Queen of Calcutta

“Ashwiner majhamajhi uthilo bajna baji”- Here comes our very first blog. Since we just recovered from the hangover of Durga Puja and are already into preparations of Diwali, why not share our experience about meeting the ‘Queen of Calcutta’. In case you plan to pay a visit to her next year, pack your bags in advance.

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You must have read a lot of blogs on Calcutta and Durga Puja, so what’s different about this one. We have tried to discover the rare relationship between the emotional attributes of the city and the traditional beliefs of the people along with lots of imagery of this majestic festival.

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Calcutta, a city more than 300 years old, has been a witness to a lot more than the British history of India. From the age-old Bengali tradition to the flamboyance of ‘Zamindars’ and ‘Rajbaris’. From the ‘Zamindar Ginnis’ clad in white and red saree decked with gold jewellery and alta, arranging for traditional puja ceremonies at home to the unconventional theme puja pandals using taxis, trains, junks and what not. The only mention of Calcutta remains incomplete without the grandeur of Durga Puja.

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For the ones who only pondered Durga Puja as crowded streets, sweaty public and a disruption to their daily lives, it is ranked amongst the few largest street festivals of the world. Take pride in that.

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‘SOBAAR PUJO’ – BEGINNING OF MASS CELEBRATION
Goddess Durga is reflected as the deity of power and strength and keeping true to that, earlier the festival was only celebrated by the rich and influential royalties and was unapproachable to the ones who could not match the caste bars.

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It is a popular belief, that a group of 12 friends started conducting puja separate from the ‘Zamindar-baris’ later, that was meant for everyone and commonly termed as ‘Barowaari Pujo’, ‘Baro’ meaning twelve and ‘Yari’ meaning friendship. This has spread its roots over the years and the result is what we see today.

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Durga Puja was earlier considered as a six-day event commencing on Mahalaya and ending on Dashami with other important days being Sasthi, Saptami, Ashtami and Navami. But the attractiveness and glory has now made it a 10-12 day event, where all other days of ‘Devipaksha’ are celebrated with equal passion and immersion continues for 2-3 days. Well, it is practically not possible to immerse two thousand plus idols in a single day and I am astonished with the kind of energy the city has during these days.

‘TOR JOR’ – PREPARATIONS
People start preparing for the festivities even before two months in hand. They buy clothes, shoes, accessories; decorate their house with new furniture, curtains, some even buy new cars and this is the hottest topic of discussion among friends, families and colleagues during that time.

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This event has gained so much of popularity that artists, technicians and all the local clubs associated with the festival start preparing for the next year as soon as the previous one ends. This puja is no more only a celebration of power and strength, feast and festivities, but also a mean of survival for the artists and workers associated with it. If you are an art enthusiast and get in the city a few days prior to the Puja, you will be able to witness various ongoing craft work.

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Every year, more than two lakh artists from different art fields put in their skills and efforts to make this festival a grand success and if we see the other way round, this festival has kept so many art forms alive in this digital era.

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‘ACHAAR O REETI’ – RITUALS

Mahalaya – Beginning of Devipaksha
A two-hour radio programme called ‘Mahishasuramardini’ is aired on Akashvani on the Mahalaya Day which marks the start of Devipaksha and the end of Pitripaksha. This tradition is being followed since 85 years and the phenomenal recitation by Birendra Krishna Bhadra  wakes up Bengalis at 4 am in the morning to listen to it. Although now the programme is played in his recorded voice, there has been no substitute to it.

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It is a prevalent belief that the goddess arrives and departs in various mode of transportation which foresees the living conditions for the coming year. The varied forms are Boat, Elephant, Horse, Palanquin, etc. each having its own implication.

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Durga Puja is observed as the annual visit of the Goddess with her children ( Lakshmi, Sarawati, Ganesh and Karthik) to her parents’ home (mayka), and her departure back to her house on Dashmi. Durga Puja is also a celebration of Good (Goddess Durga) winning over the evil (Mahishasur the demon). There is another very interesting story behind celebrating the Puja during this period known as ‘Akaal Bodhon’ meaning uncustomary time to start worship. It is because the conventional time of worship is during the Spring, but this was the period when in Ramayana, Lord Ram worships Devi Durga with 108 blue lotuses to seek her blessings before his battle with Raavan. As the goddess was pleased with his devotion and blessed him of victory, this Devipaksha in autumn is celebrated with such grandeur.

Mahasasthi – Bodhon
This day is observed as the day of Devi’s arrival with her children. Unveiling the face of the idol is the main attraction of this day. The puja is known as ‘Bodhon’ in the local language which means life is embarked into the idol.

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Mahasaptami  – Nabapatrika Snan
Saptami is the first day of Durga puja. The customary performed on this day is known as ‘Kola Bow’ or ‘Nabapatrika Snan’ in which a Banana tree is given a pre-dawn bath. This symbolizes worshiping nine types of plants as a representation of the goddess.

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Mahaastami  – Anjoli and Sondhi Puja
The second day begins with offering anjoli to the goddess by thousands of devotees where they chant hymns in Sanskrit and offer flowers.

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Another beautiful concept is ‘Kumari Puja’ where pre-pubescent girls are dressed up as goddess and worshiped as the manifestations of heavenly female energy. If you would like to witness an elaborate Kumari Puja, you should visit ‘Belur Math’ where monks of Ramakrishna Mission conduct the Puja ceremonies.

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As the day passes, the most important ritual of Sondhi Puja is performed, which marks the inter-linking of the Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami. Sondhi Puja is a ritual where 108 lotus flowers are offered and 108 Diyas are lit in front of the goddess.

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Mahanavami  – Bhog
This is the closing day of Durga Puja. The main Navami puja begins after the Sondhi Puja and Navami Bhog is offered to the goddess. This is later distributed as prasad to the devotees.

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Dashami – The Departure
After the three days of celebrations, Dashami marks the end to the puja and this is the day when unwillingly and tearfully we bid adieu to the goddess along with her children.

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There is a popular tradition amongst the ‘Zamidar’ pujas where the Neelkanth (Indian Roller) bird is flown away and is believed to carry the message of Maa Durga’s arrival back to Kailash. But nowadays, this tradition has been banned because of Indian Rollers being a rare species. As a substitute, wooden or thermocol mockups of the bird are used. Vijaya Dashmi is celebrated as Dussehra in all other parts of the country.

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‘KHAWR MATI BHALOBASHA’ –  ARTISANS FROM KUMARTULI
Kumartuli is an old neighborhood based on the banks of river Ganga where the clay modelers have lived and worked for generations. Their miraculous creativity and incomparable creations have moved them from insignificance to prominence.

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Some renowned artists even have signature style and copyrighted facial mould, copying which is penalizing. The Calcutta locality and its craftsmen have earned fame not only within the state or country but also internationally.

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Earlier the only medium of idol creation was clay, but now other mediums like fiber glass and ‘shola’ is used. Once the idols have been used they are mostly exported and even bought by art collectors and museums.

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Bengalis outside India also have formed their communities in cities like London, Frankfurt and many more and perform Durga Puja every year with all pomp and show. The idols are imported from India and used for 3-4 consecutive years as the cost incurred to procure the idol is too high.

‘AALOR BRISHTI’ – LIGHT DECOR
The illuminated panes that ornament the streets during the festival are created in Chandannagar, a small town at a distance of approx. 54 kms from Calcutta. More than 50,000 people are engaged in creating these installations which depict various stories based on Gods, animals, environment, Bollywood, recent events etc. With increasing popularity these lights are travelling to various other cities in India and world.

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Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation takes care of the electricity distribution amongst the 2000 plus puja committees very strictly so that the city does not have to face power cuts and other mishaps.

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‘PUJOR DHAK’ – RHYTHM OF CELEBRATION
The Dhakis, whose maddening Dhak beats gives us goose bumps and force us to naturally tap our feet, travel almost 200 kilometers from Bankura, Bishnupur, Hugli, North 24 Parganas, Tarakeshwar, Dhaniyakhali, to Calcutta, to not only earn their livelihood for the next few months but also bring life to this much awaited occasion.

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The Dhak is hung around the shoulder of the player and played with two thin sticks, one a little thicker than the other, known as (Kathis).The nuances of playing the instrument are handed down from generation to generation, but the old rhythms are undergoing changes. The rhythm is no longer as slow as in earlier generations.

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A very interesting fact about these drummers is that, they arrive in Calcutta on the fourth day of Devipaksha that is Chaturthi, at various railway stations, in large numbers and they jam in the station premises. Watching hundreds of Dhakis playing together is a real audio-visual treat.

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‘AMAAR PUJO TOMAAR PUJO’ – INVOLVEMENT OF LIFE
The decorators from Midnapore, food stall owners, performers, ride owners at fairs, volunteers for Calcutta Police, idol lifters locally known as ‘coolies’, and the people, all wait for this festival with bated breath.

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Street food is the lifeline of Calcutta and it just crosses all bars and barriers during the Pujas. And if you haven’t tasted the crispy phuchkas, deliciously flavored chops and cutlets, finger licking Bhelpuri and Papri chat, yummilicious rolls, heavenly sharbats at Paramount (College Street), hot and happening Mughlai Parathas, Kobiraji and Biryani and the very famous Mishti, there is so much left to do.

Some of the very famous and authentic food joints to try out are –

  • Vivekananda Park: Phuchkas
  • Zaika, Park Street: Rolls
  • Anadi Cabin, Jawaharlal Nehru Road: Mughlai Paratha
  • China Town, Tiretti Bazaar:Authentic Chinese
  • Lord’s More: Snacks
  • Rabindra Sadan Metro Exit: Momos
  • Balwant Singh Eating House, S.P Mukherjee Road: Doodh Cola
  • Mitra Café: Non vegetarian food

and lots more…sluuurrrpppp!!!

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Fairs are set up at various grounds near Puja Pandals with several joy rides, games, entertainment shows, musical events etc. Another funny take on for me is that the city has its own favorite Puja playlist which plays on loop in almost all pandals and the voices still ruling the charts are Kishore Kumar, R.D.Burman, Asha Bhosle, Bappi Lahiri and none other than Kumar Sanu.

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The pandals are taken so seriously that a complete environment is created along with music, lights, props, theme idols and the never-ending lust for prizes. A variety of themes and abstract form of art flares up every year that has managed to grasp the mind of visitors and treat their eyes with energetic colours.

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The themes range from regional folk art forms to underwater, world’s biggest Durga to dinosaurs, pandals shaped like the Titanic, Harry Potter-Hogwarts, and the ones that address contemporary social issues or international events such as the death of Princess Diana, 9/11, and natural disasters like tsunamis. Well, the awards decide, which artist will be in demand for the next year. Celebrities from around the world are invited to Calcutta for opening ceremonies and also as judges.

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‘JAADER CHHARA PUJO HOY NA’ – CONTRIBUTORS
When we talk of Durga Puja, few things deserve a mention. Firstly, the numerous giant hoardings that we see from one corner to the other of each and every pandal. Brands from local to international consider this as a platform to lure their target audiences. This is a beneficial business deal for all stakeholders since the pandal makers charge huge amount of money from these brands against putting up their hoardings. The amount varies on the popularity of the pandal.

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Secondly, Media. Press coverage plays a pivotal role in deciding which pandal would pull more crowds. A lot of blogs are written and articles published to tell visitors which are the top 10 or 20 pandals of that year.

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And last but not the least, Calcutta Police. The dedicated efforts of Calcutta Police in maintaining safety of the people, deciding convenient travel routes forms the essence of hassle-free puja. The passion with which even the highest rank officers come down to the most crowded streets and manage the uncontrollable crowd is commendable.

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Communication services and traffic are efficiently managed by the administration of the state and metro services are even available for late night pandal hopping.

‘KATHA AR GAAN’ – BOOKS AND MUSIC
A lot of you might not believe but there is a sort of music revolution for the pujas, where a lot of songs are released in the name of ‘Pujor Gaan’ specially meant for the festival. Apart from this, various books locally known as ‘Sharodiya Patrika’ are released too, with different types of information about the event.

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‘EK EKKE DUI’ – RECYCLE PROCESS
The majestic pandals that are raised during Durga Puja strains lot of investments from various fronts. A lot of us are not aware but these pandals are re-used for the following events of ‘Kali Puja’ and ‘Jagadhatri Puja’ in the outskirt towns. These pandals are commonly bought which saves both investments and efforts.

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‘DAKER SAAJ’ – CATEGORIES
Apart from all this commercialization of the Puja, there are still many ‘Zamindar Families’ also known as ‘Bonedi Bari’ in local language, ‘Households’ and ‘Old Clubs’ who have been able to keep the tradition alive. They still perform puja in the most conventional ways and do not use themes either for the pandal or the idol.

Earlier, during the British era, the foils and other decorative for the ornaments used to come to Calcutta via ships, mostly from Germany. This gave origin to the name ‘Daker Saaj’, where ‘Daak’ means post and ‘Saaj’ means ornaments.

The few famous Bonedi Bari Pujas that we visited this year were Shovabazar Rajbari, Pathuriaghata Khelat Ghosh’s Durga Puja, Jorasanko Shibkrishna Dawn Bari, Mullick Bari and Chatubabu Latubabu Family’s Durga Puja. But if you would like to visit there are more than 50 such families who conduct Puja.

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Amongst the old clubs, most renowned one is the ‘Baghbazaar Sarbajonin’ which is also credited for having ‘Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’ as one of its presidents. It is believed to be one of the oldest ‘Barowari’ puja committee.

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This puja pulls maddening crowds especially on ‘Dashmi’ when the famed ritual of ‘Sindoor Khela’ is performed by thousands of women clad in white and red saree and gold jewellery.

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‘SHUBHO BIJOYA’ – IMMERSION
Immersion is the most heart wrenching part of this majestic festival. It’s that time when you realize that the most awaited event of the year is going to get over. Maa Durga with all other deities are taken to the holy river Ganga with all splendor amid loud chants of ‘Bolo Durga mai-ki jai’ and immersed there. There is music, loudspeakers, illuminated lights, dance on the roads and the city witnesses the end of this street festival.

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You also get to see the diverse traditions followed by different families and communities while taking Maa Durga for immersion. Some are dressed in traditional Bengali attire, some go barefoot till the ghats and the one that gives goosebumps is the gunfire where real guns are fired before starting the procession.

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Calcutta Police and Calcutta Municipal Corporation takes up the task to their shoulders to maintain law and decorum during the entire course and simultaneously removes the scrapped articles from the river to protect it from pollution.

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Well you must be wondering, why we mentioned Calcutta everywhere instead of Kolkata. That is because for these few days, the city breaks all its regional, political, social, environmental and religious barriers and come together to celebrate life, strength and unity.

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‘THAKUR DEKHA’ – HOW TO REACH CALCUTTA

By plane
Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport connects Kolkata to all major cities in India and some in South East Asia and Europe.  The domestic terminal is among the best in India. It is about 20 km from the city. Avail a prepaid taxi or Volvo to reach your destination.

By train
There are two major railway stations in Kolkata – Howrah and Sealdah.  Kolkata is well-connected by rail to almost all the big stations in India and also serves as the gateway to the North Eastern India.

By road
Esplanade Bus Station is the Kolkata’s main station for inter-state and inter-city buses. The city is well-connected with all major cities in India via National Highways and its easy to get in a car too.

Within the city
Kolkata city is well equipped with various modes of communications like local trains, buses, taxis, autos, metro, tram and feris and it would not burn a hole in your pocket as conveyance in Kolkata is affordable. For example, the starting fare for buses and shared auto is Rs. 5/- only. Hired taxis from various service providers is also available at standard rates.

‘PUJO PARIKRAMA’ – CITY TOURS
You can enjoy well planned Durga Puja Parikrama tours offered by various travel agencies. There are tours ranging from Theme Pandal Hopping to Bonedi Bari Puja and even customized tours. You can pick as per your choice and incase you would like to go hopping on your own, the city is well-connected via metro, taxis, buses and feris.

There is a very famous saying in Bengali language when they end one year’s Puja, its
“Aschhe Bochhor Abaar Hobe” meaning – ”it will happen again next year’.

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‘PANDAL HOPPING
The most famous committee Pujas in the city are –

North Kolkata –
Baghbazaar Sarbojani, Kumartuli Park, Ahiritola Sarbojanin, Beadon Street Sarbojanin, Simla Bayam Samiti, Kashi Bose Lane Sarbojanin, Hatibagan Sarbojanin, Nalin Sarkar Street, Sikdar Bagan, Hatibagan Nabin Palli etc.

Central Kolkata –
Md. Ali Park, College Square Sarbojanin Durgotsav, Akaal Bodhon Samiti, Lebutala Park Sarbojanin, Sealdah Athletic etc.

South Kolkata –
Suruchi Sangha, Badamtala Ashar Sangha, Naktala Udayan Sangha, Bosepukur Talbagan, Ekdalia Evergreen Durga Pujo Club, Jodhpur Park, Desapriya Park, 66 Pally, Hindustan Park etc.

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33 thoughts on “Queen of Calcutta

Add yours

  1. Very interesting post with lovely pictures. I have never been to India but I have heard a lot about Calcutta through books and movies. Your post has been really informative, learnt a lot from it

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Music and food brings life to any festival. It makes every celebration/occasion all the more special and exciting. I had read that phuchkas are flour balloons that have a spicy potato filling- sounds like something I would like to try.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, very nice post. Yes, Durga Pooja is one of my favorite festivals. I can’t tell you how eagerly I waited for this festival. I have attended various Durga Pooja’s but I never knew that detailed story behind it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is really detail and beautiful. I love all the photography as it reflects the story so much clearer to me. And not to mention learning the story behind it. Thanks for sharing this

    Liked by 1 person

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