Anyone arriving in Kolkata for the first time during Durga Puja can be overwhelmed. Artistic marquees (or pandals as they are called locally) every few yards, banners and festoons everywhere, either urging you to buy everything under the sun or warning you of health hazards if you are not careful, loud music from speakers, shrill announcements calling people to offer their ‘pushpanjali’ or informing them of the time of the evening arati, gaily dressed people on the streets round the clock, traffic jam, dazzling illuminations, food stalls on the pavements, it seems you have arrived at a planet unto itself. But you will soon be surprised to find there is a rhythm in this madness, an overarching camaraderie that goes beyond religion. So just immerse yourself in the flow and enjoy Kolkata’s unique spirit during Durga Puja, which is from October 14 (Panchami) to 19 (Vijaya Dashami) in 2018.
Grab the apps
First get oriented with the city’s layout. Remember the Hooghly River lies to the west of Kolkata; the Netaji Subhas Airport lies to the east. There are plenty of apps telling you which are the best Durga Pujas in Kolkata and how to get there, and these are your best bet if you want to be on your own. The ‘Sharadotsav’ app by West Bengal Tourism is very useful. Apart from maps, it has a zone-wise puja section, which is very handy. Besides, the app also gives a list of organisations and telephone numbers to be contacted in emergency situations. Also remember, for crowd control, major pandals require you to enter the marquees in queues, with separate lines for men and women. Moreover, the entry and exit points may be at different ends of the marquee. So, if you are a mixed group, then decide on a point where to meet after exiting. If you have children in tow, ensure they are with you at all times. Despite all precautions, if anyone is lost, approach the organisers or the police immediately. Beware of pickpockets.
Take a bus/walking tour
For a newbie in Kolkata, joining a group tour is the best way to see the major Pujas, which includes both the aristocratic homes and the neighbourhood celebrations. West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC; https://www.wbtdcl.com/package) runs several packages that cover visits to important puja pandals, boat cruises, and bus trips to destinations around Kolkata. You may also join a city walk tour with Calcutta Walks (http://calcuttawalks.com/), Heritage Walk Kolkata (www.heritagewalkcalcutta.com), Kolkata Explorers (www.facebook.com/pg/Kolkatawalks), etc. But remember, these tours fill up fast.
Timing is key
There is no fixed time when people will be outdoors. Usually, younger people and families with small kids prefer to go pandal-hopping by day. Others prefer evening till wee hours of the morning, depending on their stamina to walk. So, if you do not want to face a sea of people, the morning hours are best. One of the biggest draws in the evening are the illuminations. To get an idea, you may take a walk around the place where you are staying, if you are on your own. The Metro Rail is a convenient way to travel around the length of the city. To bear the snaking queues at the ticket counter, avail the ‘smart card’ facility.
Which Pujos to see
Well, that’s a difficult decision indeed! There are several old aristocratic families in Kolkata who have been holding Durga Puja at home for centuries. If you want to see the traditional puja, a visit to these households, mostly located in north and central Kolkata, is a must. Of the ‘para’ (neighbourhood) pujos, you can keep a half to a full day each for north, south and south-west, and east (including Salt Lake). Local newspapers, as well as apps, give details of the pandals that are popular in terms of the theme, the décor, the idols or the illuminations.
Where to eat
Giving close competition to pandal-hopping during Durga Puja is eating out. The variety of food available on the streets can be mindboggling, from jhaalmuri, phuchka, egg and chicken rolls, chaats and samosa, cutlets, biryani, noodles, dumplings, lassi, and more. Food kiosks spring up all over the city. But remember, not all maintain high standards of hygiene. At some of the popular para pujos, home chefs and women staying nearby sell home cooked Bengali food, especially sweets. Restaurants usually have special menus during the duration of the festival. Most do not accept prior reservations and seating is on first come first served basis. Which means the waiting time to be seated can be long. Reaching around 12pm for lunch and 7pm for dinner may help you to beat the crowd or at least get a short waiting time.
For shops and businesses, Durga Puja is the time of the year when people do not mind loosening their purse strings. To attract patrons, they offer discounts, gifts and lucky draws on almost everything. Bengal is famous for its cotton and silk textiles and gold jewellery. So if you are keen to buy sarees and dress material, drop in at the local shops in Hatibagan in the north, College Street and New Market in the central and Gariahat in the south. Most of the shops remain open until Astami (day eight) morning.
Don't miss the immersion
On the tenth day (Vijaya Dashami), the idols are taken out in a procession and immersed in the Hooghly. People queue up along the routes taken by these processions to bid goodbye to the goddess. At the river bank, the idols are put on a boat and taken mid-river for the immersion. WBTDC and private travel agencies sell tickets on boats so that people can watch the immersion from the river itself, away from the crowd.