The temporary magnificence of Durga Puja in Kolkata

by Jacob Jarvis

During my first couple of days in Kolkata, everybody looked at me dumbfounded when I said: “no, I’m not staying for Durga Puja.” Their faces would bounce into expressions of abject disbelief, scrunch up with confusion, or even contort into practical disgust. After enough of these reactions, I decided to stay for the festivities.

Puja is a Hindu celebration of the religion’s mother goddess, the ten-armed and three-eyed Durga. It lasts for ten days in total, where families gather together to ‘eat, drink and be merry’, much like how those of us in the West do at Christmas. Bengal is particularly famous for getting into the spirit so, being the capital, Kolkata goes into practical meltdown for the main days of the celebration. Anyone who can take off all ten days does, to make sure they’re free to fully immerse themselves in Puja, and often the Ganges as well.

As people made their last minute preparations, the streets became an absolute blur of traffic, while markets and shops absolutely swarmed with shoppers. If you’re from Britain, imagine the Next sale, but it’s like that everywhere. Police man every street crossing, actually using rope to herd shoppers behind like cattle, before lifting it when they’re allowed to pass. The noise of car horns is incessant, and it amazed me I didn’t see a single crash whilst I was there.

The crowds, however, are much more inviting than you might imagine. With the sparkling lights and the smell of street food and chai intoxicating everyone’s nostrils, it’s hard not to be swept up into high spirits. The Hindu religion is one which teaches compassion and at its core is the belief in treating people well. Everywhere I went I felt welcomed.

All over the city, every area has its own Pandal, a temporarily constructed temple of sorts, each vibrantly and distinctly decorated, all seemingly in competition with one another to be the best. These host statues of the idols, with the goddess Durga taking prime position in the centre. These incredible structures take months to plan, design, and build, then are open for just four days, before being deconstructed. In each the artwork is distinct, with each year a new theme being used by each, unlike the old nativity scenes and beat up trees dragged out annually in Britain.

This combination of modern art work and worship is something I’ve never witnessed before, and, at least on this scale, seems distinctly unique to Kolkata. Whether a devote Hindu, a die-hard agnostic, or whatever else, the temporary masterpieces which are created are unbelievably impressive to see. The knowledge that they are purely temporary makes them all the more special too. Unlike anything placed in a gallery or reprinted to be put on the walls of millions of people across the globe, you know only a select number of people can see these. The dedication of the artists to something which is ultimately fleeting and ephemeral makes you feel truly lucky to see it.

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At night, groups of all ages go ‘Pandal hopping’ until the early hours of the morning, and you’ll find people at the largest ones 24-hours-a-day. Ceremonial drums are played intermittently, timed to welcome the gods each morning and to thank them each evening. This sound of steel percussion encapsulates the fever of Puja, and players are even inclined to jump into the crowds to whip up a frenzy of dancing from the revellers. I spent from 6:00pm to 6:00am hopping around on the first night, and saw but a tiny selection of what was on offer. Then over the coming days I visited many more but still couldn’t even make a dent in the total number.

For any fan of partying, the intoxicating vibe of being surrounded by people, and general good times, Durga Puja is a must visit spectacle at least once in a life time. Added to this, any lover of art and culture will also relish the sights around the city. The lights, the paintings and the sculptures are all mesmerising in their own ways.

Now I’ve been once, I’m sure I will again. I can see why the locals practically insisted I stayed, as I’d insist that anyone who heads to India while Durga Puja is happening goes to Kolkata. Because if you miss a Puja, there’ll never be another one quite like it again.

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