Being from Eastern India, Durga Puja was not something new for me. The music, the pandals, the joy, the excitement; I had already seen everything. I was vacillating between an urge to go to my hometown during puja and the curiosity to stay back and experience the famed “Kolkata Durga Pujo” (as Bengalis say it). I stayed back; or rather, fortunately, stayed back. What was to follow was a never seen grandeur for me.
As the puja drew close, the city roads which are normally characterized by its heavy traffic jams with crowded buses, auto rickshaws and old fashioned trams jostling with one another for every inch of space, erupted into a life; “pujo aschey”. There were hoarding with catchy phrases inviting people to the puja mandaps at every corner. The marketplaces got crowded and the whole city turned into a large fair. Light decorations and processions could be seen everywhere. The otherwise lugubrious North Kolkata also became active and the whole city was decked up for one large carnival. Adding to this aura of festivity and celebrations was the melodious songs of Manna Dey and other legendary Bengali singers which were played at every corner of the city. The city was showcasing its sobriquet ” The city of Joy”.
I was fortunate to have my landlord and a very good friend of mine who was from Kolkata who made sure I don’t miss a single bit of the essence that that city offers during Durga Puja. It all started with Mahalaya and a visit to Kumartolli, the place renowned for its clay artists expert in the art of making idols.
But the real fun started on the day of Saptami when we started pandal hopping. A plan was chopped out and the whole city was divided into four sections to visit in four days.
Day 1: Salt Lake
We started our visit from the Salt Lake (Bidhannagar) puja pandals. Here baring 1-2, none of them were particularly as famous as the other puja pandals in the city. However, it didn’t mean they were any less in creativity or splendor and most of them were better than the puja pandals I had been seeing for the last 22 years in my hometown. We started with the FD park puja which was both famous as well near to my friend`s house. The entire pandal was made up of bamboo splinters and the idol though quite small was beautiful and completely different from the other idols I had seen in my hometown. Next, we visited almost every block one by one until late night (the word late night often has no significance during the puja days at Kolkata). Apart from the FD block puja, the BE block, CF block and EC block were quite artistic and creative. In one of them, the entire pandal was created using wooden chairs. In another, we got to see a rendition of the traditional dhak.
Day 2: Other Salt Lake Pujas, Sree Bhumi and Central Kolkata
On the second day, we started a bit late. At first, we went to Sree Bhumi Sporting Club‘s pandal. Sree Bhumi Sporting Club had caught the eye of many and people are queuing up to catch a glimpse of the idols that have been adorned with whopping Rs.10-crore diamond jewellery.
After that, we went to Central Kolkata and visited Md. Ali Park puja pandal followed by the College Square and Santosh Mitra Square pandals. At the evening we went to the Maddox Square. This is a very interesting place. Here you can find a huge young crowd of college-going students chilling out in the open. The idol and the interior decoration at Maddox Square were impressive.
Day 3: South Kolkata
It’s practically impossible to cover all the pandals of South Kolkata even if you manage to roam 24 hours a day owing to the extremely crowded roads and long distances you have to cover between the pandals. At some places during the evening time, we even had to stand in queues of more than 2 km. However, at the end of it, we were treated with extremely beautiful idols which made the pain of standing for long hours completely worth.
South Kolkata mandaps are marked by its designer, concept based puja pandals. Some of them are so beautiful that you just can’t take your eyes off them. The slow moving queues allow you adore these splendid decorations embellished with fancy lighting which holds you spellbound. A variety of themes starting from traditional concepts to those highlighting modern day issues are at display and have successfully retained its popularity in an age which is actively skeptical about the trappings of conventional religious practices. The long queues of the curious spectators, the sponsors distinctly portray that devotion and festivity have not lost the mystic aura in the madness of modernity.
As per our plan, we started with the Bosepukur pandal and then headed to the Ekdalia Evergreen near the Gariahat crossing. After that, we went to the Singi Park pandal. The Singi Park idol was phenomenal. It was one of the best idols in the city. We also visited the Hindustan Park and Hindustan Club pandals which were nearby.
Then we headed to the Ballygunge Cultural pandal followed by the Tridhara Sammilani and the Samaj Sebi pandal which were all close to each other. All three of them were on our list of must visits and were strikingly beautiful and creative.
Moving forward we visited the Mudiali pandal followed by the Shiv Mandir and Young Stars pandal which again were very close to each other and were up there on our list. After that, we went to the Badamtalla Ashar Sangha pandal. All the pandals mentioned here are only the very best ones. As you move from one pandal to other you can also find plenty of other pandals on the way.
Then we went to the Suruchi Sangha pandal near new Alipore which was one of the most creative puja pandals in the city. Our day culminated with visit to Babubagan and Jodhpur Park pandals on our way back. There were numerous other beautiful, theme based pandals in Behala but we couldn’t visit them due to lack of time.
Day 4: North Kolkata
North Kolkata is actually the place which has given Kolkata Durga Puja the fame under which it basks today. These pujas are marked by their traditional idols and austere rituals. Most of the idols are of shabeki design which is characterized by typical large eyes of the idols. In north Kolkata, there are many families and rajbaris which host their private pujas. Generally overlooked by the pandal hoppers these Durga Pujas are held privately in several families some of whom were affluent and stalwarts in the past, especially during the Colonial regime. Although after the abolition of the Zamindari system, their financial condition is not as opulent as it was in earlier days, yet these families till date perform Durga Puja with dedication maintaining all the rituals. Some of these pujas are over 300 years old.
We started from the Nalin Sarkar Street Puja. Although small in area, the pandal was extremely beautiful and was decorated with a mushroom theme. Then we moved on to the Kumartolli sarbojonin, the place famous for its clay artists. Kumartolli is a place from where idols are supplied to different parts of the city and even exported abroad; of course, their own puja had to be one of the best. Moving on we went through the congested bylanes of Shobhabajar, Shyampukur, Ahirtola, etc to visit many mandaps. Ahirtola mandap was a good one. These mandaps were not as lavish as the ones in the south but they were quaint and had a traditional touch in them. Here we had some scrumptious Rashgullas at the famous Chitaranjan sweet shop which I can confidently testify to the most succulent of the sweets I ever tasted.
Finally, we arrived at the Bagbazar Sarbojanin puja pandal. Situated on the banks of the sacred Ganges dis-tributary, Hubli, Bagbazar puja is the most revered and one of the oldest pujas of Kolkata. For centuries the word “Kolkata Durga” has been synonymous to this place. I really enjoyed the magnificent artistry of the idol. After that, we went to the ghat and spent some time in the serene banks of the river before returning home late night.
Overall it was the best experience of a festival that I ever had. I would recommend everyone who wants to explore our vibrant culture to visit Kolkata once during the Durga Pujas and experience the energy and festive mood that the city offers during these five days.
Thanks for reading. Its impossible to describe the experience through words or photographs but still I hope you enjoyed it. If you had been to Kolkata during the Durga pujas please share your experiences in the comments section.