The Durga Puja festival in Kolkata is much more than a celebration with music, dances, performances and colored lights. Calcutta for 10 days becomes a true contemporary art fair and a center for ceremonies and rituals that promote communion among all participants. And it's not like a carnival, Durga Puja is unique in its kind. Calcutta is not a shock, but a revelation.
Preparations for the big celebration
Nationally known as the cultural capital of the country, Calcutta lives up to its nickname during the days of the festival. The city present in its streets its rich cultural heritage in the form of huge temporary constructions made mainly of bamboo and cloth, called pandals. Within these temporary sanctuaries are kept the sculpture of the goddess Durga. Millions of visitors visit everyday to catch a glimpse of her.
Calcutta prepares for 10 long months with total commitment for its main annual religious event of Durga Puja. And as major exponent of the art of the country, the artists take advantage of altars dedicated to the goddess to express much more than just worship. The shrines themselves are masterpieces. There are different themes ranging from social protest and extravagant religious exaltation through fantasy to historical themes. It thus cover all areas of life India and internationally.
During the months before Durga Puja local artists create and design pandals. While sculptures make the Durga idols and other deities. They simultaneously, surprise visitors with eccentric and colorful artwork.
The sculptures of deities are created throughout the year with infinite patience and attention to detail. They use the best fabrics to dress and exquisite pieces of jewelery to adorn. But it's just a few days before the festival when a few "elected" experts fast for a full day to prepare mentally and physically give expression to the eyes of Durga.
As people approach the start of the festival days, the city is filled with colored lights. Women in kitchens begin to prepare bhog for the guests. People clean their homes.
The Hindu mythology is quite complex. It includes thousands of deities and convoluted stories, and Durga does not escape this convoluted network. She is the goddess of war and destruction and her Sanskrit name means "Inaccessible" or "Invincible". Durga represents the female force who defeat Mahishasura. She is usually represented with 10 arms and each has a different weapon (sword, conch, discus, rosary, bell, cup, shield, bow, arrow and a trident).
According to legend, Mahishasura began to wreak havoc after defeating the Devas. They decided to induce Durga to destroy him. Since this triumph, Hindus in general but the Bengalis in particular adore her with special passion.
The Durga Puja festival
The celebration takes place between late-September to mid-October. The festival lasts 10 days. Originally the name of the period is Navarti, which in Sanskrit means "nine nights". On the tenth day is when finally the sculptures are carried in the middle of an emotional procession of ceremonies, mantras, music and tears upto the Hooghly river to plunge it into the water.
To kick off the festival as per tradition, a local radio station broadcasts various chants. From there then the hustle in the pandals is frantic. People begin to arrive from every corner of the country not to miss the party . The artists put the finishing touches to temporary pandals. Potters finish the sculptures of the goddess and other deities to accompany her on the altars. Dozens of trucks travel at full speed through the streets of Calcutta to carry the goddess to the Altar as soon as possible.
During the days the locals invoke the goddess through ceremonies, mantras and rituals that take place in every corner of the State. It is from the sixth day when the festivals gains momentum.
The faithful followers of the goddess rush into the streets and from queues in front of the various pandals who come from far and wide. Devotees wait patiently for their turn to pay tribute for few minutes and admire the Durga Pandal.
Each neighborhood boasts dozens of pandals. The city seems more alive than ever, more colorful and festive with a very powerful energy density mixed with moisture, heat and odors given off by incenses and kitchens. Suddenly more people seems impossible as more people than usual come into the streets in the already overpopulated Calcutta. The pandals stand tall and stoic every few meters and a walk through the streets is like visiting a huge art gallery.
Origin of the festival
The origin of this festival can be located in medieval times, when it was held inside houses and small sculptures of the goddess to be worshiped were placed in private. But the aristocrats during the seventeenth and eighteenth century decided to take the sculptures to the streets to show off their wealth through ornate altars. The wealthiest families began a silent competition to see who had the most beautiful altar. This began to include music, dance and food for the guests, whether rich or poor, men or women, children or elderly.
Shortly afterwards came the community or "Baroyari" concept. People raised money to create their own altars. From early twentieth century there were hundreds of communities - from different castes, beliefs and ideologies performing their own "pandals" to worship the goddess.
Over the years both the sculptures of the goddess as the pandals become more elaborate. The competition to create the most original sculpture of the deity and the most attractive and amazing Pandal was to end with themes that touch today all walks of life in India. It includes social, cultural, economic, historical, political, ecological and even other global issues.
The festival is already considered as a contemporary outdoor art fair. Many organizations have the financial backing of major brands and private entities to create the pandals.
Durga Puja is not like a carnival but is a festival with an identity. It has been able to adapt to the new century and offers a broad view of religious and artistic life. Undoubtedly the festival is a must for visitors to India or for those who enjoy modern and extravagant art.