With Durga Puja round the corner, travellers in West Bengal cannot afford to miss being a part of the celebrations. The capital city of Kolkata tops the list offering multiple experiences.
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 neighbourhoods. 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 pandals get really crowded with entry lines that stretch on for several blocks. It could take you more than an hour to get inside it so consider buying a VIP pass to avoid the queues.
Also Read: Your guide to Kolkata’s Durga puja
Also Read: Durga Puja: Let the feast begin
2. Hit the food trail
Bengalis are known for their love for 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, 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.
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. 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 neighbourhood aunts, 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 pandals invite professionals and celebrities for their evening shows. Some even have Facebook pages and websites with detailed itineraries of events so you can check out what’s on offer before making plans.
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 a typical mulmul white kurta with simple, elegant embroidery. The best shops – for sarees it is RMGC Basak (Gariahat, 1/1, Nandy Street, New Market) and 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).
This article was first published in 2014 and has been updated since.