When all of Kolkata Stops
The city shuts down for a week. Traffic is insane. For a month, you see bamboo facades in the most inconvenient intersections in the tiniest of lanes. You curse the city, you curse the traffic, you wish you were out of this hell-hole.
Then comes the first day of Durga Puja. There’s a flowery aroma in the air. The hot, humid air gets a twinge of coolness.
You hear drums. Huge crowds of revelers choke the streets until 5 am. They 'hop' from one ‘pandal’ to the other. Street hawkers line the sides. Adults dress in bright silk—children like ballerinas and lordlings.
What is all the fuss about?
Durga Puja is Huge
Durga Puja is the biggest Hindu festival in Eastern India, and likely the largest temporary art festival in the world. In Hindu mythology, Durga is the super power created by all the Gods, who give her their powers to kill the demon ‘Mahisasur.’ Mahisasur is a half human, half buffalo demon, blessed with a boon that no man could kill him. So all the male Gods got together to create the Goddess Durga, who could defeat the boon and save the earth. The festival symbolizes the victory of ‘good’ over ‘evil’.
In Bengal, Maa (Mother) Durga is worshiped for shakti (strength)and as the ultimate deity representing women’s power. Every year, she comes to earth for 10 days when she is worshiped and celebrated.
During the festival families with kids, teenagers seeking lovers, friends catching up, are all out on the streets. They walk together through these pandals, temporary structures to house the Durga idols, sucking in the sights.
The city sponsors competitions for the best pandal. Every neighborhood tries to out-do the other in the creativeness, style and presentation of their pandals. Every year, the pandals change. One year it is Harry Potter themed; one year a flying saucer; one year the Hungarian Parliament building.
The artistry is stunning. From hundreds of hand woven animal scenes, to carved wood facades, to ceilings made out of umbrellas, to experiments with coffee straws and light.
Each pandal houses a collection of Durga idols. They fashion these pieces from a base of straw and clay, and then decorated lavishly. Over the years, the idols have evolved from standardized depictions of Durga to more artistic ones. All idols show Durga with 10 arms. She holds the different weapons she received from the different gods. She rides a lion.
A depiction of Mahisasur in various states of defeat always accompanies Durga. Also the gods Ganesh, Lakshmi, Kartik and Saraswati-- Durga's and Lord Shiva's children-- find themselves depicted.
This festival has been celebrated for centuries. Some old Bengali homes have been hosting ‘house pujas’ for over 200 years. The priests, the artists, the sculptors, and of course the people -- all come together to make this amazing, rich festival come together.
As the economy becomes more globalized, merchandising and retail businesses have begun to use the festival to boost their annual sales. With everything becoming increasingly commercialized, celebrators struggle to strike the balance between the authenticity, the traditional practices, and the natural evolution to move away from the past.
One can only hope that the charm of Pujas doesn’t fade, and it continue to bring strength, power and peace to all who celebrate this special festival in the ages to come.
To all the Mana fans, wishing you a Shubho Biyoja! ( Happy Pujas!)