Kolkata’s biggest and most glamorous festival, Durga Puja, has long surpassed the boundaries of rituals and turned into a multi-cultural event, an expression of art and festive cheer, where everyone is welcome to participate irrespective of faith.
True you need the strength of Tokyo’s subway crowd pushers to enjoy pandal hopping during Durga Puja in Kolkata but it is the only way you can enjoy the carnival spirit. A pandal (the marquee housing the goddess and her children along with their favourite animals) is usually designed around a theme. For instance, messages for eye and organ donation, water conservation, stepwells of Gujarat, Amritsar Golden Temple, crafts of Bengal, conservation of urban heritage, ills of plastic pollution, and even the fight by the LGBTQ community for social acceptance and the abolition of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
The pros generally avoid the peak hours when they visit, usually extending between late evening and early hours of dawn as you may encounter long queues at pandals and traffic jams. In the last few years, the Bengal government had started a ‘carnival’ procession of the famous and award-winning idols which was held immediately after Vijaya Dashami (Dusshera at the Red Road. In pandemic times, that may be cancelled.
Visits to Bonedi Bari
It is to the old aristocratic family homes (bonedi bari) of Kolkata you have to turn to, to learn how the traditional rites and rituals are observed. Most of these family homes, usually built during the colonial period, have a Durga Dalan or Chandi Mandap – usually a large colonnaded area with arches and other architectural decorations. Most of the bonedi bari are concentrated in north and central Kolkata with a few in the south. One of the oldest Durga Puja in the city is celebrated by the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family of Barisha (on the southern fringe of city), the zamindar family from whom the English East India Company had leased the three villages in 1698, which later became Calcutta (now renamed Kolkata).
Located in north Kolkata is the Shobhabazar Rajbari of the Deb family. It was Raja Nabakrishna Deb who had feted Robert Clive at his home during Durga Puja following the latters win in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Most of the families have now stopped the animal sacrifice. Some of the aristocratic homes you may check out are (north to south) – Mitra Bari of Darjipara, Dutta Bari of Thanthania, Shib Krishna Dawn Bari of Jorasanko, Badan Chandra Roy Bari of Colootola, Rani Rashmoni Bari of Janbazar, Bhukailash Rajbari in Khidderpur, Mallick Bari of Bhowanipur, etc.
No Bengali festival is complete without plentiful of feasts. All puja organisers, from aristocratic homes to community celebrations, offer an elaborate ‘bhog’ or meal to the goddess. Family members and guests partake of the meal later on. Many community puja pandals also host a public feast (usually on the ninth day of the festival) where everyone is welcome to enjoy a platter of the ‘bhog’ (as long as it lasts). Every restaurant and café in the city also flaunt Puja special menus. Many popular standalone restaurants do not accept advance reservation and seating is on first come first served basis. You have to be really early or be ready to stand in queues. Opting for restaurants attached to star category hotels is a better option as they accept reservations.
Although most people in Kolkata would have completed their shopping for new clothes long before Puja commences, many shops and boutiques remain open until the end of the eighth day or the morning of the ninth day of the festival. Take advantage of the festive discount to stock your wardrobe with regular and designer wear for Diwali and the upcoming wedding season. Accessories, including bags, jewelleries, etc. are also available. Hatibagan market in north Kolkata and Gariahat in the south are known for their sari shops and pavement stalls. Some of the designer stores include Sienna Store, 85 Lansdowne, Byloom, Simayaa, Z’s Precinct, Kanishka’s, Weaver’s Studio, and more.
Soon after Vijaya Dasami, all idols are taken to the River Ganga lying to the west of Kolkata for bisorjon or immersion. It marks the symbolic return of the goddess to her marital home in the Himalaya. The idols are put in the water after the completion of rituals. Elaborate arrangements are made by the police and disaster management groups to ensure there is no accident. The best way to watch the Bisorjon is to hire a boat and watch the proceedings from a safe distance. West Bengal Tourism and several private organisations also offer tour packages.
Information: Earlier, Durga Puja festivities began in full swing from the seventh day (of Navratri) onwards, But now you are likely to find people have started pandal hopping from the fourth or fifth day onwards. It can be hot and humid, so wear light cotton and comfortable walking shoes, carry drinking water. If you are accompanied by young children, be cautious lest they get lost in the crowd. For any kind of emergency situation, contact the local puja organiser or the nearest police booth (Police emergency number 100; download the Kolkata Police Citizen app Bondhu).