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Festival of the Month: Durga Puja

The famous dhunuchi dance performed during the pujas.
Image courtesy: Amarnath

Come September end, the city of Kolkata will be decked out like a new bride. For five days, people will be out on the streets dressed in their best, celebrating the festival of Durga Puja. It has been billed as the biggest festival in Asia, in terms of money as well as the number of people involved in putting together the spectacular show.

Durga Puja is the most important festival of Bengalis around the world.  It is believed that Durga was born from the energies of Hindu gods (including the supreme trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma) to vanquish the evil demon Mahishasura.  Durga idols and images depict her as a beautiful woman with a third eye (like her husband Shiva), riding a lion, and wielding ten weapons in her ten hands.

Durga Puja is celebrated by all sections of society – from slums and shanties to high-rises. Though it is a Hindu festival, pujas are also organised by Muslims and Christians.

Every year, Kolkata comes to a standstill to celebrate the festival. According to newspaper reports, the city hosts over 4,500 pujas. The size of the puja crowds are in the region of ten million. A special task team is deployed by Kolkata Police (about 90% of their force) to control law and order during the pujas.

Millions of people spend hours every day, and night, walking around the city, standing in mile-long queues to see as many Durga idols as they can. The idols are housed in pandals – makeshift tents made of bamboo, cloth and tarpaulin. These are elaborate in their design, sometimes taking the shape of well-known religious places, monuments or buildings like the White House, pyramids in Egypt, the Louvre, or a local temple. Everything is grist for the mill for puja “designers” who are looking for a theme that will get them crowds, awards and big prize money. There’s fierce competition to capture the crowds who tour the city day and night pandal-hopping to view the most novel themes (which have included famous international incidents such as Princess Diana’s car accident, 9/11, and even the sinking of the Titanic).

Festival days are spent meeting family and friends, eating lavish meals and exchanging gifts. It’s like a big, open-air non-stop carnival – non-stop days of aartis (religious ritual), drumbeats, cultural shows, food and feasting. Even convicts forget their woes and join in. Last year, prisoners from Kolkata’s infamous Alipore Jail were part of theatre performances during the Pujas.

Interesting fact: One of the earliest notable Pujas was celebrated by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar in 1757 to commemorate the East India Company’s victory over Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah at Plassey. Lord Clive was the guest of honour at his puja and is said to have offered Rs 101, baskets of fruits and a goat for sacrifice.

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.