Sooooooo.. It is that time of the year again.. The mornings are just starting to get the crispness that will mark the beginning of the cooler months, the sunlight is milder and your Bengali colleague is either crying in a corner about not making home for Pujas or gleefully packing to go home, either way it’s Durga Puja time!!! Yaaaaaay!! Now, don’t get me wrong, the whole of India worships the Goddess in various forms during these days, but there is something amazing about the craziness that is the Durga Puja. Everybody has their own traditions and anecdotes about the five day festival that is the highlight of the year for most Bengalis all over the world. In fact, it is like Christmas for us, a lot of parallels actually, both involve gods, decorations of homes and public areas, worship, shopping, gift giving, copious amounts of food and both festivals when over leave you with a sad feeling in your heart and hope that there is always next year. For the sake of this article, I am focussing on the festivities that take place in Calcutta, though Durga Puja is celebrated anywhere with a significant Bengali population. From Boston to Bangkok, if there are five Bengalis, there is a Durga Puja. Without further ado, here is my list of top 10 things to do in Kolkata during Durga Puja in chronological order
1. Go shopping: Shopping for the Pujas begin about a month before the festival and is often a family affair. Moms, dads, kids and sometimes grandparents too, all make a beeline to New Market or Gariahat or these days to the many swanky malls that dot the city in order to get the best deals for the buck. New clothes and shoes are bought, gifts are purchased for that long lost cousin who you contact just once a year to exchange gifts. These are often full day excursions for families who enjoy an outing while scarfing down rolls, fish frys and cutlets. We used to go shopping the day after Mahalaya, (which signifies the beginning of the festive period) Baba would come home early from work, Ma would be relieved to not have to cook and us kids were delirious at the thought of new clothes and the eating out that would follow. Head out to either New Market or Gariahat for shopping, you can sometimes get a steal for much less than what you would pay for at the mall. Try the rolls at Bedouin in Gariahat or Nizam’s if you’re in New Market. If you like silver jewelry, Chamba Lama at New Market is the place to go.
2. Get up at the crack of dawn to listen to the Mahalaya broadcast: Mahalaya was probably one of the happiest days in the year for us. It meant Puja and Puja vacations were only a heartbeat away. For some 83 years now, Mahalaya is also characterised by the program Mahisasuramardini, (The Slayer of the Buffalo Demon) narrated by the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The two hour long program narrates the story of the birth of the Goddess Durga and her famed slaying of demon, Mahishasura. It is broadcast by All India Radio at 4 am on Mahalaya morning. While on most days we had to dragged out of bed, Mahalaya mornings found us wide awake and excited. We would huddle around the radio while Baba fiddled with the radio to set the station and it was the one of the few days we were allowed to have tea. These days almost every Bengali channel has their own Mahalaya programming, Doordarshan still shows the one featuring Hema Malini, watch it if you if you prefer visual stimulation, but do try the radio version at least once, it is available online if the radio is not feasible for you.
3. Go for a drive along the Ganges on Mahalaya morning: While Mahalaya signifies the beginning of the Puja festivities, it also signifies the end of the Pitru Paksha, a 15 day period where one’s ancestors are remembered and offered food in various forms, most common being rice balls and sesame seeds. Mahalaya being the last day, many people head to the ghats of the Ganges to perform this ritual. It is a sober ritual and connects us to the generations before us. Take a drive along the banks of the river to see this timeless ritual take place in the same way it has taken place since the beginning of time. Stop at the tea stall in front of the Gurudwara Sant Kutiya on Harish Mukherjee Road for tea and jalebis.
4. Attend Bodhon on Shashti evening: Have you ever seen a Goddess come to life? I have, and so has every Bengali since the dawn of time. When the idol of the Goddess and her family is brought to the pandal, their faces are covered and their hands are empty. On Shasthi evening, the priest finally uncovers the faces and begins the Bodhon, the invocation of the deity, requesting her to come and reside in the idol for the next five days. The weapons of the Goddess are then worshipped and put in her hands one by one.
5. Get dressed to the nines and go pandal hopping: Frankly, if you do not go pandal hopping during Durga Puja, then there is no point in celebrating at all. Pandals come up all over the city, each housing their own version of the Goddess and her family, each vying to outdo the other by putting up the most innovative themes and lights. The themes vary wildly, they derive from pop culture, (a Titanic themed pandal the year the movie came out) to traditional and sometimes just far out, (one time a group made a pandal made out sugarcane fibers). Describing the pandals and the lighting and everything involved would not only take me three more blog posts but also would not come close to reality, the only way and trust me it is the only way, to fully enjoy the experience of the Pujas is to go pandal hopping. You may have to stand in serpentine queues and your feet may hurt and you may even wonder what is the point of it all, but once you enter the pandal and see the painstaking work and love that has gone into creating these masterpieces all will be forgotten. One really does not have to visit ALL the pandals, there is not enough time for that, just the famous ones and the award winning ones like the ones at Baghbazaar or Kumartuli. While there are many awards these days, the most prestigious one is the Asian Paints Sharad Shamman which has been around for some 30 years now. You can also wait for the awards to be declared, by Ashtami evening and head out to winning ones. What we used to do was to go out at 3 am on Ashtami night/Nabami morning and have a look at the winning pandals in an effort to beat the crowd. Apart from the whole pandal viewing, pandal hopping is also a way to see and be seen, everybody is dressed to the nines and unmarried people from both sexes are on the lookout for that one cute guy or girl. It is the classic Bengali love story, boy and girl lock eyes in a crowded pandal and love follows.
6. Participate in or observe Pushpanjali: Pushp means flowers and anjali means offering, thus Pushpanjali is the offering of flowers by the devotees to the Goddess. Pushanjali takes place in the morning to early afternoon every morning from Saptami to Nabami. Different families have different customs for the day they offer Pushpanjali, our family offers it on Ashtami morning for instance, but there is nothing stopping one from offering it everyday. A ritual fast is observed prior to performing the rites, which is broken by consuming a fruit prasad afterwards. If you intend to participate in the custom, please remember to be bathed and dressed in clean if not new clothes, bonus if the clothes are ethnic, kurta pajamas for men and sarees or salwar kameez for women.
7. EAT!!!!: While most of India finds opportunities to fast, we Bengalis, find opportunities to eat. Most of our festivals revolve around food and Durga Puja is no exception. From the bhoger kichuri, chorchori, labda, tomatoer chatni, papad and payesh to the traditional illish machh, mochar ghonto, dhokar dalna to the pedestrian rolls, moglai porota, phuchka and other street food that makes Calcutta the best place for street food in the country, food is an integral part of the festivities. Many kitchens are closed for the five days of the festivals, housewives take a break from the everyday cooking and thoughts of calorie counting are flung out of the window. Bhog is food given as offering to the Goddess and then distributed among the devotees. Obviously, the bhog offering is not enough for large crowds so everybody is served a small amount in the beginning with food cooked separately forming the bulk of the meal. Most people head to their neighbourhood pandal for lunch of kichuri (a lentil and rice preparation), labda ( a mixed vegetable dish), chatni (chutney made of tomatoes or pineapple or in some cases raw mangoes), payesh (rice pudding) and papads. Food is vegetarian, cooked in ghee and contains no onions or garlic. This is your basic bhog, the food varies from pandal to pandal, some pandals serve fish curry or pulaos or even radhabalabis with cholar daal as bhog. On Nabami, traditionally, the last day to enjoy Hilsa fish, some pandals may even offer Hilsa on the menu. For a truly authentic eating experience, start the day with luchis or kochuris, (fried bread, luchis are plain, while kochuris have a filling of dried lentils or peas) and aloo’r (potato) dom. Head to your neighbourhood pandal for bhog and at night go to a restaurant serving Bengali food. Kewpie’s, Oh! Calcutta, Bhojohori Manna etc are the places to go for an authentic Bengali meal. For snacks, consume copious amounts of rolls, cutlets, moghlai porotas (parathas stuffed with eggs and minced meat), jhalmuri (spicy puffed rice), samosas and telebhajas (fried vegetables). For dessert, there is a wide variety of Bengali sweets made with chana (cottage cheese) on offer, rosogollas, pantuas, rasmalai, chomchoms, you get the drift.
8. Attend a dhunuchi naach and Sandhi Puja: If you have ever seen the movie Parineeta, you would have observed the part where Saif Ali Khan and Sanjay Dutt, dance with smoking clay containers in their hands. These containers are called dhunuchis, they’re made out of clay and contain coconut husks which burn incense, mostly camphor. The participant picks up the dhunuchi and dances to the beat of the dhak. Depending on ability, they dance with one, two or even three (third is held by the teeth) containers at one time. It is mesmerising to watch and the hypnotic beat of the dhak makes this a surreal experience. The Sandhi Puja takes place juncture of Ashatmi and Nabami. It can take place anytime during the day or night, according to the alignment of the stars that year. Some people keep a fast throughout the day on Ashtami to offer the Puspanjali during Sandhi Puja. What is special about this puja is that it commemorates the puja done by Lord Ram to propitiate the Goddess before the war with Ravana. Legend goes that he fell one short of the 108 lotus flowers to be offered to the goddess, so he offered his own eye instead. As a result, this puja features 108 lotuses and clay lamps. Crackers are burst to signify the beginning and the dhak provides the music to the aarti. It is so awe-inspiring to see the priest, oftentimes old and doddering, become so entranced by devotion that the aarti begins to take form of a hypnotising dance. If you plan to see the Sandhi Puja, please check online for the timings for that year. If you can catch it on a year it is scheduled for late night, do try to make it, you will not regret it.
9. See or participate in Shidur Khela: On the last day of the festival which is Vijayadashami or Dusshera, married women congregate at their neighbourhood pandals to bid the Goddess and her children goodbye. They perform aarti, apply vermilion, feed them sweets and wipe their faces with betel leaves. The kids touch their notebooks to the feet of the idol for luck in their exams. After the offerings are made, women apply the same vermilion on each other as a prayer for long and happy married lives. The scene is usually that of glee mixed with sadness that the festival is over. This is the day for me to go fully Bengali in my attire, I wear the saree in the Bengali style, wear my shankha polas, (red and white bangles, signifying marital status) if I remember to bring them along, alta (lac) on my feet and of course shidur in my hair parting. Coming home from Shidur Khela is a hilarious exercise for me since I celebrate the Pujas in Ahmedabad where my parents stay, most people have no idea about Shidur Khela and thus, look at us quite quizzically, wondering why we’re celebrating Holi on Dusshera. 😛
10. Attend the immersion: Dashami is perhaps the saddest day of the year for any Bengali child, the five days of running around free and appearing at home only for basic necessities are over, the Goddess is on her way back home and your parents suddenly remember all the holiday homework that you were given. The only glimmer of light in this hopeless situation is the bhashan, or immersion of the Goddess into the Ganges or any other body of water. The idols are loaded on to trucks and children and adults clamber onto them, escorting them to the river. Cries of, “Aschhe bochhor abar hobe!” (It will happen again next year) rent the air as everyone prepares to bid goodbye. Head to any of the ghats along the river to see the immersion.
So that is it. My top 10 things to do in Calcutta for Durga Puja, if I have missed out on something, please let me know in the comments and if you ever get the chance to visit Calcutta during the Pujas please do go. It should be on everyone’s bucket list.