Durga Puja in Kolkata is not a festival alone. It is that time of the year when everyone packs away their worries and tensions, and immerses themselves in the fiesta. Yes, the city is crowded, and there are long traffic jams, but the fun factor outweighs the problem areas by a long margin.
Down memory lane
There are many aristocratic Bengali families in Kolkata, popularly known as ‘bonedi bari’ who have been here either prior to the arrival of the East India Company or moved to the city during the colonial period. Mostly landlords and rich merchant families, they were connoisseurs of fine living. Even today, their palatial homes evoke a sense of awe. Durga Puja is your best opportunity to have a peek inside these homes. There are about 200 odd families who still hold Durga Puja at home. The pujas, anywhere between 150 and 400 years, are held at the ‘Durga Dalan’ or ‘Thakur Dalan’, attached to the main house. Stylised columns and arches beautify the ‘dalan’ (a veranda fronted by a courtyard). Chandeliers and legacy bric-a-bracs add to the glamour. You can watch the unfolding of traditional rites and rituals at these households. At some of the houses, you may also be able to partake of the ‘bhog’ (special food offering made to the gods).
Durga puja is the time when Kolkata transforms into a huge walk through art gallery. Every few yards, there is a decorated marquee (or ‘pandal’ as it is locally known, a temporary arena that houses the idols), each unique in its own way. The basic infrastructure consists of a sturdy bamboo frame covered with canvas and cloth. It is amazing to see how the untutored craftsmen can create amazing structures, some exact replicas of an original temple or building. Many of the ‘para’ (neighbourhood) pujas adopt a particular theme for the year. Besides the legendary clay artisans, reputed artists and students of art colleges are also roped in to develop and execute a theme, which may range from Bahubali’s palace to Hogwart’s castle, an imaginary spaceship to the Titanic, famous temples of India, a backwater village from Kerala or a Kutchi settlement from Gujarat; don’t be surprised if you travel from a pre-historic cave to an Egyptian pyramid to the White House, within a few yards. Idols, decorations, illuminations are all in sync with the theme. The latest artistic addition is the execution of elaborate ‘alpana’ (ornamental patterns) on the roads.
Jazz up your ethnic collection of traditional clothing in silk and cotton by shopping in the city’s traditional markets, extending from Hatibagan in the north to Gariahat in the south. Check out the Bengal’s own handloom sarees, such as Baluchari silk or Fulia cotton. With Kolkata being a cosmopolitan city, you will also find salwar kurtas, lehengas, etc. These shops usually remain open into the eighth day of the festival. From ethnic casuals to bridal wear, they stock them all. Some families even wrap up their shopping for the upcoming wedding season during this time owing to the range of designs and discounts available. If you are looking for some exclusive designs, head for boutique shops such as Byloom, Simayaa, Z’s Precinct, Kanishka’s, Weaver’s Studio, etc. Two well-known designers whose exclusive products you cannot miss are Sharbari Datta and Sabyasachi.
For Kolkatans, festivals and feasting go hand in hand. During Durga Puja, people feast at home, binge on street food and eat out with almost equal gusto. Most households have their routine set weeks ahead of the festival, with time divided between family and friends. Street food is the preferred choice when one is pandal hopping. Jhaal muri and phuchka are downed by the kilos during the five days of the festival, especially by the younger crowd. Egg and chicken rolls, moglai paratha, cutlets, stir-fried noodles and dumplings are also a favourite with the crowd that is on the move. The popular ‘luchi-aloor dom’ is a popular breakfast at home; if you do not want to cook at home, you will find plenty of food joints around you dishing out samosa, jalebi, luchi, idli and dosa. Nearly all restaurants, big and small, have special menus during Durga Puja. Since people love to go traditional during this time, Bengali cuisine is largely on offer everywhere, including restaurants in star hotels. Even if a multi-cuisine buffet is heavily biased towards Bengali cuisine. Some of the restaurants known for their Bengali cuisine are Aaheli in Peerless Inn, Oh! Calcutta, 6 Ballygunge Place, Bhojohori Manna, etc. Along with Bengali cuisine, you will also find Kolkata Biryani and Kolkata Chinese on offer at many places apart from the standalone restaurants specialising in them as well as other oriental cuisine, including Thai and Japanese. But no matter where Kolkatans go to eat, one afternoon meal will surely consist of ‘khichuri’ bhog.
If you are a serious photographer or keen to fill your Flickr, Instagram and Pinterest pages with great pictures, Kolkata during Durga Puja is the best place to be. The bonedi bari and their rituals, the artistic pandals, the food, people and their expressions, will ensure you are not short of subjects. Some of the popular rituals that draw a lot of photographic attention are dhunuchi naach (a kind of impromptu dance clutching burning charcoal-filled clay pots) and the sindur khela (where married women smear each other with vermillion just prior to bidding her good bye). The immersion of the huge idols in the Hooghly River in the evening is also a popular subject for photography. While people do not object to photography generally, do seek permission before taking pictures of individuals.