Durga Puja is more than a religious festival. This ten-day festivity, beginning with Mahalaya (12 October) and ending with Bijoya Dashami (23 October), is meant to celebrate the victory of goddess Durga over the demon Mahisasura. However, puja in Kolkata is also the best showcase of the city’s secular and cultural spirit. Every Calcuttan worth his salt will wax eloquent about the autumn sky and Puja-induced melancholia. They will tell you about socio-economical dynamics of the festival, the courting ritual at Maddox Square but they won’t tell you the ways to avoid the mad puja traffic or the places to go for the best bhog (offerings to the deity). For that you need to spend years in the city, or maybe our quick Durga puja guide will be of some help.
The easiest way to go pandal-hopping in Kolkata is to surrender oneself to the crowd. However, there are less masochistic ways of beating the puja traffic. We recommend checking the timings for metros and sticking to the timetable for an easy way out. The circular railway,too, connects south Kolkata to Dum Dum and is another convenient way to explore Kolkata pujas. Ferries on the Ganga (as the Hooghly is also known) are a picturesque way of pandal hopping in north Kolkata and Howrah.
The traditional family pujas retain an old-world charm and are devoid of any commercialisation that marks most community pujas. The Shovabazar area in north Kolkata has a wealth of such pujas. Laha Bari and Chatubabu Latubabu Bari pujas are a few minutes’ walk away from the metro station. The Mallick Bari puja near the Netaji Bhavan metro station draws a bevy of Tollywood stars since it’s organised by the actor, Ranjit Mallick.
While the families are most welcoming to visitors, it is polite not to disturb them during lunch hours (12pm to 3pm). Also, since these pujas are traditional family functions, one would be better off dressing a bit conservatively (i.e no shorts, spaghetti straps). Calcutta Walks organises a walking tours of north Calcutta bari pujas.
The best pandals of the city exists in clusters. So, if you are visiting the famed Ahiritola Sarbojanin puja in north Kolkata (five minutes from the Shovabazar metro station), you can easily walk to Beniatola, Kumartuli Sarbojanin and Chaltabagan Lohapatty pujas. If you walk towards Hatibagan, you can check out the Hatibagan Sarbojanin and the Nalin Sarkar Street pujas. Barely a few minutes’ walk from Belgachia metro station is the Tala Baroari puja. From the station, a 20-minute walk will take you to the Lake Town Adhibashi Brinda and the Netaji Sporting Club pujas. The nearby Sreebhumi Sporting Club puja enthralls kids with its gargantuan chandelier every year.
Close to Kalighat metro station are some of south Kolkata’s best pujas like 66 Pally and Badamtalla Ashar Sangha. If you walk towards Gariahat, you will encounter Singhi Park and Ekdalia Evergreen pujas – two of south Kolkata’s best.
It is advisable to exercise some caution while sampling street food during the pujas. Most pandals have stalls around them selling freshly-made rolls, chaats and chops. For relatively safe street food (chaats, phuchkas,etc) experience, head straight to Vivekananda Park in south Kolkata. The Tea Café (Ph: 8420050213) near Vivekananda Park is an atmospheric little place serving authentic Goan and Malabari cuisine. Not very far away is Bohemian, which serves Bengali delicacies with a continental twist.
If you want to sample authentic bhog, visit any of the pandals on Ashtami (the eighth day), October 22, post 1 pm where they are handed out for free. Alternatively, you can visit Belur Math (Ph: 033 6541144, 6541180) on Ashtami morning for the puja staple khichudi (rice and dal cooked together) and labda (mixed veggies). The experience is well worth the 3-4 hour long wait.
The last day of the festival, Bijoya Dashami, is also the most rambunctious one. Head to the ghats (preferably Babu Ghat in central Calcutta and Ahiritola Ghat in north Calcutta) to observe the madness that is the bisharjan (immersion of the goddess). Conch shells blow, drums thump and bodies sway rhythmically as the roads of the city is jam-packed with processions leading to the ghats, where the idols are immersed. The ritual of sidur khela that precedes the procession, where married Bengali women smear each other with vermilion, is a visual delight.