For the greater part of the year, life in the palatial mansions of the old aristocratic families of Kolkata is no different from their neighbours. But as Durga Puja approaches, each one turns into a hub of activity. The passage of time may have dimmed the ostentatious display of wealth and forced some rituals to be cut down but the celebrations in these 200-odd households, dating back to anywhere between 150 to 400 years ago, have retained the old flavour.
Most of the homesteads have their own ‘thakur dalan’, which is a public courtyard, often with pillars and verandahs reflecting influences of European architecture. In keeping with tradition, the idols are placed on a single platform against a single semi-circular background (chalchitra). Painted afresh, the ‘thakur dalans’ with their old chandeliers, take you back to a different era.
Here are 10 Bonedi Bari Durga Puja celebrations you cannot miss in Kolkata:
Sabarna Roy Choudhury Family
It was from this family that the English East India Company acquired the three villages of Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kalkata in the 17th century to later consolidate it into what became known as Calcutta (now Kolkata). The family has branched out since, each branch with their own Durga Puja celebrations. But the one most famous is the family’s Atchala Pujo dating back to 1610. You can’t miss this Pujo because it’s said to be the oldest in the city! Located in Barisha, in the southern part of the city, the Pujo is held in the ‘Durga dalan’ with two rows of graceful columns marking the boundary.
Raja Nabakrishna Deb Family
The Durga Puja celebrations at Sovabazar Rajbari is centuries old. “While everybody waited for the goat to be sacrificed, it managed to escape. Surrounded by a roaring crowd, it ran up the stairs and took shelter at the feet of Maa Durga,” narrates Soumit Narayan Deb of Sovabazar Rajbari in north Kolkata. “Radhakanta Deb Bahadur was the head of the family then. He consulted the priests and said that there would be no more goat sacrifices. Thus began the sacrifice of singi fish (Asian catfish) instead.” The Deb family Durga Puja became the talk of the society (Calcutta was yet to be founded) when Raja Nabkrishna Deb feted Robert Clive and other officers of the English East India Company in 1757. “It was the first time that non-Hindus were allowed to see a typically Hindu household celebration from the ‘nach ghor’ or dancing room situated along the building’s exterior as non-Hindus were not allowed to see the thakur dalan or the interiors,” says Deb. This year, the family will celebrate its 261st year of holding Durga Puja. This Pujo has very interesting distinctive features, for example, the lion has the face of a horse.
Where: 36 and 33 Raja Nabakrishna Street, Sovabazar, North Kolkata
Badan Chandra Roy Family
The homestead of the Badan Chandra Roy family in Colootola (Central Kolkata), belies the dinginess that surrounds it. One of the best kept residences of old Kolkata, it still houses the descendants. The sprawling Eye Department of the Medical College in College Street stands on land donated by this family. The arched ‘thakur dalan’, where the 160 year-old Pujo is held, is fronted by a beautiful quadrangle marked by pillars topped by decorative lamps. Why you can’t miss this Pujo? “Ours is a Vaishnav household, so we do not have animal sacrifices. We use fruits instead to perform the symbolic sacrifice,” says Pashupati Roy, a senior family member.
Where: 2A Gopal Chandra Lane, Colootola, North Kolkata
Purnendu Chandra Dhar Family
Not far from the Badan Chandra Roy family home is the house of Purnendu Chandra Dhar’s family. This Vaishnav household does not worship Maa Durga in her demon-slaying pose. Instead, she is worshipped here as Abhaya Ma. The seated idol has two hands instead of ten. At her feet are two seated lions. Maa is surrounded by her children and her hand maidens. The Pujo is 157 years old in all but was not performed in this building for a while when the building was ransacked during the 1946 riots and the family had to seek shelter elsewhere.
Where: 32A Debendra Mullick Road, North Kolkata
Khelat Ghosh Family
Located in Pathuriaghata in North Kolkata, this homestead has probably the grandest ‘thakur dalan’ in the city. The marble corridor, over 80-feet long, and the grand dancing hall (now Khelat Ghosh Memorial Hall) are awesome. One unique feature of the Pujo is the ablution of the Naba Patrika or nine leaves used in the rituals at the house itself. Also there is a tradition of offering homemade sweets to Maa. Go visit this Bonedi Bari to see the grandeur!
Where: 47 Pathuriaghata Street, North Kolkata
Shibkrishna Daw Family
Located near the (now-infamous!) Vivekananda Road flyover in Jorasanko in North Kolkata, the Shibkrishna Daw house has been maintained beautifully and has been used for many film shoots. The household Pujo was started by Shibkrishna Daw’s father in 1840 but it was the successful businessman son who added the glitz and glamour to the celebration. The ‘thakur dalan’ sits pretty overlooking neat columns and overhanging balconies. You should visit this Pujo because people come to see the attire and the gorgeous gold and silver ornaments of the idols.
Where: 12A Shibkrishna Dawn Lane, North Kolkata
It was Subal Chand Chandra who began Durga Puja at his Jorasanko home way back in 1761. But then the family shifted to their Jhamapukur home and continued with the tradition from 1840. The idol is very different from the one usually seen in other Pujos. Goddess Durga sits on the lap of her husband Shiva in the ‘borabhoi mudra’ (assurance-giving pose).
Where: 24A Bechu Chatterjee Street (Near Thanthania Kalibari)
Rani Rashmoni Family
Located in Janbazar in Central Kolkata, not far from the Esplanade Metro Station, is the home of Rani Rashmoni built in the 19 th century. It was she who founded the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. After her death, the Pujo has been continued by the families of her daughters. Now divided into two parts, the Durga Puja that can be approached through the Free School Street entry of the house was started by the Rani herself.
Where: 13 Rani Rashmoni Road, Janbazar, Central Kolkata
Radha Gobinda Mallick Family
It is said that Radha Gobindo Mallick settled in the Bhawanipore area of south Kolkata way back in 1860. But it was only in 1925 that the family Pujo was shifted from his ancestral home to its present location. This household Durga Puja is popular also because of the famous father-daughter film-star duo, Ranjit and Koel Mallick.
Where: Mohini Mohan Road, Bhawanipur, South Kolkata
It was Maharaja Joy Narayan Ghosal who began the Durga Puja about 300 years ago at the Bhukailash Rajbari located in Khidirpur in the western neighbourhood of Kolkata. This traditional household is better known for its twin Shiva temples built in 1781. One of the Shiva-lingam is 15 feet tall and the other is 12 feet. “However, we do not worship the clay idol that you usually see. We have an asta-dhatu idol, who is referred to as Patit Pabani Ma,” says Satya Shubhajit Ghosal, one of the scions of the family. One of the reasons you should not miss this Pujo is because of getting a chance to gorge on traditional bhog which is distributed to all visitors on Nabami.
Where: Bhukailash Rajbari, Kanchan Colony, Babu Bazar, Khidirpur