5 Reasons why Bengal’s Durga Puja is Unique #ExperienceBengal


As I was taking a stock of the content on my blog I realized that there is absolutely nothing about my roots here, nothing about Bengal, Kolkata and Bengali culture that makes my core. So I decided to use the opportunity given by #MyFriendAlexa to begin a new series from Backpack & Explore – "ExperienceBengal", and what else to begin it with but Bengal’s biggest extravaganza and one of the world’s largest carnival of Art– Durga Puja. Fun, family- union and celebrations are the common theme of festivals all across the world, but each festival is also unique in their own way. So let me delve into the memories of my childhood and the essence of my adulthood to explore the most distinctive aspects of this serendipity. 
 Women in white-red Saris putting Sindur  on one another and people dancing to the beats of Dhaaki while carrying earthen-pot filled with burning coconut husk in both hands - this is what comes to the mind when you think of Durga Puja, beyond what is widely known through cinematic depictions #PujoIsComing
Before that just a quick background, especially for my international readers.

Devi Durga | Top 5 Unique Things about Durga Puja

What is Durga Puja?

Simply put, Durga Puja is a  Hindu festival of worshipping Goddess Durga – the Mother of Mortals and the Destroyer of the Evil. She symbolizes the power of a woman, a mother who is often looked upon only as a nurturer. Yes, Maa Durga (Mother Durga as we call her) is a nurturer but She is also a Warrior and a fierce Protector. She lives with Her family and comes to the earth to meet Her mortal children every year during the fall. This is when Bengal gears up to wish her with the blue autumnal sky, white clouds floating like cotton balls in the air, vast stretches of land covered in white ‘Kash’ flowers and fragrance of ‘Shiuli’ all around.  This also stems from the mythological story according to which the Goddess was actually born in the earth and she left her parents to settle in Kailash after her marriage. Just to clarify that this is the version of the story that is accepted in Bengal and as a part of the Bengali culture. The actual religious context of Durga Puja also celebrated as “Navaratri” in other parts of India is different. And that is what brings us to the first point on our list.


5 Reasons Why Bengal's Durga Puja is Unique #PujoIsComing| Durga Puja 2018 is just around the corner. Know a little bit about the World's biggest Carnival of Art and Culture
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# 1 The Story of Durga Puja and real-world symbolism

You might have noticed that the story we linked to the Goddess has an uncanny resemblance with our lives. The story of the return of the Goddess intricately blends with the human emotions of a daughter leaving her parents for a marital life (or for a job in the modern context) and returning home with her children to spend a holiday. Growing up, we connected this story with our mother who could visit her childhood home with us only once in a while during holidays. 

The Goddess has ten hands, which is also symbolic of the multi-tasking ability of women all over the world. The symbolism is not too spiritual or religious, rather universal feelings that people connect with irrespective of their religion.
Maa Durga with her family | Durga Puja
Meet Ma Durga (in the middle), Her four immortal children (from left)- Ganesha with His pet mouse, Laxmi with Her owl, Saraswati with Her swan, and Kartik with His peacock. Also, meet Her pet Lion and the Evil Mahishasur whom she killed to protect the mortals

#2  The Books and ….. the Cartoons (??!!)

Over two months ahead of the festival the local newspapers and other publication houses come out with their 500-to-1000-pages-long magazines, called “Pujo Shonkhya” (special Durga Puja covers). So if the Durga Puja is in October, we would start enquiring about the Puja editions from the end of July. These editions include magazines for children, young adults, and adults, and comprise of select literary work by best authors of the generation. The Puja editions are as important as the Puja itself because the love for reading and writing is the common chord connecting fellow Bengalis across the world. 
Okay, so far so good, but what about cartoons? Which religious people like to draw cartoons of their Gods? Well, we do! We love Ma Durga, and we love to see Her as our own mother, Her family as that of our own, we love to personify the Deity. Our Goddess loves to be a part of our lives and she is never offended by the display of affection through Art.
Durga Puja Edition Graphic
Goddess on a family cruise vacation- Mother in quintessential Bengali saree is reading a newspaper, Karthik taking a selfie, talented Saraswati with her Guitar, Laxmi enjoying nature and Ganesha is up to some mischief


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Goddess Durga and her family just got a Disney Makeover!! I love how Ganesha's pet mouse became Mickey and  Saraswati's pet swan became Uncle Donald! The Lion King is my favorite though!
 
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Goddess Durga's children busy helping their Mom get ready!
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Ma Durga with her Band of Boys and Girls - this is called good parenting!

# 3 The Mahalaya ritual

Mahalaya marks the beginning of the 10-day ritual of Durga Puja. The actual Puja (worship of the Goddess) begins from the 6th day after Mahalaya. Every year on this day my parents, my religious mother and my not-so-religious father would wake up at 4 am on this day and switch on the radio to wake us up. The All India Radio still airs an 80+-year-old recording of a program which was created in 1932. The one-and-half-hour-long Opera-style audio show is best described in the words of journalist Shikha Mukherjee as “a serendipitous combination of the ancient and the modern, of the orchestra, chorus (in plain Bengali) and Sanskrit chants”, which is easily the longest running show in the world.  Since the date of recording, the entertainment world has undergone revolutionary changes and several attempts have been made to modernize the show titled “Mahisasur Mardini” (Destroyer of the Evil) but they all fell flat on their face. So irrespective of the generation gap between me, my mother and my late grandmother, our opinion on this particular matter remains the same – “The programme is uneditable”. There is something about the chants that fills my heart with wonder and causes goosebumps even in a cynic like me.

# 4 The Pandals and the creative extravaganza

The current form of community Durga Puja was started in 1790 by a group of 12 young men who raised funds from neighbors to make a temporary stage (called Pandal) and conduct the festivities for all. Over the years Pandals have turned into a stage to showcase the artistic glory and creative genius of Bengal.  The puja committees earn a lion’s share of money these days from corporate firms all over the world who find it a worthwhile marketing investment. Take a look at these stunning pandals and try to imagine spending a whole night exploring a multitude of these, each with a different theme and design. Then try to digest the fact that these are temporary structures which would have to be dismantled in a week.
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White Temple of Thailand at Deshopriyo Park Durga Puja, Kolkata (Sourced via Vagabomb)

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A temporary Buckingham Palace built for the Goddess to stay in Her vacation at Sealdah (Source: BBC News)


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Creativity in interior decors of pandals and the statue of the Goddess 

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Devi Durga imagined as the Goddess of forests and nature - these are often based on the theme of the pandal


#5 The Night Life

The entire city of Kolkata comes alive at night during Durga Puja. With an average footfall of 2-3 lakhs in each of the prominent pandal every single day of the 5-day event (which easily extends to 7-days every year), it is easy to forget the time when you are out in the streets during Durga puja. People are out in the streets not for some religious procession but for pandal-hopping, meeting old friends and families and chatting all night at Maddox square. This is not the nightlife of clubbing and dancing, this is a unique kind of nightlife that has been in place for decades now.


#6 The Big Pujo Question

Ok, so this is an extra point beyond the 5 I promised. The big question on Durga Pujo - "Kota notun jama holo?" (How many new garments did you get this  Puja). You see, exchanging gifts with family and friends is a common thread among many festivals like Christmas and Diwali but for Bengalis, that gift has to be a garment. Because in the end the count of garments matter. Even families with limited means would go extra miles to buy their children multiple new dresses during Durga Puja, even if it means stocking them for the rest of the year. I am not a shopaholic, in fact, the opposite, but I will shop for Durga Puja, for the family as well as for myself. If there's a sale going on at some part of the year, I'd buy a new outfit and keep it tucked away in my wardrobe with tags on. Because when the pujo comes and I unwrap my new dress, I want to smell the freshness. If I wear the dress even once on any occasion, the dress becomes old for Durga Puja. So while I am completely fine with wearing my oldies till they tatter, on 5 days of Durga Puja, I need 5 different outfits. For those who think it's extravagance, it's not really so. Because in the markets of Kolkata you can still get a quality kurta for Rs.150 and even bargain on it!

I didn’t mention anything about the religious rituals here, because every festival has rituals unique to their own. What I wanted to discuss is some of those quirky little things that make this one of it's kind, and one that you have to experience once in your life!

So do you look forward to joining us in Bengal this October during the Carnival? 

Like most Kolkata people, I applied for my leaves and booked my tickets way in advance because I Pujo cannot be missed. What is your favorite festival and what’s unique about it? Share with me in the comments!! If you like this subscribe to the blog to follow my journey to explore life through travel. You can also follow me on Facebook and Instagram for some daily dose of inspiration.
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Theme Lighting all over the city during Durga Puja - in every prominent street and even the streets you never knew existed.



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[Updated: 9th September 2018]

Comments

  1. Being a Bengali i can relate with this post deeply, Very nicely explained and presented.
    Darun laaglo pore.

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  2. Loved this article! Amazing #Viddhreads #MyfriendAlexa

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  3. Durga Pujo has always fascinated me. So I breathed in every word of your post, soaking in all the festivity and creativity through your words and the pics you posted.
    Thank you for sharing all this information. I now feel closer to Bengal. I have visited Kolkata more than a couple of times, but never during Pujo :(
    Going Pandal hopping and watching all the creativity and festive cheer unfurl first hand is definitely on my wish list. And I hope to tick it off soon.

    As far as my favorite festival is concerned, it has always been Ganesh Chaturthi. Everything from the regal fervour to the magnificent vibe to the modaks is heart warming and breath takingly beautiful at the same time. (pretty much like Durga Pujo, I reckon) :).

    After all, every festival has its own charm, no? Appreciation, however, lies in the heart of the beholder :)

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    1. Thank you so much Pri for this elaborate conversation. I'd love to show you around next time you visit Kolkata. Not sure of the festival but Ganesha is my favorite God for sure . (p.s.loved your blog and voted for your poetry)

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  4. You know, despite not being a BengalI love Pujo time the most! Your detailed and informative post has made me begin my very own countdown as well!
    I love the magazine covers you shared! Wish I could read Bengali and get my hands on one!

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  5. Heard a lot about this from my friend as well. The pictures are itself worthing seeing again and again when i browse on internet for durga pooja in koltaka. I hope to witness it one day!

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  6. Beautiful piece and I got to know so many new things. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. This was such a treat to read. I actually quite enjoyed that the post didn't focus on the rituals but more on the quirkiness.

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  8. I enjoyed every word of the post. Durga Pujo in Kolkata is one which I feel everyone should experience at least once. I still haven't and after reading your post I'm craving to be there. I, however, have two questions that I need you to address.

    1) A few months back I went to the Wat Rong Khun - it's the most bizarre temple that I have ever been to and I have written about it on https://www.spoonsandsneakers.com/2018/07/23/the-bizarre-temple-of-chiang-rai-wat-roong-khun/ .(This link). My question is why are the pandals made depicting Buckingham Palace or the White temple that have no relevance to Ma Durga.
    2) I would be keen to listen to the All India Radio show. Does it come on a specific day and time? I would love to know.

    You have done a brilliant job of bringing forth all aspects of Durga Pujo. This is a good post! Looking forward to more interactions. Cheers!

    Dipali
    (Author https://www.spoonsandsneakers.com/ )

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    1. Thanks for reading and glad that you enjoyed it. To answer your first question - according to Hinduism God is everywhere, Ma Durga cannot be limited to a state or a country or even to this Earth, She is omnipresent therefore She can be anywhere.There have been pandals depicting moon and spaceship as well :). For second question tune in to AIR in the early morning of 8th October or you can get the full version on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXDnhN-hPT4&t=911s
      . Make sure you have 1.5 hours in hand to listen to the entire program at one go.

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  10. Hello, fellow Bengali! Such a lovely post, especially your pics of Anandamela got me all nostalgic. Love the countdown tickr too. Happy pujo this year.

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  11. Like a true blue Bengali, you have put a counter for countdown to Durga Puja. The most hilarious thing for me is how the Bengali people wait for Puja. One of my acquaintance said this on 15th August, "Ekhon aik Mash Aaaro" I was like yaar its complete two months. He replied, "August Toh shesh i. Octobere toh Pujo aaache i. It's only September toh!' ROFL.

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  12. Such an informative post about Bengal's Durga Puja. I am always fascinated about reading about Durga Puja. So beautifully you have written .Loved reading.

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  13. So many memories stirred, specially of AnandaMela!

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  14. Very nicely explained and found intresting

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  15. I am totally amazed. Such a detailed post... and seems so unique. Loved your blog. Will visit to read more.

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  16. This was such an interesting read, particularly as I've never heard of Durga Puja before. It sounds like they have a unique way of celebrating the festival over there. I really enjoyed reading the tales behind this festival, thank you!

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    1. Thank you so much! glad i could bring to you a figment of my culture

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  17. The worlds biggest carnival of art sounds absolutely impressive. I must say I did not hear about the Durga Puja before and also never experienced a Hindu festival. But your article made me really curious about it and I am sure I would really like it. All these traditions like exchanging gifts and many more sound so great, I am sure this is just one big celebration time.

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    1. Thanks.. Sure it is not as famous as Diwali or Holi, but to Bengalis in India this is almost like a purpose of life :D

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  18. I have never witnessed this festival in person but highly fascinated with it through Cinema. Loved those attire of women in red and white sari. I have many Bengali friends and heard about Durga puja celebration a lot. Wish to be invovled personally in this great festival.

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  19. This is such a comprehensive and informative post about Bengal's Durga Puja. I was lucky enough to witness a lot of Indian festivals, including this one. It was truly fascinating.

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  20. I am from Odisha and I can totally relate to your post and the excitement behind it. I love the pandals, especially the one that showcases Thailand's white temple. Never knew a pandal of that was made here. Interesting!

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  21. You have beautifully captured the essence of the Durga Pujo through your words and captures,Sinjana. We have a huge Bengali population back in Hyderabad who celebrate the festival with fervour and it was one event I eagerly always looked forward during from growing up years. The preparation, the unity of the Bengalis and the precision and elegance in the dance performances is always a delight to witness. And, those pandals look splendid.Thanks for a virtual tour :)

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  22. Durga Puja in Bengal is really legendary. Good of you to write a post with all the details , so helpful for the uninitiated. Durga Puja in Kolkata is something we want to be a part of in Kolata, hope to be there sometime in the near future. I understand that Kolkata erupts in a frenzy of colour during the Puja festivities. The unique pandals with their innovative designs is something we would really like to see.

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  23. I had plans to visit Kolkata this year and it dint materialize but now your post wants me to book a ticket right away. I am very fond of Durga Puja even though I am not a Bengali. I used to live in Lucknow where massive pandals and extravaganza used to take place and it never felt that I was not part of the Bengali community. Now I go to CR Park in Delhi but I know Kol is different. Someday, I want to wear that red and white Saree and dance on the beats of Dhaaki. I dint know about the preparations for the magazines and cover pages, that was an interesting bit.

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  24. Wow, your writing took me there with you. I love your descriptions, Durga Pujo has captivated my attention. Thank you for the inspiration

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