U.S. Markets closed

When good wins over evil in Kolkata

According to mythology, Ma Durga is considered a daughter who is visiting her parents' house for four days. When she is sent back home, she is given sindoor along with mishti (sweet) and pan (betel leaf).

Being a part of Durga Puja is more than euphoria in Kolkata. It is a yearlong wait for four days. What began as a humble celebration of victory of good over evil in rich households is now a sponsored commercial affair. Thanks to the nuclear families that have evolved over the past couple of decades Durga Puja is now a contributory Puja by the neighbors in a locality. Each locality has a Pandal (a makeshift temple for the Goddess) and it is that time of the year when young and the old celebrate the festival with equal fervour.

A lot has changed in Kolkata in the last couple of years and most of the shopping is now in the comfort of malls rather than in open markets. However, some things are still the same. Each member in an average Bengali family will buy dresses, shoes, cosmetics and it is also that time of the year when we exchange gifts with friends and relatives. Clearly, the retail market is booming at this time.

People are experimenting with design, posture and the material of the deity of Goddess Durga. There is no dearth of creativity in this part of the world so people are also getting experimental with Pandals. The craftsmen in the potters’ town of Kumartuli, where the Goddess is made, can hardly breathe at this time of the year. Immediately after Durga Puja they have Lakshmi Puja for which they are busy churning out deities and then Kali Puja and then they start creating deities for Durga Puja again for the following year. The Puja organizers in Kolkata and across the world would place their orders in Kumartuli for their deity.

‘Pandal hopping’ is a term coined in Kolkata and perhaps alien to all the dictionaries in the world. Where art loving Bengalis join in groups to see Pandal decorations and the goddess. And, of course, everybody pitches in their opinion even if it does not count. But Pandal-hopping is definitely not for the faint hearted. Because walking through the night pushing through hundreds and thousands of people with blisters from new shoes is not easy. Young men sometimes manage to go Pandal hopping through the night. This year’s inclement weather failed to spoil the fun loving Bengali spirit. People went pandal-hopping, well armed with umbrellas. If you ever wish to visit Kolkata during this time, a web search would give you a list of bus services that conduct ‘Pandal Hopping Tours’ with Bengali lunch.

The four days of the Puja is also incomplete without street-side junk food and is completed with a gala dinner on Dussehra evening along with live music. To all Bengalis, the Goddess is visiting her father’s house on earth with her four kids, while she spends the entire year with her husband. Much of the Bengali culture has crept stealthily from the daily life of a woman in a patriarchal society. Mostly all deities of Goddess Durga have big eyes, strikingly similar to those of a Bengali woman.

A feeling of dismay fills the air on the day of Dusshera or Bijoya Dashami in West Bengal as the priest performs the prayers for the immersion. Earlier when telephones and mobiles were far-fetched people would visit each other’s house to exchange wishes and sweets on this day. Health-conscious (after having all the junk food in the last four days) Bengalis exchange wishes over the phone today.

Shayantani Sarkar has lived across the length and breadth of India, but spent her initial years in Kolkata, the city that influenced her most. She works in the IT industry and loves her work. She is passionate about travel and photography and reading Paulo Coelho. She relishes good food and gets high on Latin music. Discover more of her work at her blog and read her previous guest blogs on Traveler:

Oh Calcutta!

Venice Carnival - In love with colour

Travel notes from Istanbul