When I came to live in Kolkata in the July of 2010, everyone in the family seemed to be very excited by the prospect of my first Durga Puja in the city. I was a bit surprised and confused because we aren’t Bengali. I was of the view that it’s the Bengali community that celebrates Durga Puja like we in north Indian celebrate Diwali. I often found myself perplexed by the excitement that my new cousins expressed. At times I would flaunt my multi-cultural and multi-geographical exposure and say, “What’s the big deal? People in North celebrate Diwali with a lot of fervor. Ganpati Puja in Maharashtra is as much a Pandal culture festival with thousands of people thronging LalBaghcha Raja for darshan.” I still remember my co-sister’s reaction, “Just wait and watch. You will realize what we are talking about.” That year I spent my first Durga Puja like everyone in Kolkata does. At the end of it, I was overwhelmed, I was overjoyed, I was humbled and I was in awe of this great festival of the City of Joy. Ever since this festival has grown on me and every year I convince my family and friends to visit Kolkata during Durga Puja at least once in their lifetime and experience the magic.
What magic do I talk about? Here are five reasons why I have become a brand wagon for 5 days of madness for the festival we fondly call Pujo–
The Magic That Builds Up
You can feel the magic in the air when people start thronging the markets for shopping two to three months in advance. The main markets of interest for most Bengalis for their Pujo shopping are New Market and Gariahat. If by chance you happen to cross these markets on weekends, you know that preparations of Puja are brewing slowly and steadily. From a fortnight from Sashti, one can feel the excitement in the air at the beginning of the Puja and the anticipation that Puja will be over before anyone will know.
Theme Based Pandals
These are not just pandals. These are carriers of a heritage that has been savored for decades and celebrated every year with compounded devotion and enthusiasm. Every idol (protima) of Ma Durga with her kids and co-sisters is looked upon as her incarnation on their very land with the purpose to spend some time with them and bless one and all. Over the years the idols have become more creative and come in various theme based forms to be in sync with the pompous Pandal decorations.
The Frenzy of Pandal Hopping
Right from Mahalaya (the new moon night before Navratri) people are in a frenzy to hop around the city for the visual treat that dozens of Pandals claim to have created. This year there was one Puja Pandal with a budget of 10 crores. Having created the Bahubali’s palace themed pandal, lakhs of people thronged this place to have darshan of Ma Durga who was adorned with 10kg of gold. It took some of my family members around four hours to get themselves back to their car once they had embarked on the mission to this darshan.
Coming Together of Mankind
Every household in locality happily contributes for the Puja idols and proceedings of worship for Durga Puja. And in return, everyone is invited to enjoy the same. Even non-Bengali families like ours, people excitedly queue up for offering their prayers to Ma Durga on Maha Ashtami and savor the Prasad that is cooked in a community center and given to all as a symbol of blessing from the divine goddess.
Likewise, I see every woman who adorns vermillion as a mark of her marriage line up to share the blessing with Ma Durga and the others in the queue with #NoConditionsApply. Nevertheless, I cringe at the startling divide that we create against that section of our sisters who are forbidden from being a part of these celebrations with the goddess. Yet the fact that communal differences are completely absent from these traditions is a thing I really appreciate.
Kudos To The Administration and Police Department
This is one occasion when I marvel at the dedication of the Police and para-force teams in making Puja Pandal Hopping a smooth affair. Given that crores of people in lakhs of vehicles are plying in the city to catch a glimpse of various theme based pujas, the administration has slowly but strongly learnt its lessons and created a robust system to enable everyone to roam around the city all night long for five days in consecution with an assurance that their safety is being taken care of. The Carnival like mood of the city gets a boost with the extra bandobast in every nook and corner making it more enjoyable for everyone.