Durga Puja is the most important festival in Bengal. Calcutta dresses up for 9 days, but especially 5 days are the main ones, in which the whole city goes out into the street day and night to visit the different pandals, which temporarily flood the city, with the statues of the goddess Durga, Sarawati, Lakshmi, Ganesh and Kartik inside.
When I read that the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta was like a carnival, I never imagined it would be much more than a celebration with music, dances, performances and colored lights. For 10 days Calcutta is transformed into a true fair of contemporary outdoor art and a center of ancestral ceremonies and rituals that foster communion among all. And it's not like a carnival, Durga Puja is unique in its kind.
Day 1 - Maha Shasthi
It was the 6th day of the 10 days of the celebrations of Navratri and Durga Puja. I arrived in Calcutta cured of fright, so to speak. I went to New Delhi 10 days before and had visited Agra, Varanasi, and Jaipur. I had enough time to get used to the suffocating heat, humidity, dirt and the urban fauna. It was still raining, but since our arrival, the rain has stopped. Would the monsoon be lenient to us? Let's hope so, because the festivities begin tonight. I also arrived knowing the chaos of the traffic. Calcutta was not a shock, but it was quite a discovery.
Known nationally as the cultural capital of the country, Calcutta lives up to its nickname during the days of the festival. The city is one of the most metropolitan of India. It exhibits in its streets its rich cultural heritage in the form of immense temporary constructions made mainly of bamboo and fabrics, called Pandals. Within these temporary sanctuaries, the sculpture of the goddess Durga is housed to allow millions of visitors to make their offerings to the deity.
Calcutta is prepared for 10 long months with total commitment for its main annual religious event: Durga Puja. And as the greatest exponent of the country's art, artists take advantage of the altars dedicated to the goddess to express much more than simple veneration. The sanctuaries in themselves are masterpieces with different themes ranging from social protest and avant-garde to religious exaltation through fantastic to historical themes.
Over the years both the sculptures of the goddess and the Pandals are becoming more elaborate. The competition to create the most original sculpture of the deity and the most attractive and surprising Pandal took to the extreme with themes that touch today all areas of Indian life. It ranges from social, cultural, economic, historical, political, ecological and even other more global themes. It thus covers all areas of Indian and international life.
During the months leading up to Durga Puja, local artists leave their eyelashes creating and designing Pandals to house the sculptures of Durga and other deities and, at the same time, surprise visitors with eccentric and colorful works of art.
The sculptures of the deities are created throughout the year in Kumartuli with infinite patience and taking care of every detail. They use the best fabrics to dress Durga and exquisite pieces of jewelry to adorn her. But it is only a few days before the festival when a few and chosen experts fast for a full day to prepare mentally and physically to give expression to Durga's eyes.
The kick-off of the festival begin traditionally through a local radio programme that broadcasts various mantras. From there the hustle and bustle in the Pandals is frantic. People begin to arrive from every corner of the country to not miss the party. The artists give the finishing touches to temporary pandals.
The expert potters finish the sculptures of the goddess and other deities that will accompany her on the altars. Dozens of trucks travel at full speed through the streets of Calcutta for the goddess to reach her altar as soon as possible.
During the first five days the locals invoke the goddess through ceremonies, mantras and rituals that take place in every corner of the state. It is from the sixth day when the faces of the sculptures of Durga located in the Pandals are opened.
As the key date for the start of the festival is approaching, the city is filled with colored lights. In the kitchens, the bhog made of typical rice and lentil is prepared for the guests. People clean their houses. They remove from the bottom of the closet their best "rags" to be radiant for the day they go to honor their goddess.
People rush to the streets and from the first hour. When I say that the city dresses up, it's not just that the buildings are decorated with colored lights and plants, nor that the pandals, which are very varied, give a different touch to the city, or that the music in the street, traditional or modern, encourage the environment.
Kolkata is crazy during the week-long carnival. Even though every corner and corner of the city is covered during the festival, Maddox Square and Park Circus are the busiest meeting areas where I satisfy my cravings with the finest dishes, from kebab to kathi rolls, from samosa to sondesh, jhal muri to phuchkas! We also take selfies like everyone else. It is already midnight and Maha Saptami, the 7th day and I have to go to sleep.
Day 2 - Maha Saptami
Here we are back in front of the goddess at the end of the morning this time. This seventh day of festivities is under the sign of food. It is free and massive distribution day. So, there is for everyone and even more! The people flock. The arms are tense. We leave to also distribute food to the people.
But when we arrive on the spot with the truck and its basins of food, they are at the end of the meal. They are ready for lunch a second time and an endless queue is formed. And the ceremonies are in full swing with the sound of the dhak and drum.
The number of people on the streets is on the rise today to see the Durga Puja! It is is that the Bengalis also put on their best clothes to go out on the street those days. Of traditional clothes or Western style, whatever the type of clothing one may choose, it is always elegant and it is seen to be good, of better quality than everyday clothes.
As if those five main days were always Sunday. In addition, women also wear more jewelry than usual. If many girl do a little makeup every day, in Durga Puja there is not one that does not have painted the toes. It seems, however, that traffic has improved a lot in Calcutta in recent years.
The queues in front of the different Pandals begin to expand far and wide. The devotees patiently wait their turn to pay tribute for a few minutes to Durga and admire the Pandal in which it is located. We move to the more popular ones like Kumartuli Park, Bagbazar, College Square, Mohammad Ali Park, Santosh Mitra Square and Badamtala Ashar Sangha
Each neighborhood has dozens of Pandals and the city seems different with more life than ever. It is more colorful and with a very powerful festive energy mixed with the density of humidity, heat and odors that incense and kitchens give off. Suddenly there are more people. It seems impossible to be in the midst of more people than usual in the already overcrowded Calcutta. The Pandals rise tall and stoic every few meters. A walk through the streets is like visiting a huge gallery of outdoor art.
Day 3 - Maha Ashtami
It is the eighth day, the one of the greatest affluence, the one that will end with the Sandhi Puja, the most beautiful ceremony of Navratri. All the women of the Bengali community come to pray in their most beautiful saris. In the meantime, the crowd is hurrying to eat for free. It's time for the big Puja. The most beautiful saris and jewels are out. The red dominates. Here is the color of the sacred, the ones that all women can wear.
The ceremony will begin. Some draw OM symbol on the floor with whole and marigold petals and put a little oil lamp! There are 108, a number full of sacred meaning. Then the women get in a circle, because they will turn on the oil lamps.
Finally the 108 women participate in this ceremony to gain a little luck and happiness. We can also make a wish. There are not 108 women in the circle, because some light several lamps. And here they go for the ignition, to the sound of drums and a shell. The wicks are recalcitrant and some lamps go out hardly lit.
Drums get excited more and more. There is a crazy heat in this space, fogged by the smoke of incense and large oil lamps on the fire of which everyone comes to place his hands to purify the face and body. The drummer is melting and the dancers, spectators, will not be long in coming on stage and in a trance for the dhunuchi naach.
There is a brazier in each hand, one in the mouth, barefoot, impressive. Fortunately, someone watches nearby, dangling water on the embers that fall regularly. Maha Astami is over. The rain that had spared us until now catches up with us at the end of the evening.
Day 4 - Maha Navami
Today is the ninth and last day of Navratri. But do not think that we are going to break today, because there is a tenth day, which will end with the transport of the altar and its immersion in the river. On the way to a pandal, the driver takes us to the foot of one. But this time, we have a little trouble to access. A tree fell in the night and blocked the road. The level of flowers has risen. It must be said flowers are cultivated for these ceremonies where the faithful spend their time filling baskets which are then dumped at the feet of the goddess.
The devotees pray without tiring. The priest blesses them by watering them with a flower impregnated with holy water. Then the curtain closes for a secret ceremony that only priests can see. We feed the goddess, but it is not accessible to the layman.
The ninth day is the havan or fire ceremony. The bowl in the middle, in front of the priest, is for the fire. And once the heads of the faithful are covered, the fire lit with small wood and oil. The priest keeps the heaps of apple-shell or wood apple leaves and the ghee reserves ready. The incantations begin. The priest chants singing, soaking one or two leaves in the ghee and at the end of each sentence throws them into the fire.
The problem with incantations is that we know when they start, but not when they end. The pile of leaves is impressive, and at the rate where he throws them into the fire, the priest will be voiceless. So, we take care as we can. Some chat while others play drums.
Finally it's over and the drums go silent until evening. And in the evening, it is left for a small trance, always impressive. The faithful take all the risks by dancing barefoot, with the dhunuchi in the hands and/or in the mouth. The hands are stretched to the purifying flame before going on the hair and face. Outside, a new concert brings together many more people as the rain is back and we are better under cover. It's midnight.
Day 5 - Bijoya Dashami
The tenth is the last day of the festival. We lived on the last day of Durga Puja at Diamond Harbor. Everyone danced like crazy in the streets, while wagons carry Durga and her two daughters and two sons. Women, of all ages and all conditions, put on their best sari and go to the places where the idols are there, to deposit offerings to their feet. Women participate in the sindur khela with vermilion powder. We can then see, everywhere, married women express their joy, dance, and generously apply vermilion marks on the forehead and cheeks.
People move their sculptures in the middle of an emotional procession. There are ceremonies, mantras, music, and tears. People carry the idols to the sacred river Hooghly to submerge it in the water to immerse it.
Once the truck reaches the top of the steps leading to the Hooghly, the unloading of the goddess gives rise to scenes of effervescence and jubilation. Hardly unloaded from the trucks, the idol bearers perform five traditional tricks in the midst of an enthusiastic crowd. While at the drum, the women perform a few dance steps.
Then comes the descent of the steps to the river, which gives rise to a beautiful jostling. Each tries to immortalize the image of the Goddess before it falls into the waves. The excitement is at its height and one strives to touch the face of the deity one last time.
Meanwhile, a little further, with infinite precautions, the men have deposited a giant effigy on a boat. In the middle of the river, they rock it in the silty water by means of long bamboo poles. In an instant, she disappeared and a long clamor greeted the immersion of Maa Durga.
On the shore, emotion squeezes the audience. Between the arrival of idols, people dip oneself in the river. They splash copiously the sacred water to the dismay of the cameras which fix the scene. Already another glittering idol is ready for the great aquatic journey, soon followed by the kind and faithful Ganesha.
By sneaking boldly into the fray and skillfully playing elbows, we still have a small chance to catch a glimpse of this marvelous and colorful world of gods and goddesses before it finally sinks into the murky water. We were exhausted so we went back before.
Durga Puja is not like a carnival. It is a festival with its own identity that has been adapted to the new century and offers a broad vision of the religious and artistic life of a diverse and sometimes immeasurable country in its extension and complexity. For five days I was part of the thousands of people who walked around the city at night and day, visiting statues and meeting acquaintances.