When I planned our Indian itinerary, I did NOT know that our arrival in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) would coincide with the festival known as Durga Puja. I’d never heard of Durga Puja. Now I think that’s pretty pathetic, considering that millions and millions of Indians think it’s the coolest thing that happens all year long. But it only entered my consciousness when I started reading my Lonely Planet guidebook’s Kolkata chapter and noticed the sidebar which begins, “Much as Carnival transforms Rio or New Orleans, Durga Puja brings Kolkata to a fever pitch of colorfully chaotic mayhem.” Uh-oh, I thought.
But it was too late to change our plans, and even while waiting for a taxi in that line from hell at the airport, a couple of folks told me how incredibly lucky our timing was. When Steve and I chatted with the concierge the next morning, he confirmed that almost all the city’s business and cultural institutions would be closed, all week long. But no matter, he assured us. Durga Puja was more wonderful than anything we could have otherwise seen.
He elaborated on what the guidebook had sketched out. This festival honors the warrior goddess Durga — one of the most important and popular deities in the Hindu pantheon. While folks all over India pay some attention to her holiday, it is supremely special in West Bengal (of which Kolkata is the capital). Here it feels like Christmas, New Year’s, and Halloween all rolled into a weeklong blockbuster of a party. Dozens and dozens of temporary shrines (called pandals) are set up all over the city, blocking streets and requiring major rerouting of the traffic. The shrines house clay idols of Durga and her four children. We had to see them to believe them, the concierge declared. He offered to arrange for a driver to take us to various points where we could stroll around and view them. If we wanted, he would have one of his assistants accompany us. The whole thing would cost about $15 an hour, he said.
Who could resist? The next morning we set off at 9 with the driver and 20-year-old Arundhati, a charming hotel-management student currently interning at the Oberoi. It was a great time to be outside. The temperature had only climbed to about 80, and the streets were pleasantly uncongested. (Part of the Bengali approach to Durga Puja involves staying up every night till 3 or 4 in the morning, then sleeping in until midday.)
Artisans work for months to create the fantastic altars and the statues. The most astounding part of the festival (to me) is that on the final day, all the idols are immersed in the Hooghly and destroyed.
But during their brief existence, priests attend to the idols with arcane and complex rituals.
Over the next three hours, we learned that some of the pandals are enormous…
While some are small and intimate.
Corporate sponsorship pays for a lot of the most elaborate ones, which often have themes. One boasted an Under-the-Sea motif. I think the exterior was meant to suggest a wave…
While the interior evoked the spirit of an underwater cave.
It made me think of Disneyland. Or Vegas. But in neither of those places have I ever seen such fantastic detail and craftsmanship. This white-themed pandal looked like it was carved out of ivory, but instead it was made of some kind of heavy paper.
Another Durga and her entourage were made entirely of bamboo and jute.
And who could resist the modern-day goddess armed with weapons such as a book, a gavel, a steering wheel, a stethoscope and more?
We had seen only a small fraction of all the pandals when heat and exhaustion and the swelling crowds drove us back to the hotel. In the early evening Steve and I ventured out again, this time alone and saw a few more in our immediate neighborhood. But we were in bed by 9. I barely ever attended a midnight mass on Christmas Eve. I think you have to train from childhood to muster the stamina for a holiday the likes of this.