5 must-dos during Durga Puja in Kolkata

Here's a list

Here’s a list.

1. Pandal hopping

Pandals can get seriously crowded, but unless you go on a pandal-hopping binge, you will not get the true feel of the pujas. From Egyptian culture and London Olympics, to Thai-style pagodas, haunted houses, and eco-friendly ones created out of waste material, each pandal is a work of art with a specific theme.

Pandals are set up in every imaginable open space, overtaking roads, traffic circles, narrow streets and neighborhoods. The pujas are spread over five days, so you can plan your days and cover different aspects of the festivities. Decide to do the morning puja scene over a day (or two), choose one part of the city and walk around visiting pandals. An all-night pandal-hopping spree is a must. Rent a car or take a well organised tour. Some of the bigger pujas get really crowded with entry lines that stretch on for several blocks. It could take you more than an hour to get inside the pandal so consider buying a VIP pass to avoid the queues.


2. Hit the food trail

Bengalis are known for their love for good food. Many after-dinner, college canteen and water cooler conversations centre around food and the pursuit of it, including heated arguments about where the best biryani, korma, rosogollas etc. can be found. Consequently, Durga Puja has become much like a 5-day open-air food festival.

Inside and around every pandal, food stalls are set up by city restaurants, street food vendors and enterprising neighbourhood residents. The streets turn into a smorgasbord of food – from home-made fritters, baked goods and pizzas, to chaat paapdi, Calcutta kathi rolls, chowmein (stir-fried noodles), chops and cutlets, dosas, idlis, delectable mutton and chicken curries and biryanis and the whole pantheon of famous Bengali sweets.

City restaurants dish up special puja fare. Book in advance as there’s usually a long queue, and you could have to wait for two hours or more before you get a table.

Here’s a list of five restaurants serving puja fare.

  1. 6 Ballygunge Place: Known for its thaalis.
    House No. 6 Ballygunge Place Road, Ballygunge
    Phone: 2460 3922
  2. Bhojohori Manna: Best for daab chingri and great fish cutlets.
    18/1A, Hindustan Road
    Phone: 2466 3941
  3. Kasturi: A Bangladeshi food place, the must-try here is the kochu paata chingri bhaapa (shrimp steamed with colocasia leaves and mustard paste).
    13/6, Anil Moitra Road, Ballygunge
    Phone: 9748906025
  4. Bohemian: This place is well-known for their innovative twist on Bengali food. Try their Gondhoraj soufflé and malpua cheesecake.
    32/4, Old Ballygunge 1st Lane, Ballygunge
    Phone: 66064241
  5. ITC Sonar: Their puja buffet this year has tones of the Raj and British clubhouses – expect prawn cocktails, steak and kidney pie, chicken ala kiev and chicken stroganoff.
    45/1A, JBS Haldane Avenue, Gobra
    Phone: 23454545

3. Soak in some culture

Pujas are the time for new album releases and special puja magazines with the best literary works of the year. This year, a band led by children of the sex workers of Sonagacchi launched a puja music album Nijhum raater taara (Star of the silent, still night). Even the chief minister got into the swing of things with a collection of her poetry released as an album by a local band. An NGO has come up with a puja guide in braille for the blind.

You too can imbibe some culture first-hand. Most neighbourhoods and pandals host cultural performances in the evening after the aarti is over. You can watch a play – every pandal with a stage will be putting up one. Think ‘amateur’ level as the neighbouhood aunties, uncles, kids and teens all get together to script, direct and act in what are true examples of a community project. Take your pick from a host of dance and music performances, a Bangla rock gig or even a stand-up comedy performance.

The bigger pujas invite professionals and celebrities for their evening shows. Some pujas have Facebook pages and websites with detailed itineraries of events so you can check out what’s on offer before making plans.

Image courtesy: Lonely Planet Images/ Swarnendu Sen

4. Dress up traditionally

Don’t forget to dress up in genuine puja threads. Buy the quintessential tangail white saree with a gorgeous red border and an a typical mulmul white kurta with simple, elegant embroidery. The best shops – for the saree it is RMG Basak (Gariahat, 1/1, Nandy Street, New Market), Traders Assembly (Gariahat Main Rd, Gariahat). For the kurta, try Kimbadanti (196/1, Rash Behari Avenue, Gariahat, opposite Basanti Devi College).

5. Ritual immersion

Everyday, a series of puja rituals are performed at the pandals. The morning begins with pushpanjali – chanting prayers with flowers in hand which are then offered to the goddess. This is followed by bhog in the afternoon (food blessed by the goddess that is served to visitors for lunch). The evening rituals begin with aarti and the dhunuchi dance, a traditional dance done in front of the goddess with an earthen pot filled with coconut husk mixed with camphor in front. It is danced to the beats of dhaaks (drums). On Dashami – the last day of the pujas – married women bid goodbye to the goddess with the sindoor khela ritual (smearing vermillion powder on each other).

AUTHOR'S BIO: Anuradha Sengupta is a freelance writer and founder-editor of Jalebi Ink, an award-winning media collective for children and youth. A compulsive city-walker, she loves exploring urban cultures and is a columnist for NY-based Karta, a collaborative urban mapping project. Her most memorable adventure was in Afghanistan as digital media advisor, setting up citizens' media centres.