Durga Puja – grand celebrations of the ten- armed goddess in Kolkata

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.

Tiny, paper-mache images of goddess Durga's head, sold at the stall in Kolkata
Devotional merchandise on sale in Kumartuli district

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.

The preparations

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.

The dilapidated doors to the craftmen workshop in Kumartuli district of Kolkata, full of finished idols of Durga riding a lion
One of Kumartuli’s workshops, filled with idols of Durga

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.

Craftsmen sleeping under the finished idols of Durga a few days before the Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata
Craftsmen having a nap under Durga’s idol

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.

A golden altar from temporary materials for Durga Puja celebrations, shows Durga riding a lion and killing a demon and other four gods on her sides
Ten-arm Durga, riding a lion kills demon Mahisasur. To her right Ganesha and Lakshmi, to her left Saraswati and Karthik

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.

A small idol of yellow-skinned Durga standing on a green demon and riding a white horse is waiting for the  collection at Kumartuli district before Durga Puja
An old-fashioned depiction of Durga riding a white horse instead of a lion

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.

Porters loading a 2 meter high Durga statue onto a small truck in Kumartuli district of Kolkata
Porters loading Durga’s idol onto a truck that would take it to the pandal

Pandal hopping

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.

The dim, blue light lits a small Durga altar inside one of Kolkata's pandals where the priest and his helpers squat, preparing for worship
An altar of Durga inside a pandal

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.

A crowd gathers inside a Durga Puja pandal in Kolkata, made to resemble bejewelled interior of a Rajastani palace
A crowded pandal imitating a Rajastani palace

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.

Neon decorations adorning the streets of north Kolkata during Durga Puja
Kolkata’s streets are illuminated during Durga Puja

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.

A large crowd heading to a huge, golden pandal shaped as a temple to celebrate Durga Puja
Night pandal-hopping begins

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 traditional Bengali depiction of Durga: yellow-faced, with large triangular eyes, having smaller goddesses and even smaller male gods on her sides and a defeated demon underneath.
A traditional depiction of Durga with all statues on one semi-circle

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.

The illuminated patio of white-painted, historical Sovabazar Rajbari in Kolkata filled with people celebrating Durga Puja
The patio of Sovabazar Rajbari where Durga idol is displayed

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.

A small Durga Puja altar incorporating in one piece Durga, other gods and demon is placed among pillars and old paintings at the patio of a mansion in Kolkata
The traditional depiction of idols, displayed at the Sovabazar Rajbari

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.

A small gathering of people, some in prayer, inside the historic, grand interior Chatu Babu Latu Babu Rajbari mansion in Kolkata during Durga Puja
The arati ceremony at the Chatu Babu Latu Babu Rajbari

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.

An immense line of people queuing along the main road in north Kolkata to get into a pandal on the 9th evening of Durga Puja
A never-ending queue to the Muhammad Ali Park , a popular puja

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.

A brass sculpture of a boy holding an elephant mask and wearing a marigold garland- part of Durga Puja's pandal decoration in Kolkata
Unusual depiction of elephant-headed god Ganesha
The original idol of Durga made for Kolkata's Durga puja fashioned in a folk style. Durga is sitting in a flowery dress on a throne with tiny Siva lying above her, other tiny gods surrounding her and demon at the legs of the throne
Original, but still within the canon, Durga with smaller statues of gods and the demon at her feet. Above her husband, Siva
A gigantic four-headed elephant and four headed horse made from imitation of clay serve as a pandal and gates to the pandal in Kolkata
Giant versions of traditional clay statues serving as gates to the pandal
A huge gate in a shape of a horse  made from temporary materials perfectly imitating traditionall brass sculpture. One of Kolkata's pandals raised during Durga Puja.
Realistic imitation of folk brasswork

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.

Inside one of Durga Puja pandals: aa giant hamburger with human figures sticking out of it and other human figures hanging from a wheel above it
Interior of the pandal themed on consummerism, hunger and poverty

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.

A golden imitation of ancient Egyptian architecture among residential houses in Kolkata, raised for Durga puja celebrations
Tacky Egyptian-themed pandal
A tiny pandal made of jute, shaped as a weaver's nest. Inside a statue of Durga.
Low-budget creativity: a pandal shaped like a weaver’s nest

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.

White decorations, including paper mache palms, swans and flowers and traditional depiction of yellow-faced Durga inside one of Kolkata's pandals
All-white ‘wedding cake’ pandal decorated with swans, bunnies and peacocks

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

A women dressed up as a crow stands in front of a man covering his face - a scene of amateur Bengali theatre
The amateur play shown at the cultural programme during Durga Puja

The rituals

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.

A woman touches the idol of Durga witha tray in one of Durga Puja rituals
Durga worship during one of many rituals

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.

Large dhak drums covered with cloth and decorated with plumes lie on the ground waiting to be used during Durga Puja in Kolkata
Decorated dhak drums

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.

Little boy wrapps a banana branch in a sari and places it next to Ganesha idol in a kola bou ritual during Durga Puja
‘Banana bride’ being wrapped up in sari
A woman in sari climbs a ladder to throw a leaf garland over the idol of Puja as part of Durga Puja celebrations
Balancing act: sari-clad lady places a leaf garland on Durga’s idol

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.

Weronika stands holds in her arms her mother in law and Sayak's aunt, all of them dressed in saris for the ocassion of Durga Puja
Ready for the anjali ceremony with my mother-in-law and her sister

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.

Women place wicks on hudred tiny clay oil lamps in preparation for Sandhi Puja ritual
Hundred clay oil lamps lit during the Sandhi Puja ceremony

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.

Pieces of white, creamy sweets are plastered to the mouth of Durga idol as part of a ritual
Pieces of milky sweet stuck to the lips of Durga idol
Married women dressed in red play sidur - apply red powder on each others hair and faces during Durga Puja celebrations
‘Sidur play’ – married women apply red powder to each other’s hair and faces

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. 

A dozen of porters lift the  large idol of Durga onto a scaffolding to carry it for an immersion during Durga Puja
The porters getting ready to carry the Durga idol to the nearest pond for immersion

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.

An idol of Durga is being pushed to a small pond by porters as a culmination of Durga Puja celbration in Kolkata's residential district
Moments before the immersion of the idol in the local pond

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.

A pile of straw with a few pieces of colourful paper mache lies on the side of a pond as a remnant of Durga Puja celebration
All that is left from the statues a few days after the festivities

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.

A small crowd celbrates on the illuminated, local street in Kolkata the end of Durga Puja
Celebrations move to the streets

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.

Pujo Parade

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.

Brightly illuminated gigantic idol of Durga is carried on a truck at the Esplanade in Kolkata during Puja Parade
One of the mobile platforms moving through the city centre during the Pujo Parade

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.

The female folk dancers participating in the Puja Parade in central Kolkata, a few days after Durga Puja
The fold dancers march at the parade

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.

The immersion of Durga idol among cranes and bulldozers at the Hooghly river in Kolkata during Puja Parade
Immersion in the Ganges with the use of heavy machinery

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.

A policeman and men holding brass receptacles containing divine energy watch as the porters push the Durga idol into Hooghly river in Kolkata during Durga Puja
The moment of immersions at one of the ghats on Hooghly river

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.

PRACTICALITIES

When?
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.

Where?
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.

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