It’s that time of the year when Bengalis talk about “pujo pujo gondho” (which loosely translates to the fragrance of Puja in the air). Durga Puja is more than a religious festival – that’s something I made quite clear on my first article about Kolkata’s Durga Puja. This is an essential guide to experiencing Durga Puja in Kolkata if you are planning to visit during this auspicious event.
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I’m sure you have heard a lot of amazing things about Kolkata’s Durga Puja which prompted you to visit during this frenzy. The creativity, the carnival of art, the overflow of emotions, the hospitality of Bengalis – all that you read about are true. But they don’t come in separate packets. When you land in Kolkata you will experience all that, and more in one cacophonous package. Here are some of the things that come with the gift called Kolkata in Durga Puja.
The final countdown for Durga Puja begins with Mahalaya, the day from which starts the period called “Devi Pakshya”.
A decade ago I would have warned you of the bad roads and potholes, but it has improved a lot in the last few years. Now, every-time I visit Kolkata from Bangalore, I can totally see a city with much better roads, and some quite aesthetic beautification. So if you have visited other big cities of India, you will not be overwhelmed by Kolkata. Except for the three things below.
Durga Puja happens in the Ashwin month of the Bengali Hindu calendar. It is usually autumn, a season that’s highly romanticized in Bengali poems. Bunch of small white clouds floating in the clear azure sky, that blankets the earth covered in white “Kaash” flowers. In reality, however, this is a very unpredictable season. The sunny mornings turn into horrific hot noons very soon, followed by unwanted showers in the evening. We love to dress up in our brand new clothes and don our best looks when we go out, but by the time we return home we look like we have been through an accident.
Yes, India is an overpopulated country and we are used to the crowd. But the crowd during Durga Puja is something else. Huge pandals are raised in the already narrow lanes and thousands of people flock to see them all at the same time. I have been experiencing this since my childhood, but the Puja crowd never fails to overwhelm me. Every year I find myself asking the same question – “ Where do all these people live”?
One tip to avoid the crowd is to go for pandal hopping between 1 am to 2 pm. People usually prefer night-time because of the weather conditions I talked about. Don’t worry, Kolkata is safe in the night during the Durga Pujas. The only problem is that this is a tried and tested tip, I am not the only brilliant mind who came up with the idea. So even in those odd night hours, you may as well come across queues in front of pandals.
There is the beautiful sound of Dhaaki that echo in the air. Then there’s music on loudspeakers, which is sometimes soulful, sometimes not so much. But the noise I am referring to here is the constant honking in the streets. Honking is a constant phenomenon in Kolkata all the year, so Durga Puja will be noisier for obvious reasons. Somewhere in our mind, we think the soundwaves will splash on the streets and clear the traffic.
Thankfully, burning crackers is not a part of the Durga Pujo festivities.
If I haven’t scared you away with the list above and you have planned to experience Kolkata’s Durga Puja after all, then this is for you. If you are intimidated by what I said before and are doubtful about planning a trip to Kolkata during Durga Puja, this list is for you too. Because this is the greatest cultural extravaganza on the earth and I kid you not.
If you arrive Kolkata a little earlier before the Durga Puja begins, you must head straight to Kumortuli – the Potter’s Town. This is where all the idols are made. You will see the unbelievably talented artists relentlessly applying the finishing touches on their idols. There was a phase a few years ago when the traditional Durga idols were being replaced partly by modern-art versions. Even now we find some of them, but the craze has come down (thankfully). Traditional or modern, the detailing of the clay sculptures are outstanding. How this level of perfection is maintained on such a scale in a relatively short span of time, is something to ponder upon.
The series of rituals over four days starts off with the “kola bou snan”, i.e. bathing the sacred banana plant. The banana plant is draped in a new cotton sari and taken to the pond or river for a ritual bath accompanied by Dhaak and Shaankh (conch). There are two interpretations of Kola bou. Some consider her to be the wife of Ganesha – literal translation of Kola bou being Banana Bride.
In the other interpretation, the Kola bou is a “symbolic summary for the nine types of leaves (Nava-Patrika) that together form a sacred complex on Durga Puja”. Those who believe in the latter don’t consider Kola bou to be Ganesha’s wife, but a plant form of Ma Durga Herself. The ideal place to see this is in the banks of the Holy Ganga, Prinsep Ghat, Babughat, and other popular places. But this ritual is performed in the ponds as well.
“Puja Parikrama” is the sacred ritual of dressing up and going on a pandal-hopping excursion all over the city. This ritual has no religion, no community, no color – so it’s the purest of all. It’s where you open your heart and mind to the limitless creativity that is embodied in the visual spectacle of a temporary edifice. You have to plan it out, however. Every year I plan my puja parikrama calendar. Shashti morning for Behala (far-south), night-tour for North, central and Jadavpur area, Saptami for Khidderpore, Ashtami for Haridevpur and Mudiali, so on and so forth. Check out the Durga Puja pandal map here.
While the actual rituals begin on Saptami (the seventh day of Devi Paksha), the pandal-hopping frenzy hits the streets on Shashti (sixth day of Devi Paksha) itself. In fact, last year we saw queues on the famous “Chittorgarh palace” replica on the Chaturthi night (4th day of Devi Paksha) itself.
A great tip would be to buy VIP passes from BookMyShow, which will let you access to the VIP queue instead of the normal queue. Unfortunately, it may not be available for sale this year.
Here is my review of the Durga Puja 2018, for you to get an idea of the creativity.
The Kolkata metro is the best and fastest mode of transport which operates for extended hours during Durga Puja. Check news sites for upates on the metro timings.
If you are visiting for the first time I highly recommend booking guided bus tours and walking tours which are quite cheap. You can find the packages on the official site of West Bengal Tourism and other local group tours.
Kolkata is a heaven for foodies and it often wins the top spot for best street food in India. Walk, burn your calories, and add them back with delicacies like fuchka, jhalmuri,ghugni, egg-roll, mutton-roll, fish-fry, etc. You can also try international cuisine in Mocambo, Hatari, Mainland China and many others. Some of the best areas for fine dining are Park Street, China Town, and Ballygunje.
Kolkata is also the unofficial street-shopping capital of India. (Sorry Delhiites and Mumbaikars). You can buy a variety of fashion garments, saris, junk jewelry, sandals and everything that catches the eye. People like us who visit Kolkata for Durga Pujo every year get regular orders from friends to bring things that range from designer blouses, bangles, saris to a box of Kolkata roshogollas. I have learned the art to say no as I like to travel light. But if you are visiting Kolkata during Durga Puja for the first time, bring an extra bag with you.
The Pushpanjalee of Ashtami, the eighth day of “Devi Pakshya” is not just a religious ritual. As our society becomes more and more westernized, and people get busy with their own work, we often lose touch with our essential “para” culture. We are out-of-touch with the people living in the same neighborhood just four buildings away. This is the time we get to meet and greet them. The art and science of catching up with the highlights of the whole year in a few minutes are worth admiring.
This is the day when you get up early and dress up in traditional attire, and visit the nearest pandal with an offering for the Goddess. I’m not a religious person but this is one ritual I have never missed in so many years. While my parents always discourage me from eating out, this is the day when none of us have lunch at home. We hit the pandals in the afternoon to eat “bhog”, a special lunch in the honor of Ma Durga while catching up on the gossip from where we left it in the morning.
Don’t worry even if you don’t know anyone in the city. People of Kolkata are very much welcoming and would be elated to involve you in the morning ritual.
Before the idea of pandals brought Durga Pujo to common people, the festivities used to take place only the rich households. Even today there are many families which celebrate Durga Puja at their homes. Bonedi Bari is the Bengali for Heritage houses mostly present in North Kolkata, where the families still continue the tradition of arranging a Durga Puja festival. Truly experiencing a Bonedi Barir Durga Pujo is easier said than done.
We visit the Shoba Bazaar Raj Bari every year only to see the idol of Ma Durga resting in the beautiful mansion. To experience this truly would mean being involved in the whole process of organizing the Puja, and living with the large joint families which are not possible unless you are a part of the family.
However, you can join a guided bonedibari tour to get the best possible experience as an “outsider”.
Durga aarti happens in the evening every day from Saptami to Nabami. Keep the Ashtami evening free to watch the Durga aarti followed by the iconic Dhunuchi naach. When men and women dressed in gorgeous traditional attire take up earthen pots filled with burning coconut husk and dance to the rhythmic beat of the Dhaaki. This is the most-awaited celebration of Durga Puja, the proper definition of “having a blast”. There are Dhunuchi dance competitions as well, which judges you on how long and how gracefully you can dance without letting a single husk fall on the ground.
Dashami has some fun-rituals keeping in mind gloom that overcasts the mood of Bengalis on that day. This is the day Ma Durga leaves the earth and starts her journey back to heaven. Women apply vermillion on the goddess, put sweets in the mouth of Ma Durga as they bid Her farewell. Durga Puja is the epitome of how people humanized their deities. The emotions are the same as every mom when their child leaves home after spending a holiday. The vermillion is put on Goddess Durga, Her Lion, Her four children, their pets and even the demon Mahishasur. Cynic that I am, I find the eyes of the clay idol tear up during this time.
The evening ends with Visarjan when the Idols are carried to the river and immersed in the water. You can book boat tours to watch the ceremonial immersion from the river itself. As we bid Her goodbye with tearful eyes, we cheer each other up with the phrase “Aasche bochhor abaar hobe” (Coming year it’s happening again).
For the lack of a better word I am calling this a “concert”. If you have to enquire about it you can simply ask, when and where is the “function”. These are concerts often held in the pandal itself where various cultural events are organized. A typical Durga Puja concert begins with performances by local children which include recitation of Bengali poetry followed by well-rehearsed dance and song performances. Then there is a row of famous singers, depending on the budget of the Durga Puja committee.
Almost every day these pandals would have such shows which will also include friendly competitions for children and adults alike. The “concert” by famous artists are often reserved for a day right after the end of Durga Puja. It’s a great way to beat the post-puja blues.
This is one of the latest and most beautiful video summing up Durga Puja in Kolkata from an “outsider’s” perspective.
So, are you up for the experience of a lifetime? October 3, Shashti is when the magic begins. My tickets are booked for Kolkata for 27th September. Follow my Instagram stories and feeds for all the live-action in Kolkata from the moment I land at the Kolkata airport. Will keep posting the Puja parikrama albums for each day on my Facebook Page as well.
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A fascinating insight into a part of India I’ve yet to visit. Thank you for sharing such vivid detail – I’ll have to add this to the ever-growing bucket list 🙂
Oh I love this whole navratri feel..it’s like there is so much energy and happy vibes in the air.i haven’t experienced Kolkatta yet but really wanna do so
What glorious photos and you are killing me on the street food – my favourite part of any journey lol.
What a fascinating insight into this part of India. I could almost feel the buzz through your writing. I really like the sound of Puja Parikrama and hope I get to experience it myself one day.
Beautiful photos & great tips!
I know how hard it is to make such a post, the work you have to put into it, so great job!
Cheers from Stockholm Sweden 🙂
My best friend is Hindu, so I’m fortunate enough to hear about many examples of Hindu ritual and custom, but I hope to one day experience some it in the country of origin, rather than only in SW London! I love how you have found the poetry in the most unpoetic of circumstances, by the way – the line ‘Somewhere in our mind, we think the soundwaves will splash on the streets and clear the traffic.’ is just brilliant!
This is a fantastic post, you really get across the colour and spirit of the region. I’ve never been to India, but I really must go some time – I’m especially keen to try the street food!
Such an informative well written post. We loved out time in the Rajastan area and I would love to return and explore India a little further. Not only is it an amazing place to visit but the food it definitely worth the visit and my kids loved every minute of it.