Indira S. Somani, journalist, PhD

Celebrating Durga Puja in Kolkata

I’ve waited my whole life to celebrate two important festivals in India, Durga Puja and Diwali.  Last week was the first time I spent Durga Puja in Kolkata, India, filming all the rituals.  As mentioned in earlier blogs, I’m half Bengali and my mother has always tried to keep my Bengali roots alive by making sure we celebrate Durga Puja in the U.S. properly.  But I had no idea how elaborate this celebration was until I visited Kolkata during this time of year.  Durga Puja was like a giant carnival and the entire city celebrated by visiting the puja pandals, eating finger foods sold by the street vendors and buying souvenirs.  At night the whole city lit up like Christmas in the U.S. as many buildings as well as street lamps were decorated with lights.  It was humid and hot compared to Bangalore, and I could barely manage in my khaki pants and cotton kurtis. But the Kolkata women were dressed in gorgeous saris of all colors and fabrics flaunting their best attire in honor of Ma Durga despite the weather.  In many ways I felt like I was seeing Kolkata for the first time, even though I have traveled here my whole life and even had my own annaprashan here.
I arrived on Saturday, Oct. 1 and stayed with my uncle, mom’s brother, (Mamu), my aunt (Mamima) and cousin, Tinku.  The puja started on Sunday, Oct. 2 and that day is called Sashti.  Mamu, Mamima, Tinku and I went pandal hopping in North Kolkata.  The pandals were of Ma Durga with her four children, Lord Ganesha to her far right, then Goddess Laxmi, and to her immediate left Goddess Saraswati and then Lord Kartik to her far left.   I didn’t know these beautiful structures were called pandals, but I have seen these in the U.S. at Durga Baris (also known as temples that have a specific focus on Ma Durga). This structure was depicted in so many styles all over Kolkata, and these pandals were built only for Durga Puja.  Some pandals even win prizes.  

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Sashti was the sixth day of the moon when Goddess Durga is welcomed.  Saptami was Oct. 3, which is the first day of Durga puja with rituals.  I spend this day pandal hopping with my family again.  Tuesday, Oct. 4, was Ashtami, the most important day of Durga Puja.  Some scholars say that on this day, Goddess Durga created an army to fight against the forces of the demon-king Mahishasura, who was terrorizing Heaven and Earth. After nine days of fighting, during which Mahishasura’s army was decimated, she finally killed him on the tenth day.  Devotees recite the mantras and offer flowers to Goddess Durga (pushpanjali) and pray for her blessings. I spent this day with other Fulbright scholars for a tour of puja pandals around the city.  After a day of touring and filming, I also filmed the Sandhi Puja performed at 12:50am on Oct. 5 (immediately afterwards is when MahaNavami starts).  The Sandhi Puja is the exact moment when Ma Durga killed Mahishasura.  Navami was Oct. 5 where Bhog (Khichuri, rice and lentil dish, and other vegetarian items) was served.  Goddess Durga is offered food, which is later distributed among her devotees.  I spent this day with my cousins touring the Dakshineswar Kali Temple and Belur Math (the Ramakrishna mission of swamis involved in the Vedanta movement).  It was hard to film in these places, but the temple authorities made an exception and let me get a couple shots (thanks to my cousins, Papiya and Samita, who were so persuasive with them).  Dakshineswar’s main idol is Ma Kali.  Legend has it that during several battles, Ma Durga appears in her incarnation of Kali as she tries to fight Mahishasura. Dashami was celebrated on both Oct. 6 and 7 where the idols were immersed into the Ganges river, symbolizing Goddess Durga and her four children returning to her husband’s home (Lord Shiva).  Devotees bid farewell to Ma Durga awaiting to see her again next year.  On Friday, Oct. 7, I filmed the immersion of the idols in the evening, because I joined a boat tour on the Ganges organized by Fulbright.  Before the immersion took place, married women performed “Sindur Khela.”  The women apply vermilion to all the idols, to each other and greet each other with sweets.  This was by far the best time I’ve ever had in Kolkata, one that I will cherish for the rest of my life.