It is that time of the year when even the most laid-back Bengali will become the most energetic member of his para. It is that time of the year when even the most mundane spaces in the city of Kolkata will magically transform into mesmerising art-scape. It is that time of the year when even the strictest diets will make way for extended pet pujo. Yes, it is that time of the year when you have to be in Kolkata to experience the chaotic, charming, enchanting and endearing Durga Pujo festivities!
A primer to the Pujo
Durga Pujo is a celebration of the Mother Goddess and the victory of the revered warrior Goddess Durga over the evil demon Mahishasura. The festival honours the powerful female force in the universe. Durga Pujo is celebrated in West Bengal, particularly in the city of Kolkata. In fact, it is the biggest and most important occasion of the year in the region. Besides, Bengali communities in other locations across India and the world celebrate Durga Pujo too. Notably, the dates of the festival are determined according to the lunar calendar and the Durga Pujo is celebrated during the last five days of Navaratri and Dussehra. For you to mark your dates, for 2018, Durga Pujo will take place from October 15 to October 18, followed by the grand immersion of the Durga idols on October 19.
Experiencing Durga Pujo first-hand
If you want to experience Durga Pujo fully, you should be in Kolkata ideally at least a week before the festival starts so that you can witness the artistic finishing touches being put on the idols of the goddess. The Kumartuli area (literally meaning potters’ locality) of north Kolkata is where most of the idols are made and a trip to the lanes and by-lanes of this historic neighbourhood will help you witness the creative flourish that artisans and craftsmen here are renowned for. However, despair not if you are not able to visit Kolkata just before the festivities begin. For there are still plenty of other ways to enjoy the festival.
The easiest way to participate in the celebrations is to take a Durga Pujo festival tour, such as the ones organised by the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation. These tours normally have guides who are seeped in the history of the Durga Pujo in the State and will regale you with anecdotes as you walk past the various famous installations across Kolkata. These guides will also provide you with a slice of history of the para area and will also ensure that you savour local snacks and savouries like the jhaal murioralu-bhaaja or fuchkaa. Alternatively, for a more leisurely experience, you can also take one of the especially-curated pujo tours organised by the Calcutta Tramways. Sitting comfortably in a decorated tram, you can meander your way through the city, halting at spots that have must-see pandals.
Because there are hundreds of pandals in Kolkata, it’s only possible to visit a fraction of them and touring even these requires careful planning as they’re spread all over the city. However, you’ll find the most well-known ones in north and south Kolkata, which is conveniently connected by the Metro railway. The most popular time for pandal hopping is in the night when the installations are all lit-up. However, you must contend with the crowds, which though are generally orderly. Some of the famous idols and pandals that should be in your itinerary include those in Baghbazar, Kumartuli Park, College Square, Mohammad Ali Park, Santosh Mitra Square, Badamtala Ashar Sangha, Jodhpur Park and Sitala Bose Mandir. While these are fairly well-dispersed across the city, you can also take time out to visit the smaller pandals along the way, which are also dressed in particular themes and have a rich story to tell.
While Kolkata’s public Durga Pujos tend to get all the attention, the traditional ‘Bonedi Bari’pujas in the city’s palatial private mansions are also worth experiencing. The mansions belong to affluent aristocratic zamindar (landowner) families who have been continuing with their traditional household pujas for centuries. Such households are spread out across Kolkata, as well as other major towns in Bengal, including Murshidabad. However, two of the most famous ones in Kolkata include the Sovabazar Raj Bari and the Rani Rashmoni Bari.
Witnessing other Pujo ceremonies
While pandal-hopping is an essential element of the Durga Pujo, one can also attend the ‘Kola Bou Bath’ ceremony. The auspicious start to the Durga Pujo commences with the invocation of the holy presence of Goddess Durga into the idols. The ritual begins early in the morning before dawn, with the bathing of a banana tree in the mighty Hooghly River. According to the rituals, the banana tree is dressed like a newly-wed bride (known as ‘Kola Bou’ or the banana bride) in a sari and is used to transmit the goddess’s energy. The best places to attend the ritual are Prinsep, Baghbazar and Ahiritola ghats, which are all well-connected with the various parts of the city.
The last day of the Durga Pujo, known as Dashami, which is also a sad day on the calendar as the festivities come to an end, the rituals commence with married women placing red sindoor (powder) on the idols of Goddess Durga. They then smear it on each other with chants and intonations. This part of the ceremony is often referred to as sindoor khela. In the evening, the idols are immersed in the waters. One of the most popular immersion points is Babu Ghat (centrally located near the famed Eden Gardens), although you’ll be able to catch the action at any of the ghats along the river. An excellent way of seeing it is by boat. Yet again, the state’s tourism department operates special immersion boat cruises down the river.
Durga Pujo also means pet pujo
There is never a better time to sample Kolkata’s famous Bengali cuisine than Durga Pujo. The festival isn’t considered to be complete without food and one can find a wide array of it everywhere – on the streets, at the pandals and in specialty Bengali restaurants. Food served to visitors in the pandals is called bhog (offerings to the god, which is distributed). It commonly consists of mixed vegetable curry, a sweet dish, a fried item and chutney. Furthermore, Kolkata’s Bengali restaurants have exclusive Durga Pujo menus packed with authentic delicacies. Some of the restaurants that you should try out include Bhojohari Manna, Saptapadi, The Bhoj Company, Kasturi and Kewpie’s Kitchen, among others.
So, visit Kolkata during the Durga Pujo and come back with memories of a lifetime – and yes, with overflowing shopping bags too!
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