Bengal’s autumn celebrations could well be the grandest public festival in the world. There will be a million people on the roads of Kolkata alone. Public art installations at more than 10,000 sites across the state. Lights, colour, tradition, revelry. A celebration of community feeling built upon a base of myth and history. A heady mix that incorporates musical performances, amateur theatricals, festive fashion and gastronomic excess. Incense, flowers and drumbeats mingling with the strains of sonorous Sanskrit scriptures. Durga Pujo in Bengal, for Bengalis the world over, is much more than a devotional experience. It’s an intrinsic emotional bonding with their land, their people and their community.
Durga Pujo is an autumn festival, generally held in October (depending on the lunar calendar). The main rituals are observed over five days (from the 6th to 10th of the fortnight) while the departure of the goddess Durga on Vijayadashami segues into the festival of Dussehra (on the 10th day) in North India. Durga Pujo celebrates the victory of good over evil, with Durga slaying the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura, and is also an extravagant celebration of the power of women (shakti).
By the standards of Indian history, community Durga Pujo is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1720, 12 friends (baaro yaar) put together a community celebration in Guptipara, starting the tradition of Barowari Pujo. It was 1910 before the first Sarbojanin Pujo (community pujo) was started in Bagbazar in Kolkata. Since then, the varied rituals of the Bengali Pujo have served as a window on India’s rich, multilayered cultural traditions.
On Mahalaya, the first day of the festival, when the devi returns to Earth, Bengalis rise before dawn to offer prayers to departed ancestors. Sanskrit shlokas on the radio, in the sonorous voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, are an essential part of this morning nostalgia.
In a ritual called Chokkhu Daan, artisans in Kolkata’s Kumartuli lovingly draw eyes on idols of the goddess Durga crafted from the soft delta clay.
On the fifth day of the celebrations, Panchami, the idols are placed in pandals. These pavilions are explosions of creativity, fancifully crafted in the semblance of world landmarks or turned into exhibits of local art. Millions of revellers walk from one to the other, just to marvel at the grandeur and the artistry. And as is inevitable with Bengalis, this is accompanied by an elaborate and huge selection of food.
Goddess Durga’s visage is ritually unveiled on Shashthi, the sixth day. On Saptami, the seventh day, the ritual of Pran Pratisthan invokes the presence of the goddess. Ashtami, the eighth day, is the day of Kumari Pujo — when the goddess Durga is worshipped as the divine virgin. Shondhi Pujo, on the cusp of Ashtami and the ninth day, Navami, marks the goddess Durga’s victory over the shape-changing demon. Dashami, the tenth and last day, sees the colourful sindur khela, where women smear vermilion powder on the goddess and each other, and the iconic dhunuchi dance, conducted with a smoking clay incense pot.
A grand parade of idols on Kolkata’s ceremonial Red Road – initiated by the State’s Honourable Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, in 2016 – finally takes the goddess on her journey to heaven, with devotees paying a sorrowful farewell as she is ritually immersed (visarjan) in the waters.
In more ways than one, Pujo in Bengal is a uniquely immersive experience.
For more information on how on this amazing festival, visit wbtourismgov.in