3Sixty

3Sixty

Dawn of Durga

As the plane touches down in Kolkata, I spy what appears to be row upon row of  lowing lights in the distance, setting the dusk sky ablaze with their luminescence. The lights, reminiscent of a magical fairyland, cast their spell on me. Breaking my reverie, the passenger beside me remarks that Durga Puja is in full swing on the streets of Kolkata, the glowing lights demarcating pandals (makeshift structures) set up to mark the festivities. 

Words: Chitra S      Photography: Adam Lee

As the aircraft slows to a halt, my friendly neighbour informs me that he cannot wait to disembark and go pandal-hopping – an activity much like pub-hopping, minus the alcohol! Worshippers and revellers move from one pandal to another, admiring the decorations and offering prayers to Durga, the Hindu Goddess whom the festival honours. I arrive in a city in the thick of festivities, just days before the festival culminates with the immersion of the Goddess in the Ganges.

Flanked by Her divine offspring, Goddess Durga strikes a powerful pose with a trident cast into the demon Mahishasura.

Flanked by Her divine offspring, Goddess Durga strikes a powerful pose with a trident cast into the demon Mahishasura.

PANDAL TO PANDAL

The steady beat of the dhak (traditional drum) guides me as I make my way around  section of the city, keen to soak up the carnival atmosphere and explore the lavishly decorated pandals. This being Kolkata, a city of over four million inhabitants (its  metro population is over 14 million people), pedestrian traffic during Puja season takes a bit of getting used to and a lot of elbow jostling, but the experience is worth while to understand the significance of the festival. The revered Goddess has Kolkata entranced with thousands of these makeshift altars dedicated to her worship within the city limits alone. It would be a monumental task to see them all but thankfully, maps and pandal guides are easy to come by, and Kolkatans are always willing to point tourists in the direction of the better pandals. Bear in mind: One may end up traversing the entire city in search of the BEST pandal, which is not a good idea in Puja season due to the traffic congestion. My advice is to pick an area to explore and stick to it.

Feeding the Goddess and Her children.

In the hopes of gaining the blessings of the gods for the coming year, sweetmeats are fed to the Goddess and Her children during the final hours leading to the bisharjan (immersion).

     In my assigned section of the city, men, women and children – locals and tourists alike – throng the pandals, gawking at their splendour and stopping to capture them using camera phones. These shrine-like structures range from the simplest roadside altars with clay figurines of the Goddess, garlanded with fresh flowers, to no-expense-spared displays in which religious fervour melds with creative design in a quest for the ultimate pandal. Some of the multi-lakh (the pandals can run into thousands of USD) displays may seem a little over the top and extravagant but many Kolkatans, rich or poor, find joy and excitement in pandal-hopping and the prospect of seeing structures that can top the one they’ve just visited. It is a time where there’s almost no distinction between the classes and all are free to enjoy these amazing creations that pay homage to a much-beloved goddess.

Traditional drummers also known as Dhakis.

The rhythmic beats drummed up by the dhakis (traditional drummers) signal the start of festivities

Durga Puja festival.

Offerings of flowers and incense sold by the roadside during the Durga Puja festivities

     Although the Goddess Durga is the mainstay of every pandal, contests held citywide for the best decorated structures inspire altars that run from the beautiful to the garish. There are pandals that feature Disney characters while the Eiffel Tower and the Titanic appear in others. Glad to escape the tacky, I find myself in a cavernous space decorated with skulls and bones that’s vaguely reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!

Devotees hitch a ride to watch the bisharjan at Ichhamati River.

Devotees hitch a ride on the back of a cart to watch the bisharjan at Ichhamati River bordering Bangladesh.

     Quickly making my exit, I explore more pandals and soon discover one that takes my breath away. In this, my favourite, the Goddess balances on a crescent moon with an angel beneath her. Behind Durga is a mesmerizing blue backdrop that reminds me of both the ocean and the skies. It is a vision that inspires quiet reflection, one which drowns out the din of blaring horns and the chatter of crowds and brings me a much needed moment of inner peace.

RETURN OF THE GODDESS

Hindus believe the gods conjured Maa Durga or the Mother Goddess to defeat the demon Mahishasura who was bent on destroying all things pure and virtuous. The Goddess is depicted with 10 arms, astride a lion with a trident through the demon – imagery that is symbolic of the battle between man’s spiritual fervour and his baser urges. In essence, Durga Puja is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, and festivities are held over the course of 10 days in the Bengali month of Ashwin. Based on the Hindu lunar calendar, this usually falls in September or October each year. Bengalis also believe this to be the period  in which the Goddess leaves her heavenly abode and visits Earth. Festivities kick off with the Mahalaya or homecoming that begins on the day of the new moon.

Sindur Khela ritual.

Married women smear each other’s faces with sindur (vermilion powder) during the sindur khela ritual.

10-armed Goddess.

The sculpture of the 10-armed Goddess balanced on a crescent moon with an angel beneath her inspires serenity.

     Mahalaya is considered so auspicious that it is on this day that the Goddess’ eyes are painted by artisans who make clay idols for the festivities. In the warren of artist  sheds in Kumartuli, the dawn of Mahalaya marks a frenzy of activity as artists perform chakshudanam, which literally means to give the eyes. Mahalaya is also a day for remembrance, when Bengalis honour the memory of their deceased ancestors by performing tarpan, offering prayers and food to the departed by the banks of the river Ganges.

Pandals

Pandals range from the simplest roadside altars to temporary structures that resemble grand palaces

The happiness face

The figurines used in the festivities are expertly moulded out of clay by the artisans of Kumartuli

     I miss the tarpan as I arrive in the city several days after Mahalaya. On the morning after my pandal-hopping excursion, I make up for lost time by visiting the homes of several Kolkatans to see how pujas are conducted on a smaller scale – the way they used to be done in days of old. At beautiful heritage mansions like the Rani Rashmoni House in Janbazar and the Chandra Bari House on Bowbazar, priests chant prayers in a theatrical setting while family members and visitors watch the proceedings from their seats in the courtyard.

     My favourite home-based puja though, happens by chance at a sprawling mansion in the countryside on the road to Taki, a small town close to the India-Bangladesh border. On a quest to capture photographs of the main event – the bisharjan – or immersion of the Goddess, I am pointed in the direction of Taki, where I will be able to take a boat out onto  the Ichhamati River to witness the dramatic proceedings. Taki, however, is a three-hour drive from the city. En route, my driver makes a pit stop at Dhyannyakuria, a Baroque-style mansion dating back some 150 years that used to house the prosperous Gaine family of jute and rice merchants. While marvelling at the European architecture and the scale of the property, I am told that the family is holding their annual puja in a smaller haveli close to the big house. Delighted with this stroke of luck, I ask my driver to take me to the Gaine’s holiday home.

Priests offer prayers during a puja.

Priests offer prayers during a puja conducted at a heritage mansion

     Despite being a complete stranger, I am embraced into the Gaine fold almost immediately. It is the day of Dashami, and I participate in the sindur khela ritual, a significant tradition observed by married women who offer prayers to Goddess Durga for the longevity of their husbands. Sindur refers to the vermilion powder married Hindu women apply to their foreheads. The ritual, far from stodgy, has an element of fun, and I am honoured to be part of it. After the sindur is offered to the Goddess and prayers are said, the Gaine women playfully smear the vermilion powder across each other’s cheeks. Then, the tableau of the Goddess and her children – Ganesh and Kartik, accompanied by the Goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi – is carried into the courtyard, and visitors are invited to feed the idols with sweetmeats. This is a symbolic ritual to coax the gods into showering worshippers with blessings for the year ahead.

Goddess Durga is ushered into the waters of the Ganges.

The Goddess Durga is ushered into the waters of the Ganges on the journey back to Her heavenly abode.

INTO THE DEEP BLUE 

Opting to watch the immersion process in Taki, I bid four generations of Gaines farewell and journey on to join Durga Puja revellers at the Ichhamati River. After nearly two hours of anticipation, I am told that the authorities had cancelled the immersions due to unforeseen circumstances. Disappointed that it is too late to reach the city to catch the final rituals there, I grudgingly head back to Kolkata. But a wrong turn on the way out of Taki becomes a blessing in disguise and I find myself in the middle of a village procession ferrying the exalted Goddess to a tributary of the Ganges. 

     The festivities here are simple but a whole lot of fun with village children posing for photographs mid procession and dousing revellers in coloured powder! As the dancing and drumming reach a crescendo, the highlight of the entire event – the much awaited climax – arrives. A group of able bodied men hoists the clay likeness of Goddess Durga upon their shoulders and gently lower the divine sculpture into the water. This act represents the Hindu principle of the never ending circle of life: The clay statue having served its purpose In the worship and revelry is returned to the earth as it dissolves into the holy Ganges. A hush comes over the just-moments-before raucous crowd, and as I glance at the sombre faces all around, I finally understand what the hype is all about. In a part of the world where strife is not uncommon, Durga Puja is a period of respite, a chance to celebrate life and forget one’s troubles, if only for the briefest of moments. 

     As Durga slowly drifts away with the currents, chants of “Asche bochor abar hobe” (once again, next year) fill the air, and I am reminded that though Maa Durga is leaving for Her heavenly abode, Her short spell on Earth gives the villagers, as well as the rest of us, `hope for the year ahead.

GETTING THERE

AirAsia flies to Kolkata from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok daily. For details, go to www.airasia.com


ORIGINS OF DURGA PUJA

Historians believe that the  first grandscale worship of the Goddess Durga dates back to the early 1600s when wealthy landlords held elaborate festivities in honour of the Goddess. In 1790, a group of friends from Kolkata’s Hooghly district initiated the barowari puja – the very  first community puja – paving the way for today’s grandiose celebrations.

WHEN TO GO

This year, the highlight of the festivities – the bisharjan – takes place on October 14. Time your visit to coincide with this dramatic and poignant event. Go to www.westbengaltourism.gov.in for information on Durga Puja travel packages.

 

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