Durga Puja is an annual festival that celebrates Goddess Durga, the embodiment of the divine feminine force known as Shakti. Here’s a peek into the spirited phenomenon — part religious, part cultural, wholly social — that subsumes Kolkata, and Bengal, this year during 4 – 8 October.
'Dhunuchi naach' is a dance worship done by women - and even men - balancing earthen incense burners in their palms and, sometimes, even in the mouth to the accompaniment of dhaaks (drums)
Like the aromatic smoke that rises in whorls from the two dhunuchis (earthenware incense burners) balanced in her palms, the lady in a red-and-gold sari rhythmically sways, bends and pirouettes as if in an oblivious trance. Accompanying her graceful dance worship, called dhunuchi naach, are frenzied beats of dhaaks (drums) that drown out the vociferous tinkling of bells, the rhythmic incantations of jap (prayers), and the intermittent blowing of energy-emitting conch shells. Oceans of jostling-jousting people surge and ebb in waves inside the pavilion. Up on the dais, luminescent Durga, accompanied by her four children — sons Ganesh and Kartik, daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati — silently witnesses the delirium her ‘homecoming’ has caused.
Barir pujas are traditional pujas that are organised in households and some have been taking place for decades.
You’ll likely be told that Durga Puja — when Kolkata, and indeed all of Bengal, explodes into a frenzied whirligig of devotion, hoopla and merriment — is a religious festival that has organically evolved into a cultural and social phenomenon. But what no one will tell you is that it is a lesson on life, its meaning and its impermanence. To understand puja then is to understand life itself.
The priest gives final touches to the idols before the ritualistic prayers.
Mother Durga is the embodiment of Shakti, the divine feminine force. She emerged from the cumulative energies of all gods, including the Trinity, to vanquish demon Mahishasura who could not be defeated by any god or man. Sarodiyo Durgotsav or the autumn Durga Puja marks the Mother’s homecoming after overpowering Mahishasura. These are the five days she descends from heaven with her children to be at her parents’ home. Bijoyadashami, the last day before her departure, celebrates her victory over evil.
A Durga idol is paraded before its immersion in the Hooghly river.
The physical manifest of her time-marked presence on earth begins months in advance when sculptors of Kumartuli – an area that derived its name from the skilled potters or kumhars who inhabited it when the British East Indian Company was dividing Kolkata into distinct profession-based neighbourhoods – begin collecting soil from the Hooghly, a tributary of Ganga River.
Copper- sheened Durga and her four children in a pandal.
Using clay, straw, bamboo and ingenuity, they craft the idols. It’s here that Durga, depicted seated on a lion, gets adorned with curly hair and ethereal countenance, and the demon Mahishasura finds his form and ferocity. Slogging for endless months, the kumhars meticulously paint, robe and adorn their labour in daker shaaj (decorations). The idols — some exceptionally tall and ornate — are carefully transported on trucks and boats to all parts of the city, the country, and even abroad.
Every year, artisans and puja organisers try to outdo each other by designing innovative idols and pandals - pavillions in which the goddess is enshrined. Seen here is a sandalwood Durga idol set in a colourful marquee.
For Bengalis the world over, the eternal voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra is the signal of approaching festivities. The Mahishasurmardini (the annihilator of demon Mahishasura) is a 90-minute recitation of Chandipaath in the deceased Bhadra’s voice. Every year, on Mahalaya, the day that ushers in the lunar fortnight of Durga Puja, the country’s official broadcaster, All India Radio, transmits the programme.
Food is an integral part of puja celebration and countless makeshift stalls and kiosks erupt all over the city.
The first-ever community puja was apparently held in 1757 as thanksgiving to the goddess for the thumping victory in the Battle of Plassey between the British and a native Indian king. Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur of the Sovabazar Rajbari in Kolkata (then called Calcutta) organised a massive celebration which was attended by Robert Clive and General Hastings. Dubbed the Company Pujo, it paved the way for the sarbajanin, or community, puja. What until then was a private, modest, religious affair became elaborate and grand.
A woman dressed traditionally in the lal-paar sari (white sari with red border) celebrates the pujas.
Today, of course, Durga Puja is a multimillion blockbuster. Creatively designed, themed and lit pandals (marquees inside which the idols are enshrined) vie for top honours and higher footfalls. In recent years, buoyed by the competitive spirit, the ideas have been staggeringly innovative. From pandals reflecting current issues and social causes to those replicating iconic structures like the White Temple of Thailand and Rajasthan’s forts, and from those that depict scenes and sets from films like Titanic and Bahubali, to those shaped like ships and submarines, the most ingenious minds work in tandem, painstakingly erecting structures that will become the talking point for months.
A man does the dhunuchi naach with the incense burner in his mouth.
Food is an integral part of the puja and countless food stalls erupt all over the city. Kiosks and mini-restaurants flourish even within the pandals, enticing with Bengali must-haves like luchi (a plump, crispy, deep-fried bread of flour), alur dum (potato curry), kosha mangsho (mutton in gravy), biryani, and maach (fish), along with melting sweets — you are, after all, in the “sweetest part of India”, as ads of Bengal Tourism eagerly claim. However, the prized morsel of every puja is the divine bhog, food offered to the Goddess. It usually comprises khichuri (a rice-and-lentil combo), labra (mixed veggies) and tomatar chatni (tomato chutney). Cultural programmes and music are the hallmark of all evenings.
The 10 arms of Goddess Durga symbolise that she protects her devotees from every direction: Eight corners, the sky and the earth.
On the final day, after the sindoor khela (see sidebar), the best idols are paraded through the city in a grand Immersion Carnival. It’s the last shot — and the most convenient one — at getting a close look at the choicest pujas in different localities. After five days of festivities attended by more than 10 million people, the time to bid adieu approaches. But one last formality remains.
Far from the rambunctious celebrations, Durga is taken to the banks of the Hooghly. This is where the most profound lesson of the pujo can be gleaned. When the idols are immersed in the river, life comes full circle as the clay from the Hooghly used to make the idols reunites and assimilates with its own again in consonance with the Hindu belief that we’re all fashioned out of earth and will merge with it again after cremation.
Artisans of Kumartuli, the potters' colony of Kolkata, bring alive the idols of Durga and her children using clay, straw, bamboo and plenty of ingenuity.
That is the essence of the celebrations symptomatic of Durga Puja: It is the sum of passion and faith, of joy and revelry. But, more than all else, it’s the unabashed and unadulterated celebration of life and living.
Happy puja, or, as the Bengalis would tell you, shubho pujo!
On Bijoyadashami, as Durga is set to leave her parental home to ascend to heaven once again, married women bid her adieu by applying vermilion on her forehead and feet. In a ritual called sindoor khela (literally, a “game of vermilion”), they then smear sindoor — a symbol of marital status — on each other’s faces in a gesture meant to wish them a long and happy married life.
On the final day, the best idols are paraded through the streets of Kolkata in a grand Immersion Carnival.