India is famous for its numerous festivals throughout the year and yet, Durga Puja being one of the best of them is rarely appreciated by other communities, let alone other countries. Every year, during September-October as I take leave from my busy schedule and return to Kolkata, a hundred voices question me if I am returning home to celebrate Diwali. Almost tired of explaining how important Durga Puja is to Bengalis, or anyone who has ever lived in Kolkata, I decided to write this article to answer a few questions about my favourite time of the year.
What exactly is Durga Puja all about?
Durga Puja or Dusshera is annual Hindu festival which is celebrated essentially over 5 days starting from Maha Shasti to Dashami. The festival marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil forces which had brought havoc on earth. She is a destroyer of the evil and protector of all. There is a long story that runs behind this festival and on the advent of the festival (Mahalaya), this story is displayed through dance drama on television and broadcasted on Radio. She is the ultimate symbol of power and a harbinger of joy and happiness.
How is it celebrated?
Durga Puja begins with Mahalaya. Thousands of people wake up early in the morning to tune in to the radio or sit in front of the television screen to watch the dance drama or listen to the stories behind goddess Durga’s existence. The main days of the festival are Shashti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami. Of course, many a times the celebration starts earlier as well.
Durga puja is essentially the festival of the people of West Bengal, commonly known as Bengalis and in every way it represents the quintessential Bengali culture. In order to truly celebrate this festival, it is therefore a must to understand the very essence of Bengalis themselves.
The Bengalis are the residents of the state of West Bengal. Well, they are the majority at least. They are stereotyped to be a unique bunch of intellectuals who choose to stick to their values and opinions at all costs. A typical Bengali’s day starts with reading every inch of the newspaper while sipping a cup of tea. They are concerned about every issue in the world and have an opinion about it. These opinions are formed by their enormous knowledge about a myriad of subjects due to the huge importance placed on education by their parents and the Bengali society.
Bengali parents want their children to achieve the highest level of education even if that means sacrificing a high salary level. Clearly, they are not businessmen by nature. Rather, a number of famous poets, writers, film makers, politicians and freedom fighters have originated from this land. This community clearly recognizes that family, friends and happiness matter more than money.
They are quintessentially lazy in many ways and can spend a whole day sitting on a pavement chatting with their friends. These chats are often termed as “adda”- it is this, that often keeps a Bengali smiling despite a thousand issues. There is a strong support system that exists among the members of this society and sharing their happiness and sorrows alike is an extremely important part of this system. Everyone believes it is their right to correct one another, to ensure their friends or family are following the morally correct path in their life.
Most importantly though, the Bengalis believe in cherishing every little moment and thus each day is a day for celebration. This is the real reason behind the endless festivals this community celebrates throughout the year. Likewise, very little work is done during the whole month of Durga Puja which is followed by other festivals during the same month.
Much like the Bengalis themselves, Durga Puja is a reflection of the victory of truth and justice over evil. It is a not only a celebration of their own principles but it also echoes their belief in the power of women. Moreover, it is a celebration of the finer things in life- art and culture.
Mahalya marks the advent of Durga Puja. As the leaves of deciduous trees begin to change colour with the arrival of autumn, the residents of Bengal also begin to witness a change in their mood. As the festive mood starts to engulf every soul, one can feel the joy and anticipation in the air.
The patient wait for their close ones to return to the city, to walk the streets with long lost friends while gorging on delicious food, to shop for at least five new dresses (one for every day of the festival) and to forget the daily stressful life in exchange for almost a week long celebration.
The story of Goddess Durga
On the day of Mahalaya, just like me, thousands of people overcome their laziness and break their sleep at dawn to either tune in to the radio or the television to witness the fascinating story of the emergence of Goddess Durga.
Long story cut short, once upon a time, a demon named “Mahishasura” performed a record breaking meditation in search of the god “Brahma” who is often seen as the creator of the universe. Unable to deter him from his austerities, Brahma appeared at last, from whom Mahishasura demanded immortality.
After a long hesitance, Brahma said “No man will ever be able to kill you”. Overjoyed with his blessing, this demon went on to cause havoc on earth and heaven but no God had the power to kill him according to Brahma’s blessing. To bring matter to an end, all the Gods in heaven combined their powers to create a lady force- “Durga” who received unique powers from each of the Gods.
As a lady, she now had the power to destroy Mahishasura. After a fearsome fight, the demon was finally killed by the “trishula”- the trident weapon of Devi Durga. The statues of Goddess Durga all around the city represents exactly this moment. The statues beside Devi Durga are those of her family members each of whom are known to have one special power.
Shasti- the first day
On the day of Shasti, with the statues of Goddess Durga being unveiled all over the city and gorgeous “Pandals” lighting up every corner, the celebrations officially begin! Pandals can be thought of as mini temporary homes which are built to host the statues of Goddess Durga.
Most Pandals have a theme and these themes truly represent the creative freedom of the Bengalis. These Pandals are what makes Durga Puja so unique. Creativity hits a whole new level while designing these Pandals.
From shoes to books to clothes, no item is ever too trivial to be used in the creation of a Pandal and no theme is ever unimaginable. From real life issues like global warming to mythological figures, the variety of themes knows no bounds.
It is important to note that not all those who celebrate Durga Puja are religious. I myself never pray to a statue but I make it a point to try and visit every famous Pandal in the city with my friends and family. On Shasti, it has become a tradition to meet some old friends from my society and after pushing through the crowds for hours, we finally relax in a café or a restaurant.
Saptami- the second day
With equal level of enthusiasm, Saptami is pretty much spent the same way. Meeting friends, stuffing ourselves with delicious street food and marveling at the beauty of the Pandals and the statues till our legs absolutely give up on us.
Ashtami- the most important day
This day starts extremely early with an age-old tradition named “Anjali”. Everybody dresses up in the traditional costumes and rushes to the nearest Pandal in their society. Everyone repeats the “mantras” in unison as chanted by the priest, while standing in front of the Goddess.
My favourite memory of this day is running back to my house to wait for the delicious breakfast that awaits me. Many of them even enjoy the free food that’s served by the Pandals – “The Prasad”. On this day, fashion takes a whole new outlook as the streets are filled with ladies draped in sarees and the men wearing kurtas.
On Ashtami, the city simply refuses to sleep. Thousands of people hit the roads and go Pandal Hopping whole night to catch the brilliant lighting of the Pandals.
Navami- the second last day
On Navami, one feels the urgency to enjoy every little thing as the next day would mark the end of the festival. No amount of fatigue stops us from “Pandal Hopping”. Although, for many, Durga Puja simply means dressing up in beautiful clothes and relaxing somewhere with their friends and family or simply observing traditional dance/drama/music held all over the city.
For me, every Pandal holds a unique beauty and imagination of an artist that must be witnessed. Imagine these artists and workers who plan and create such gorgeous artwork knowing they would be destroyed within 5-7 days, only for the purpose of entertaining the members of the society. If this does not show the true spirit of Bengalis, I don’t know what does.
Dashami- the last day
Yes, we feel a deep sense of sorrow as this festival comes to an end but do we cry our heart out? No! We dance our heart out instead! The last day is usually spent with the family and by the evening, the married women take part in a ritual named “Sidoor Khela”. “Sidoor” or “Sindur” is the red powder that adorns a woman’s head to signify she is married.
On this day, all the married women smear each other’s faces with Sindur and slowly everyone else joins in to dance to traditional Bengali songs to bid farewell to Devi Durga. This dance is popularly known as “Bhashan dance”- “Bhashan” signifying the process of immersing the statues of Goddess Durga and her family members on the river Ganges.
As the statues are put on a vehicle to be transferred to the banks of the river, a huge procession alive with music and dance follows it till the end. Every heart is filled with a tinge of sadness as the statues begin to dissolve in the holy water of the Ganges to remind us that nothing is permanent and yet life is worth celebrating.
A few tips for first time visitors
- Forget all the stories of you heard about how unsafe India is for women. During this time, Kolkata is extremely safe for women even during the night.
- The crowds can get worse than you can imagine. So, prepare for it. For women- preferably, go Pandal hopping with a few male friends. Although the city is safe during this time, some men would undoubtedly try to take advantage of the crowd to get uncomfortably close to the women.
- Watch the news and read the newspaper to find out the best Pandals for that particular year and visit them
- Do not even think about getting a car along as the parking spaces are far away from the Pandals and many roads are blocked. Use the public transport. When in doubt, ask the locals, they are more than willing to guide you
- Make sure you try every street food you see and definitely visit the fairs that take place in various parts of the city
- Wear comfortable shoes and clothes as hours of walking and pushing through the crowd will be an inevitable part of the journey
- Keep your camera ready before you enter the Pandal. Most famous Pandals have securities who stop you from staying in the Pandal for more than a minute at the maximum. Make sure you click fast and move along with the crowd.
- Plan your journey well. Kolkata is not a small city and the Pandals are spread out all over the city. It is better to break them down into small regions like South Kolkata (near Gariahat), Behala, Saltlake and North Kolkata and visit separate sections on each day.
- Most importantly, keep an open mind to enjoy the vibe of the city and the spirit of the festival.
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