At 6 in the morning, we reach the station and look for the train to Calcutta. We carry our luggage in the dark and air-conditioned sleeping car of the second class. There each of us has a couch with a small pillow and blanket, on which the train will sway us most of the time to sleep.
In the wagons of the third class, there is no air conditioning or sleeping niches. Here, people rely on the wind that blows through the slices of barred windows. When we get off after 25 hours at the howrah station in Kolkata, it is already dark. It's also hot and extremely humid here. I sat down on our luggage at the station building and watched the travelers as they excitedly dragged bags, boxes, and suitcases across the floor.
I'm sweating, though my eyes are the only thing I move. We walk to the far end of the station. On the way from the train station to the hotel we enter the city center. Some of the streets are blocked. Plenty of colorful, blinking fairy lights illuminate Calcutta. Although it is already late, whole streams of people are on the move.
Policemen in white uniform and black boots steer the traffic. Music is shrilling from big speakers. We are just stumbling into the biggest and most important festival of the year, as we are here during Durga Puja. The festival serves to worship the goddess Durga. In the evening we start our Durga Puja pandal hopping. The city shines under a deluge of luminous garlands cascading down most buildings.
Together with festively dressed people we stroll through the decorated city. Women wear their most beautiful saris. The colorful fabrics and their golden jewelery sparkle in the light of the lanterns. Everywhere sizzles fresh food from street stalls and special sweets are sold. In the meantime, I take out my camera and take snaps as I move through the lively streets and lanes of this mega-city.
In the temples, on the streets, in pandals and even in the narrow, winding streets small and large stages are built with beautifully decorated Durga altars. They are handmade from wood, bamboo, fabrics, clay and papier-mache. Each altar is unique.
The arrival of the goddess is celebrated with sumptuous processions. The religious rituals, drums and music roar through the whole of Calcutta until after midnight.
We move from Chandni Chowk to a quiet residential area on the southern outskirts. I have a Bengali Thali. A smiling lady in her beautiful sari serves us a round tray with several metal bowls. They are filled with luchi, aloo dum, cholar dal and pulao. There is also hot paratha and kosha mangsho with mutton. For dessert, we have pantua, the golden brown slime balls soaked in thin syrup.
This time we experience the city quite differently. Although Goddess Durga is turning everything upside down, there is no chaos. The roads are in good condition. Traffic lights regulate the traffic without us being stuck in a traffic jam. We drive several times through Calcutta and are surprised how fast that is possible.
Today the Durga Puja festival is coming to an end and the Bijoya Dashami is being celebrated. In the evening, people escort hundreds of large and small Durga statues to the Ganges. Five minutes from our inn we can witness a colorful spectacle. Nobody stays home at this time. Women prepared the offerings for Durga, Ganesh, Kartika, Lakshmi and Saraswati. The sindoor of course, but also the sweets to feed them, the leaves to clean their face, chest and feet and pan, wrapped in a betel leaf.
Women, of all ages and conditions, put on their best sari and go to the places where the idols are exposed, to make offerings and apply sindur on the representations of the goddess and the deities that accompany it. And we started to make an endless queue, passing from one row of chairs to another while the first rose to the altar cleared of flowers that morning.
Each woman performs the same ceremonial at each of the five altars. Married women have painted their faces with Sindur, the red, consecrated color powder during the Sindur Khela. We can then see, everywhere, married women express their joy, dance, and apply liberally marks of vermilion on the forehead and cheeks, supposed to confer happiness and longevity.
The most important idols are carried on the backs of men on bamboo poles, often accompanied by a fanfare, in the middle of a merry jostling, but the vast majority of them arrive from different quarters on trucks, in an unbroken line that will extend late into the night.
Each idol is accompanied by his devout worshipers, and once the truck reaches the top of the steps leading to the Hooghly, an arm of the Ganges flowing through Calcutta. The unloading of the goddess gives rise to scenes of effervescence and jubilation.
Hardly unloaded from the trucks, the idol bearers make them 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 trying 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 before she begins her journey. Meanwhile, a little further, with infinite precautions, the men have deposited a giant effigy on a boat. Arrived 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 departure of Maa Durga for the trip that will bring her back to her parents, there in the mountains of the Himalayas.
On the shore, emotion squeezes the audience. Between two arrivals of idols, one will immerse oneself in the river and one splashes copiously of sacred water to the dismay of the cameras which capture the scene. Already another glittering idol is ready for the great aquatic journey, soon followed by the kind and faithful Ganesha, the everlasting companion.
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. Immediately afterwards, young men fish out the sad figures again. What has just sparkled so beautifully and was deeply worshiped, ends shortly thereafter as waste. We also say goodbye to Durga.