Nothing can compare to Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. The city doesn’t sleep and its people, decked up in finery, enjoy the revelry to the hilt. Its five days of celebration with themed pandals and traditional Pujos, food, friendship and creativity. This part of the country seems illuminated from the sky as the city is bathed in lights. It’s a way of life for the locals and one must visit Kolkata during the Pujos to experience it firsthand.
Here are 5 reasons why you should not miss this grand spectacle in Kolkata:
Durga Puja in Kolkata is not merely a religious festival. It is a grand celebration, an exultation of spirit. From households to residential complexes to the neighbourhoods, everyone gets ready to welcome Maa Durga in their own way.
It has always been amazing to see how craftsmen shape the fantastic pandals (temporary marquees housing Maa Durga and her family) with bamboo, canvas and coloured cloth; there is no construction, imaginary or real, that they cannot give shape to. With the explosion of themes and the entry of artists and art school students, the pandals and the idols are cast from various things. The result? Kolkata turns into a virtual walk-through gallery. You will find large crowds moving across the city, enjoying the various pandals and their dÃ©cor.
Spirit of celebration
The joie de vivre seen in Kolkata during Durga Puja has made some compare it with the famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The carnival spirit is more evident on the last day of Durga Puja (the day India celebrates Dussehra) when the idols are taken out in a procession for immersion in the river. The city will again see last year’s repeat of a grand gala procession with the idols from the top Durga Pujas in the city.
Greatest public art installation
Mahalaya, which formally ushers in Durga Puja in Bengal, brought in a huge surprise for Kolkata in the shape of an 'alpona' or auspicious painting over a kilometer long on Lake Road. Executed by nearly 400 art students and inspired by the art of Rangoli, the creation was unveiled by actor Prasenjit Chatterjee, who readily added a few colourful brush strokes. Dhakis flanked the painting and the throb of drums seemed to strengthen the spirit of the carnival. But the busiest were the camera-phone yielding spectators. Social media was soon awash with the pictures of the record-making painting. Even parliamentarian Derek O'Brien could not resist uploading a video of the 'alpona', congratulating the artists.
What is Durga Puja sans pandal hopping, right? It is almost customary to visit the various pandals dotting Kolkata during the festival. The sheer scale of the pandals, the extent to which the artisans can turn a concept to reality, have to be seen to be believed. The vast canvas of the themes that organisers can hit upon is unparalleled. Earlier, pandal hopping used to start from Shaptami (seventh day of Navratri) when the young would visit the pandals by day with strict instructions to return home by evening. At the time when pubs and nightclubs were unheard of, pandal hopping during Durga Puja was the first taste of independence for the young. But times have changed!
Themes and awards
With the explosion of themes and a steady rise in the number of pandals, one has to cover as many as one can. Pandal hopping by night is a special attraction because of the massive illuminations. Today, various neighbourhood Pujos vie for a plethora of awards. The sponsors declare results early so that viewers can see the award-winning ones. So be prepared to stand in queues! Visitors can also take a conducted tour by West Bengal Tourism to some of the most popular pandals.
What to expect this year
One of the pandals people are looking forward to already is the recreation of the 'Bahubali' palace at Sreebhumi Sporting Club (Salt Lake). The Chetla Agrani Club in South Kolkata has constructed a huge pandal made of various kinds of wood with a Durga idol made entirely of mahogany. At Hindustan Park (South Kolkata), you have to pass through rows of towering Red Indian masks. A pandal’s theme in Kasba is all about protection of trees. The pandal has been created like a banyan tree and the Goddess carrying saplings in her ten 10 hands instead of weapons. Tala Sarkar Bagan in North Kolkata has a 'Shuddhang Dehi' theme, or that of purification, with brushes of various shapes used as decoration. Visitors to the Jagat Mukherjee Park in North Kolkata will enjoy a glimpse of the underwater world, entering through a sailing boat and landing in the inside of a submarine. A pandal in Dumdum (a suburb) has brought in artists from the Vagri community of Gujarat for the decor and artisans from Odisha to make the idols. Another pandal has invited the Patachitra artists of Midnapore (who are Muslim by religion but paint Hindu Gods and Goddesses) to decorate their pandal.
BONEDI BARI GLAMOUR
Kolkata has some 200 odd family households who have been holding Durga Puja for centuries. Far removed from the glitz and glamour of the neighbourhood festivals, the aristocratic households (or ‘Bondei Bari’ as they are called in Bengali) still preserve the traditional style of worship, starting from iconography to offerings. In these households, there is a dedicated area for the festival, called the ‘thakur dalan’ or ‘Durga dalan’, a courtyard with raised platforms, often decorated with pillars and arches; old chandeliers and other bric-a-brac add to the interior decor. Family members, especially the women, take part in various activities associated with Pujo. Often, the families arrange for ‘bhog’ for all visitors, at least on one of the days. Most of the traditional households are located around North and Central Kolkata. The oldest household Pujo is, however, located in Barisha in South Kolkata — that of the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family; started in 1610, it predates the city. Visitors should also visit the traditional Pujos at Sovabazar Rajbari, which began in 1757, and at Jorasanko Daw Bari.
STREET FOOD BATTLE
Hopping from one pandal to another, by day or by night, does make you hungry. This is the time to check out the street food. A nibble here, a bite there and you are good to go.
What to gorge on
Two of the fastest moving foods on Kolkata streets are the ‘roll’ and ‘momo’. The roll, Kolkata’s equivalent of a ‘wrap’ or a ‘frankie’, is essentially a paratha wrapped around a filling of cooked egg or chicken or mutton kebab, with some onion and green bell pepper, chopped chillies and a dash of lime, and an optional smearing of tomato ketchup or chilli sauce. The momo, or the Tibetan version of the dumpling, has been Kolkata-ised too, with fillings of chicken and mutton replacing pork. Don’t worry if you’re a vegetarian, they have options to satisfy your cravings. Other popular items sold off the cart are dosas (idlis are mostly available during the day) and a very ‘desi’ version of stir-fried noodles or ‘chow mein’.
And of course, how can there be pandal hopping without a puchka refuel! At every corner you will find the ubiquitous puchka-seller, the jhaalmuri-wala and bhel-wala. The ‘puchka’ is Bengal’s version of the ‘golgappa’ or the ‘panipuri’. The difference being, boiled and mashed potato is stuffed in the crispy roundels, which are then dipped in sour tamarind water before being dished out.
Where to eat
The famous roll shops people frequent are on Park Street and New Market; momos are found all over the city with chains offering variations of the dish; puchka is best eaten at Vivekananda Park while muri sellers can be found at every nook and corner. Most of the street food vendors will set up shop near a pandal, so one can indulge in everything in one location!
Colourful lights and elaborate lighting turns Kolkata into a fairy town at night during Durga Puja. In fact, what was earlier known as 'Chandannagorer lighting', the illumination executed by electricians from the district town, predates the trend of holding theme-based Pujo. With the help of a rudimentary motor and a string of bulbs, these electricians used their indigenous technology to create magic through illumination. So much so, they began receiving invitations from other Indian cities, and even abroad, to create their unique art. With advanced technology, the illumination has gone up several notches and even if you are not quite religious, you might still venture out in the streets to see these 'light' paintings all across town.