A large replica of the Meenakshi Temple stands quietly at a crossing, towering over apartment complexes and palatial bungalows of the posh neighbourhood. Painted in shades of red, yellow, green and pink, adorned with intricately carved idols, it looks every inch the original temple it is supposed to be. A few lanes away, the famous Ambaji temple from Gujrat has come to life in white and gold spires. Its perfect torans welcome you at the gate even as celestial nymphs dance on the layered white ceiling inside; a fluttering red flag on top completes the picture. At a little distance, the Sun God can be seen riding his chariot pulled by seven golden horses. The chariot is decorated with miniature paintings, peacock motifs, arched doorways and marble lanterns. There is also Pegasus, the flying horse, created with terracotta beads guarding a beetle-nut plantation, a large Burmese pagoda standing majestically on a busy intersection, a studio with angels and demons hanging from its rooftop, a tribal village set up in the middle of the city, and much, much more.
It is humanly impossible to describe all the Puja Pandals in Calcutta, it is perhaps not possible to see all 2000 of them either, but it is surely worth your while to spend a few days experiencing one of the world’s greatest art festivals that comes to life in Calcutta during the Durga Puja.
My numerous visits to Calcutta have taught me quite a few things about the city and its people. Being prepared for the Puja frenzy and spending hours on the road – either stuck in traffic or standing in queues in front of the pandals – is one of them. But it has also taught me some shortcuts. To avoid the very first traffic jam – the perpetual one on the Howrah Bridge – I decide to take the ferry across the river. It is not only a time-tested method to beat the taxi queues and the traffic at the railway station, but also provides a spectacular view of the Calcutta sky. In less than fifteen minutes of de-boarding the train on a busy shashti morning, I am already on the other side of the Hoogly, standing in the shadow of colonial Calcutta.
The city seems to have just had a shower and every inch of it is now glistening in mild autumn sun. The mild fragrance of orange-stemmed Shiuli hangs heavy in the forever moist air of the city. Blooming of the Shiuli flower, incidentally, is also considered the onset of autumn, and in Calcutta, it means only one thing: Durga is on her way home with her children. In this part of the city though there is no sign of the mother or the children so I hail a taxi and head to where all the action is.
Your experience of Durga Puja largely depends on which part of the city you decide to go to: the elite South-Calcutta or the rustic North-Calcutta. I chose to head south for it is during my stay here that I started appreciating the festival and what it stands for. Until then, the non-Bengali in me could never appreciate the madness around the festival.
In hop off the taxi at the junction close to my erstwhile home and walk.
Like always, the pandal outside my apartment complex in Hindustan Park is small but based on a contemporary theme – the recent surgical strikes – but the showstopper here, like always, is the idol. Dressed in a thick cotton sari, sans any jewellery, or weapons, the goddess looks like the everyday woman of Bengal. I thank her for getting me here and walk towards some of the most famous pandals in town – Ekdalia Evergreen Club, Singhi Park, and Ballygunj Cultural Association.
It is barely noon now but the neighbourhood is already bursting with colour and bustling with people. The roads are lined with colourful banners and advertisements: on one hand you have Vidya Balan selling jewellery and Boroline, on another you have Saina Nehwal telling you the benefits of an anti allergy powder. Here you have Ajay Devgan riding a horse; there you have Saurav Ganguly holding a bottle of Coke. There are many others too who my non-Bengali eyes cannot recognize. The people meanwhile are out in full force despite the rain and humidity, dressed in their Puja best.
Outside the largest pandal, a replica of the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, an army of hawkers has already set shop. They are selling everything from puchkas to jhalmuri, from pizzas to burgers, from ice creams to mishti doi, and are doing brisk business too. Looking at people devouring puchka after puchka, I am tempted to try my hand at a few too when the sky opens up and I have to run for cover.
“You must take the cab from under the flyover, it is the closest and the cleanest way to reach Shobhabazar. I always use that road. But then the road may be closed. What about the next signal? Why don’t you take a right from there? I saw some taxis going that way. Oh ho! Why did you not turn? Now we will have to stand here for another half an hour. You should have turned right from the last intersection only.”
I sit sandwiched between my friend and her mother in the backseat of a taxi as they try to decide on the best route to get to our destination. It is only 5:00 PM but the road ahead is jam-packed, so is the road on the right and the pavement on the left. The driver, an elderly Sikh gentleman who speaks Bangla, has been trying to explain to them that most roads have either been closed down or have been converted into one-ways, but the mother-daughter duo is not ready to believe him. “He’s trying to make money out of us,” they tell me in English. After an hour and a half on the road, and listening to my friend and her mother’s high-pitched conversation about almost everything related to the Puja, we finally get off the cab in the heart of North Calcutta.
Unlike its posh counterpart, North Calcutta does not boast of many large-scale pujas. The pandals here are more artsy and less commercial and mostly hidden in narrow lanes and by lanes. The food isn’t fancy either. Unlike the burgers and pizzas of the South, huge pots of Biryani and Korma line the wide avenue. There are large stalls selling Chinese food, kathi rolls and hand churned ice cream too.
Meandering through the lanes of the humble neighbourhood we spot many innovative pandals. One of them made up entirely of scrap, another just with washing machine pipes. Next comes a colourful Eiffel tower followed by a jungle and a cave. My favourite is the one with a mammoth Mahishasur pinned to the ground by Durga’s trident. The most famous puja of North Calcutta however happens to be at the potter’s colony called Kumhartuli. This is also the place where all the idols for the festival are created. Owning to its popularity, the pandal is often crowded and queues run into miles. Today is no different. The queue can be seen from over a kilometer away. In no mood to jostle the crowd I promptly turn back.
If there is one place in Calcutta, where you can expect some peace and quiet even during Puja frenzy, it is Park Street. Having spent the entire day pandal-hopping, all I can think of now is a place to sit and something to drink. After much deliberation my friend and I settle for Trincas, an institution best known for supplying office goers with their daily dose of alcohol. It seems like a safe bet for hiding from the Puja crowd: who would spend the shashti evening cooped up in a bar? What I seemed to have forgotten is that no place can escape the puja frenzy in Calcutta.
The bar turns out to be noisy and overflowing with people. My first instinct is to return from the door itself but chances of finding a table anywhere else are bleak, so we take on the only vacant table in a corner. Next to us is a group of middle aged women drinking and singing along the band that is dishing out bollywood numbers, to my left is a young couple with a child, gorging on chilli chicken, in front of me is a family of four laughing and swaying to the music. As I settle down with my drink, I find myself enjoying too. What is Durga Puja without some noise and crowd after all.
This post first appeared in The Hindu