If there is one thing that India is known for, it would be the cultural diversity, which gets aptly reflected by its colorful and loud festivals. August-September and October-November are two periods when you are dying to get a leave and yet you are unable to do so because you didn’t get your bookings confirmed and the prices are hiked up exorbitantly. Since it is the time for festivities, I decided to dedicate the Monday feature post to my cultural heritage (i.e. me being a Bengali) and the festival of Durga Puja.
From a very young age, I have been a part of the bengali community and have been an active participant in the cultural programs. However, my favorite memory is not of the acute stage fright that I suffer from the public performances, but it is related to the pandal hopping that I used to indulge in with my family during the festive time. (Pandal is the podium where the idol is placed and worshiped). Since dad came down to Kolkata (previously, and preferably named as Calcutta), I decided to indulge myself by revisiting those memory, just for a day. Clearly, I went overboard!
Kolkata, also referred to as City of Joy, comes alive during the festive occasion of Durga Puja. There is no other word that can descrive this phenomena. Every corner of the city will boast of a pandal that has been designed as per the theme decided by the committee of that area. Every street twinkles with the festival lights and there are numerous vendors and hawkers who will ask you to sample their goods. I have been questioned on numerous occasions by my friends, regarding ways to experience Durga Puja in Kolkata. So here is my answer –
- Mahalaya. It is one of the few things that I really love as a Bengali. Mahalaya is an auspicious occasion, observed a week before the start of Durga Puja. It is considered as an invitation to Goddess Durga to come down to earth to vanquish evil from earth. The first time I heard the recitation of “Mahisasura Mardini” was at a god forsaken hour of 4 am and I will never forget the goosebumps and shivers that I had.
- Traditional Bengali cuisine. Every restaurant and every street vendor will have some new delicacy to offer to you. However, my favorite is the bhog that is offered to visitors at various pandals. It sounds ominous doesn’t it? But it is nothing but a humble dish cooked as an offering to the god, which is then distributed amongst the people. It is commonly made of mixed vegetable curry, a sweet dish, fried items like brinjal or egg plant, and the infamous bengali chutney, served on plates made of sal.
3. Pandal Hopping. There are way too many pandals in Kolkata and you can never complete them in a day. What I have displayed here in my blog is barely a handful of them. The more famous ones are thankfully located in the north and south part of Kolkata which can be easily traversed by the use of metros. My dad prepared a printout of a map listing every pandal in the city and that’s how we used to start our excursion. It is a fun way of exploring your city and discovering new things.
4. Idol Making. If you look through the pictures, you will see that each idol is unique and different and nothing breathtaking. But to truly appreciate them more, you need to witness the entire process firsthand. The craft center is located at Kumartuli, located 30 mins away from the main city. The name literally means “potters’ centre”. During Mahalaya, if you visit this area, you will be able to see the eyes being drawn – a very auspicious ritual called as Chokkhu Daan.
An interesting fact that I would like to point out here is that, these idols are not made using just any kind of clay or mud. Every idol needs to be created with the right mixture of punya mati or blessed soil.
So what does this blessed mixture comprise of?
Mud is collected from the banks of Ganges, and it is mixed with cow dung and cow urine and is combined with handful of soil from the nishiddho pallis or forbidden territories. Now you must be wondering what this forbidden territory is about!!
Forbidden territory commonly refers to Sonagachi, one of the largest red light district in Asia. The area contains several hundred multi-storied buildings with an estimated 11,000 sex workers. I did ask my mother about this whole blessed soil thing. According to the customs, the priest must visit every sex worker in the area and beg for the soil. And while the soil is being scooped out, the priest has to chant a mantra blessing the donor. I asked mom about the reason behind it. According to her, its the society’s way to include them. However, considering they are shunned throughout the entire year, I dismiss this reason. Another foreseeable reason is that when one visits these women, they leave their virtues at their doorstep to enter a world of sin. As such, the soil has imbibed all this virtues, thereby making them blessed. According to google, another reason behind this custom originated as a tribute to courtesans who were considered as the patrons of art. However, the definition of courtesans has changed with time. Whatever may be the reason, the irony is something that I truly adore.
5. Dhunuchi Dance. This is almost good as witnessing Michael Jackson on stage. Those who perform the dance have to balance the earthen bowl containing burning incense either with his hands or on his forehead or in his mouth while dancing to the frenzy beat of country drums known as dhaak. Look at the video that I shared and you will see what I mean.
The festival of Durga Puja may be a 5 days extravaganza, but the diligence and hard work that goes behind creating each idol and the pandal takes more time, as you can see from the pictures. If you want to witness the authenticity of the grand celebration of Durga Puja, there is no better place than the city it originated from. Of course Mumbai has its fair share of pandals, but I truly enjoy the ones in Kolkata.
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