Recently a colleague from Delhi asked for my counsel on whether it was worthwhile to visit Kolkata during the Durga Puja. She had acquired air tickets already, at astronomical prices. My immediate response was ‘Of course’, followed by a ‘but, wait..’ petering out to a ‘maybe not..’! This established whom my dear friend is never calling back for advice again. Also, it did enough to trigger my annual bout of nostalgia. I decided to channelize this intense emotion this year for the greater good, by composing a rounded argument on whether or not the Kolkata Durga Puja experience deserves to be ‘on your bucket list’
Why you (Probably) Shouldn’t
#5 The Food
If this is your only chance to ever visit Kolkata, and if Kolkata food is one of your big motivators for the trip, STOP NOW! You have to have a seasoned, preferably Kolkata bred, iron tummy, to digest food in Kolkata during Puja. Quantity overwhelmingly outweighs quality or taste of food, not to mention the long queues that you must conquer to get anywhere close to it.
#4 The Life Savers
The lack of them, actually. The real doctors and nurses are on their annual break. So, God forbid, you need a visit – pray before the Lady Almighty, ask for certificates and stuff before accepting medical care. Thumb rule, if your condition doesn’t need cutting open or stitching up, do it yourself please.
#3 The Heat
#2 The Cost
Only around this time in the year, Kolkata can burn a hole in your pocket. You will pay a bomb to enter and leave the city, obviously. But it doesn’t get better from there. You got to have family/friend/benevolent acquaintance in the city or loads of dough to get lodging that doesn’t remind you of prison imageries from Bollywood movies. The Durga Puja is possibly the only reason why the Kolkata cabbies have stuck to the city – so please don’t act surprised or show offence if they extort you. Pay and bless the Goddess that they didn’t literally slam their car doors on your face.
#1 The Traffic
Unless you have driven around Bangalore on a bad day, or practiced migrating with wildebeests at Serengeti, you are not ready for this. The cars are bumper to bumper with almost no hope of easing up before 4 in the morning maybe. It’s marginally easier to walk, partly because you don’t really have to. You will be shoved around the narrow streets by the sweaty masses.
Why you (Absolutely) Must (at least once..)
#4 The Glamour
The Kolkata Durga Puja belongs to the club of the glamorous elite in urban experiences. It is in the same league as the Rio Carnival or a Las Vegas Christmas. The before-after transformation of Kolkata is absolutely incredible. Extensive planning and colossal budgets bring to life every insignificant nook and corner of the city. Kolkata makes a narcissistic display of its timeless beauty, rich culture and deep knowledge.The lights, the art work, the pandals in the likeness of significant landmarks, the pandal themes that are intellectual manifestations of current world issues – Calcutta puts on her seductive best. The spirit transcends to every soul and you will be hard pressed to find anyone in the city who is not dressed to impress – agnostic to financial constraints. Prepare to be swept off your feet!
#3 The Heritage
The oldest Durga Puja in Kolkata is 403 years old, 43 years older than the Taj Mahal! The Roy Chowdhury family organizes this in their dated premise. They very warmly open out their doors to all and sundry for the Pujas. And they are in good company. There are at least 42 more family Pujas of similar vintage. All of them celebrate Puja with unchanged rituals, and unwavering devotion, to this day. It is as if the Pujas magically open a time travel portal through which you can be part of a world where time has stopped. Read this to know what not to miss!
#2 The Rituals
If you love age old rituals like I do, then follow one Puja, and soak in the atmosphere. The countdown starts a week ahead with the chanting (live then, recorded now) of the ‘Mahishashurmardhini’ by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Bengalis ritualistically wake up to this early on Mahalaya mornings. Participate in the rousing Pushpanjalis every morning
“Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Matri rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Shakti rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhutesu Shanti rupena samsthita
Namestasyai Namestasyai Namestasyai Namoh Namah”
You may get lost in the beauty of a hundred and eight earthen lamps during the Sandhi Puja. Witness the skills of the Dhunuchi dancers or the warmth of the married women in white and red as they smear each other with vermillion during Sindur Khela. You will feel the pulse in your veins, when the Dhakis (ritualistic drummers) beat up a storm. Every single ritual you experience during the Durga Puja will sink in and stay embedded in your soul forever after.
#1 The Love
When you stand beside a Calcuttan offering Anjali to Durga, watch her closely. You will know that she actually believes in the tale that the earthen image of the Goddess is really her Daughter. That her Daughter has come home with her Children to fill her household with love and happiness. And therefore the emotion that prevails through the city during the Puja is not one of reverent worship, but one of intense, divine Love. If you submit to the city during this time, despite all its inconveniences, you will feel this love.
You will sense a feeling of brethren hood like you have never felt before, even when people are stuck in traffic for hours, or when they shove each other in queues. Old relationships get reinforced, new relationships are nurtured as love literally lingers in the air. Of course it sounds cheesy when I say it, but once you have felt the power of love, multiplied so many times over, I bet you will go seeking for that feeling, again and again and again.
Durga Puja in Kolkata is a ‘mess’ alright. Become a part of the mess and don’t fear to embrace it. Only then will you discover the life force that is Kolkata. Go as a tourist looking for convenient tours – and you will hate it. Go as a traveller seeking a slice of a mesmerizing social phenomenon – and you will love it. Make your own decision, while I rue mine not to make it this year.
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