In the previous company I used to work for, I remember the month of October as the time when my team had a fairly relaxed work schedule. I was working on a business development project with the India office, and my team of telephone representatives in Kuala Lumpur was never able to contact as many Indian merchants as planned, particularly the Kolkata merchants. The Kolkata merchants at that time often did not wish to speak to our phone reps, but hurriedly ended the calls and said in Hindi or English, “I’m very busy now, call back after pujo“.
Work literally stopped for nearly two weeks. My team was happy, but I wasn’t because business performance metrics still had to be met. My counterparts in Delhi office later mentioned to me about Durga Puja Festival in Kolkata and West Bengal, therefore I should expect contact rates with the merchants to be low.
It was a couple of years later that I learnt about the huge significance behind the Durga Puja festival in West Bengal, and to some extent, in other parts of India that I decided to travel to Kolkata to see the festival myself.
Durga Puja is an annual Hindu festival that celebrates the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga. It is celebrated across India, but it is the grandest festival (a five-day annual holiday) for Bengali Hindus in West Bengal.
According to Hindu mythology, a demon named Mahishasura gained respect from Lord Shiva after a long and hard penance. Lord Shiva was so impressed by Mahishasura’s devotion that he blessed the demon that no man or deity would be able to kill him except a woman. Unfortunately, the demon arrogantly assumed that a woman could never destroy him, hence he went back to his evil ways, killed many people and attacked the abode of the gods.
The gods sought help from the Hindu holy trinity of gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – who then jointly created a woman possessing great power and ferocity to ultimately fight, defeat and destroy Mahishasura. Durga was formed with ten arms, equipped with weapons and went into battle, astride on her lion to fight against Mahishasura. The demon was killed, and Durga finally restored peace and returned the heavens to the gods.
Hence, the goddess Durga is worshipped during the festival to mark her victory over the demon; a victory of good over evil. Since then, devotees have always prayed to Durga for protection from the powers of evil.
Durga Puja festival in West Bengal is celebrated on a grand scale, almost to an equivalent of Christmas in the western countries. In fact, more grand than Diwali. People wear new clothes, businesses have special advertisement campaigns, cinema releases new movies for the festival. I was told that the city of Kolkata feels very different too: schools were closed, people were in a holiday mood, more traffic on the road, special lights in the city and neighbourhoods, etc.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to experience the full five days of celebration in Kolkata as I had only arrived on the second last day of the festival – very late at night – thus, I managed to see some of the festivities on the last day.
I was happy to finally meet Amrita Das after knowing each other for a year through our blogs, and since she’s living in Kolkata, she brought me around her local neighbourhood to see the pandals.
A pandal is a temporary huge structure made of either paper, wood, bamboo or other materials, set up to honour the goddess Durga. The structure is called the puja pandal and it houses Durga and her four children: Ganesh (Remover of Obstacles), Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth), Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge) and Karthik (God of War).
It’s a community festival in Kolkata, so people travel from one pandal to another (pandal-hopping) in the city to see the various structures. Amrita and I visited three pandals that were within walking distance in her neighbourhood.
On the last day of the festival especially from evening onwards, involve rituals of married women, wearing red and white sarees, queuing up at the pandals to apply vermillion powder and to feed the Goddess Durga and her children with sweets. It’s a form of bidding farewell to Maa Durga, worshipped not only for her victory over evil but as Mother of the Universe as well. After that, the women playfully apply and paint the vermillion powder among themselves.
By nightfall, the communities then immerse Goddess Durga and her children on the banks of the river Hooghly at various ghats – a grand send-off – wishing her farewell and that they would look forward to seeing her again next year.
Read More: This is Kathleen’s Kolkata