women (me included) dressed up in traditional red and white saris.
The Anjali was quick and uncomplicated. We were chanting mantra and throwing marigold flowers into the basket which the priest placed at the feet of the goddess. My mother-in-law told me when to make a wish which would come true. In the end, we got sprinkled with holy Ganges water. Everybody dropped a few coins on a tray. The offerings to the goddess included money, sweets and saris. The priest would distribute some of the saris among the poor, selling the rest. At the end of the puja, everybody received a dot of red paint on their forehead. Yoghurt was distributed from a large clay pot at the entrance. People were placing some on their foreheads before drinking up the rest. Tradition dictated to wear brand new clothes that day. Some people wear five new sets of clothes on each day of the celebrations! Family members give each other new clothes shortly before Durga Puja starts.
Ashtami (8th day): Sandhi Puja
Just a few hours after Anjali, Sandhi puja took place. It is the most important ceremony of the festival as it marks the moment Durga slew Mahishasur. During this visually stunning ritual, the priest threw 100 lotus flowers at the goddess’ feet while the devotees lit 100 clay lamps.
I got a bit tired with the rituals, so I left before the sacrifice.Instead of slaying a goat, Bengalis switched to using gourds. After the completion of the puja, the local club invited everybody for bogh, a free meal of blessed food.
Asthami (8th day): Kumari Puja
Sadly, I didn’t manage to see Kumari Puja (lit. virgin worship). During that ritual, a 9-years old girl sits on a dais and is worshipped as an incarnation of the goddess. Kumari Puja takes place only at Belur Math temple and a few aristocratic family pujas in north Kolkata.
Dashami (the 10th, last day)
Surprisingly, the priest didn’t attend the last ritual of the festival. The devotees ‘fed’ the deities with sweets and touched their feet in reverence. Red sidur powder sprinkled on the Durga’s forehead symbolised her return to the husband. Once this part of the ritual was over, married women scattered sidur on each others hair and smeared each other’s cheeks and foreheads with it.
The jolliest part of the celebrations began in the evening. A local club hired a DJ who played re-mixed versions of Bollywood hits for hours. Young and old came to dance. Most men were vastly encouraged by alcohol and bhang (yoghurt drink spiked with marihuana).
Finally, the time of the immersion came. Durga was returning to her husband, Siva. Traditionally, all the idols end in the Ganges. However, if the Ganges is too far away, any water body could be used instead. The statues from the larger pujas would be transported by trucks to the river. Our local Durga’s fate was to end up in a small, pretty dirty pond, located just five minutes walk from the pandal.
The wild drumming marked the beginning of the process. A team of porters swiftly trotted with the idols. The drum band and the spectators followed. A few men carried metal pots with lids from unripe coconuts on their heads.
Those receptacles contain prana, the life energy of the idols, which had to be released. Straight afterwards, the statues were lifted and rotated around their axis seven times. The fireworks appeared in the sky as the idols landed in the murky pond.
As soon as those beautiful, perfect statues landed in the water, they turned into chunks of garbage. Luckily, after the mud would dissolve, all the remaining bits would be fished out of the pond and parts of the structure would be recycled for the next puja.
Meanwhile, the dancing, happy crowd followed the drummers along the streets. The band stopped right at the crossroads, blocking all the traffic. People wished one another ‘Shuvo Bijoya‘ (Happy Victory). Men of similar age would touch shoulder to shoulder three times. Men and women would just make namaste gesture (joining hands like to prayer). Younger people would ‘pranam‘ (touch the feet) of their seniors who, in turn, would give them a blessing. The club distributed free sweets to everyone present. From that day till Kali Puja, family and friends would pay home visits, always bringing plenty of sweets along.
The parade of the best pandals takes places a few days after the festival. The immersion of the idols in the Ganges follows straight after. A few hundred VIP passes for the show on the Red Road was distributed to the hotels in Kolkata. Since I didn’t have access to them, I just watched the parade with the general public, near the Esplanade.
I saw beautifully adorned and illuminated trucks carrying the idols. Each club arrived with its delegation of uniformly dressed members and a group of performers. Thanks to drummers and dancers, the whole parade was very lively.
Immersion in the Ganges
My first impression of the idols’ immersion in the Ganges put me off completely. The ghat (steps to the river) was inaccessible – I could observe it only from a distance. Heavy, noisy machinery was everywhere. A crane was ‘immersing’ the idol in the water and pulling it out straight away. The bulldozers crushed it and placed its remnants on a truck. Piles of bamboo scaffolding were mounting up with every new idol arriving. It was sad to see how the whole process got stripped of its religious significance and magic atmosphere.
I left that depressing place and walked towards a much smaller ghat. Only a handful of people gathered, allowing an unobstructed view of the whole process. The idols were small enough to be carried or dragged by the porters. Once in the water, the statues were almost immediately dismantled.
The parade was an opportunity to see pandals which would require too much time and effort to visit otherwise. I could admire and compare all the idols hassle-free. The crowds weren’t excessive. There was also an added benefit of watching music and dance performances.
The exact date of Durga Puja changes according to the lunar calendar. It usually falls between mid-Sept and mid-Oct. The parade of the best statues happens a few days after the 10th day of the holiday. But again, that varies from year to year.
For the best experience of exploring Kolkata pandals, choose dawn, (pandals are open 24/7). If that’s not possible, try to do it in the days 1-5 of the holiday or the last day during the daytime.
Bear in mind that Durga Puja isn’t the best time to explore the city: the crowds on the street, heavy traffic and closures would make it very difficult.
The more traditional pujas are easily accessible from the city centre. You could visit many of them in just a few hours. Try the route described above: Bagbazar- Chorebagan Sarbojanin-Kumartuli Park-Sovabazar Rajbari-Chatu Babu Latu Babu Rajbari-Muhammad Ali Park.
The pandals in the far north, Salt Lake, near the airport and in South Kolkata are often more interesting than those in the city centre. The ones I visited were: Behala Notun Dal and Behala Friends (both in Behala), Suruchi Sangha (in New Allipore), Mudiali (in Tollygunge), Tridhara Sammilani (in Gariahat) and Chetla Agrani (in Chetla).
Probably the easiest route to see most of the above is to:
take a metro to Rabidra Sarovaar and walk to Mundiali club,
take an autorickhaw/ bus from the main road to New Allipore petrol pump and walk to Suruchi Sangha
from the same place you got off take an autorickshaw to Chetla and walk to Chetla Agrani
from there you can walk to Kalighat metro station
Arguably, the most convenient would be taking a taxi since those pandals are quite scattered.
All the important pandals are marked on Google maps.
If you want to witness the immersion, head for any ghat along Hooghly river.
For more info on how to get in and around Kolkata check this post.