Three cheers for the 10-armed goddess

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.)

The approach to this government-sponsored pandal was elaborate.
Outside its entrance, this version of the goddess preached various civic messages. Note that the evil she’s attacking is a mosquito.

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.

Welcome to India

Steve and I are staying at the best hotel I’ve ever experienced. But getting here was one of the tougher trips of my life.

I blame myself. I chose our routing partly because of the excellent price, but also because I thought we would benefit from breaking up the journey. We did relish our stopover in Seoul. But going from there to here was brutal.

We set our alarm Sunday morning for 6, and the plane for Singapore took off at 9. After six and a half hours in the air, we landed and spent six hours in Singapore’s Changi International Airport (rated consistently as the best in the world). We took off again at 9 pm for another three and a half hours aloft. There’s a two-hour time difference between Singapore and Calcutta, so it was only 10:30 pm when we landed, and we got through customs and immigration in just 45 minutes. Then we searched for the “pre-paid taxi” booth I’d read about in Lonely Planet.

The guidebook had made it sound like this was the best choice for getting into town. The municipal police oversee the safety and reliability of the vehicles, which travel from the airport to the center of town for a great price — about $5. Because I’d read about this, when our hotel (the Oberoi Grand) had emailed to ask if I wanted them to arrange for a driver and private car pickup for $60, I had thanked them politely but said we would just take a cab.

Ha! We found what we were looking for easily enough; the airport of India’s second-biggest city was eerily empty, approaching midnight. But we also found a throng of would be passengers more or less lined up before two stalls. Huge lines aren’t terrible if they move fast. But these didn’t appear to be moving at all.

We joined the flow and waited. We waited more. Nothing happened. Steve left a couple of times to search for alternatives, but the computers in the Uber booth were down and the guy in the Ola booth (an Indian competitor to Uber) said we couldn’t use his system without an Indian phone number. Steve found another prepaid taxi line out in front of the terminal. But it didn’t appear to be moving either.

Eventually it became clear we were inching forward, almost imperceptibly, to one of two windows, each manned by a harassed-looking clerk.

We didn’t reach ours until close to 12:30 (3:30 am Seoul time — and god knows what on our body clocks.) Weirdly, it took only a minute for us to pay for our ride (380 rupees or about $5.15), and out in the street, we quickly located the ancient taxi assigned to transport us. I can only guess that the line had moved so glacially because folks in front of us were going to more complicated destinations.

For years I’ve heard terrifying stories about Indian drivers; that they were more insane and reckless even than the seemingly suicidal motorists of Shanghai. Our ride into town confirmed the stereotype. Over and over we careened within inches of other vehicles. But I didn’t care, I felt so desperate to get to the hotel. I had a stabbing pain in my side that I hoped wasn’t appendicitis. (In retrospect, I see it was probably the wages of terrible airplane posture.) I felt so exhausted I wanted to throw up. Unfortunately, after about 10 minutes, we hit heavy traffic and the ride became downright hallucinogenic. We inched through vast crowds of people strolling past displays of colored lights unlike anything I’ve ever seen outside Las Vegas.Occasionally we passed a floodlit shrine containing what appeared to be a multi-armed goddess.

We finally reached the hotel around 1:30. And as I said, it is a paradise. When we got up the next morning and learned that virtually every tourist attraction in the city would be closed for the whole time we would be here, we didn’t even reel. The city’s normal jewels would be inaccessible, we learned, because something even more wonderful would be going on. Hard as it is to imagine, I can tell you this has proved true.