One of the grandest religious festivals of the Hindus is Durga Puja, in honor of the victory of Goddess Durga over evil. It is a ten day affair celebrated throughout the eastern state of India, West Bengal. During the festivities the streets of Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, spawn splendid pavilion-like structures, known to the locals as puja pandals. The breathtaking constructions fill the districts of the city as devotees of Ma Durga flock to the city filling it with merriment and fanfare. Besides the religious significance of the festival, Bengalis also consider the auspicious occasion as a gigantic homecoming as Bengalis all over the world return to their hometowns to reconnect with relatives and dear friends. The following section provides a glimpse into the celebration in Kolkata, the heart of the Durga Puja.
City-wide preparations for the grand festival are started several months ahead of the event. Employees of both government and private institutions of Kolakata receive a monetary handout, known as the Puja bonus because it is customary for breadwinners of the families to purchase new clothes and furnishing for their household during Durga Puja. Pre-festival bargain sales erupt throughout the shops of the city as business owners hope to turn in a huge profit from the festivities as well as the influx of tourists. Weeks before the festival, one could easily sense the air of excitement in the city as households prepare for the grand celebration.
Mahalaya is a pre-puja ritual conducted during the new moon of the month of Ashwin. During Mahalaya, thousands of Bengalis flock to Kolkata’s river banks to perform a ritual known as Tarpan, praying to their ancestors. The air of excitement continues to build on the days preceding the celebration, especially when drummers, known as Dhakis, from the countryside begin to arrive and fill the city with their beats.
Traditionally, Durga Puja was celebrated at the family level, however as of late; it has become a community-wide endeavor celebrated at communal puja pandals and no pandal is complete without the idol of the Goddess Durga. Crafting the idols of the festival’s deity is by no means easy and requires a great deal of time and expertise to perfect. Kumartuli, a district north of the capital, is renowned throughout India for producing mesmerizing clay idols. It is there that master clay artisans apply their aesthetics and dexterity to construct religious idols needed for worship throughout the festival. Among the idols constructed for the festival are that of Ma Durga, Lord Ganesha, Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Kartik and of course the chief demon Mahishasura.
Puja Pandal Building
The main tourist attraction of the Durga Puja, are the magnificent and colorful constructions that line the districts, known as puja pandals. Many devotees of Kolkata have become self-taught experts when it comes to puja pandal construction. Using wood planks, bamboo poles, and various assortments of cloths they turn the city into a living painting filled marked by a myriad of colors. Puja pandal builders take pride in their work and invest a great deal of money in the creation of their transient temples. There are even pandals that mimic world renowned structures.
The Main Days of the Durga Puja
Although the Durga Puja is a ten-day festival, the most intense merrymaking and sacred religious rituals occur on the last four days. The sixth day, known as Maha Shashti marks the beginning of the spiritual journey of Ma Durga’s devotees. On this day, high priests are called to the pandals to accept the offerings to the Goddess and to chant mantras, shlokas, and aarti. Aside from the spiritual aspect of the festival, the main days of the puja also offer cultural growth with song and dance competitions. In these competitions professional singers are called to sing praise songs to the Goddess Durga known as stutis and bhajans. The last four days of the Durga Puja are considered holidays for educational, business, and government institutions. Games in celebration of the festival are held throughout the city. All in all, Durga Puja is indeed the grandest and most extravagant religious festival of Kolkata.