Come October and the dense metropolis of Kolkata drenches itself in magical celebration, the entire city rides on effervescent ebullience. This is when one of the grandest religious festivals – Durga puja – happens, and Kolkata is the place known for its grandest celebrations. From humble homesteads to plush condominiums to the working-class neighborhoods, everyone gears up to welcome and venerate the Mother Goddess in a festive fervor.
Durga puja in Kolkata is a religious festival, and much more. The cultural nerve center of eastern India transforms itself into an open-air art gallery strewn with impossibly artistic pandals (temporary structures that house the idols of Durga and her children during the five days of the puja) cast with canvas, clothes and bamboo. The interiors are often decked up in art deco style and pandal-hopping is the most favorite way to soak in the artistic spirit during these five days. It is a community affair, organized locally with generous contributions from the neighborhood and corporate sponsorship.
On the other end of the spectrum, far removed from the sheen and vibrancy of the neighborhood festivals, the aristocratic households (or bonedi barir as they are called in Bengali) still preserve the orthodox ways of worship, starting from iconography to rituals and offerings. In about 80 such houses in Kolkata, the mother goddess is perceived more as a daughter of the family who returns home every year in autumn for five days.
The celebrations revolve around her annual homecoming, and it becomes an annual reunion for friends and family. And most of these houses welcome the curious visitors to have a glimpse into the traditional rituals and festivities of their centuries-old puja.
Celebrated since 1610 at their ancestral home at Barisha, the Durgotsav of the family of Sabarna Roychowdhury of Barisha (now a small neighborhood at the southern tip of the city) is the oldest family Durga Puja. But the festival was a small affair for the next century and a half. In the latter half of the 18th century, the trading merchants of Bengal were doing brisk business with the British East India Company. The amassed wealth funded majestic mansions, an opulent and often decadent lifestyle, and an abundance of religious celebrations, of which the Durgotsavs of some of these families entered city folklore.
Over time, the pomp and grandeur of the festivities have faded, but the traditional charm of the celebrations have been retained in these ancient households. The worship, rituals and festivities of the five days are centered around the thakurdalan, an open hall of worship, fronted by an expansive courtyard. The idols are placed in the middle of the thakurdalan on an elevated platform with an ornate semicircular backdrop called the chalchitra.
The end of the monsoon brings in the festive season, with sculpting the idols of the deities on the thakurdalan, a meticulous process that takes weeks. The clay statues are usually crafted by an artisan who has done it for decades, a legacy passed on to him by his father.
The rituals begin with the bathing of the leaves of nine plants in the early hours of Maha Saptami. It is an elaborate and colorful rite that usually takes place at one of the many quays lining the river Ganga on the western flank of Calcutta.
On Maha Ashtami (the third day of the festival), a rather gory ritual of animal sacrifice used to be a high point till a few decades ago. It has been thankfully done away with. The custom is now marked by the symbolic sacrifice of vegetables or in some cases, of curious structures of sugar. Another important ritual involves deifying an adolescent girl and worshiping her alongside Maa Durga. The philosophical basis of this observance is to highlight the value of women, where the young maiden symbolizes and celebrates the power of womanhood.
A spectacular ceremony practiced on Maha Ashtami mornings by some old merchant families involves the women of these families facing the goddess while praying with clay bowls filled with burning frankincense in their hands and on their heads.
The tradition of freeing Neelkanth (Indian Roller) birds, as the messengers of the news of Durga’s departure for Kailash to Lord Shiva on Vijaya Dashami was banned by the Wildlife Preservation Act a few years ago. Now, clay models of the bird are immersed in the Ganga with Maa Durga’s idol.
The carnival spirit reaches its climax on the final day of Durga Puja – Vijaya Dashami – with gala processions heading towards the Ganga for the immersion of the idols in its holy waters. It is a fervent culmination of the festival, preceded by a beautiful ritual when women smear red vermilion powder on the face of Maa Durga while whispering their farewell and praying for the return of the goddess next year.
There are quite a few city-based operators that organize trips across the city for a round up of some of the more famous bonedi barir pujas. A more intrepid experience could involve navigating through the labyrinthine alleys of the northern part of the city (where most of these houses are located, and marked on Google maps).The festival is an open-door affair and polite, modestly dressed visitors are usually let into the courtyard, the best place to watch the festivities around the thakurdalan. Since the inner quarters of these sprawling mansions lie beyond the thakurdalan, privacy is still maintained. Some famous houses are Sovabazar Rajbari, Babu Khelat Ghosh Bari Puja at Pathuriaghata, Rani Rashmoni Bari Puja at Janbazar, and Dawn Bari at Jorasanko. A walk through the expansive courtyards can be a transportive experience, and the perfect way to more deeply explore the city’s emotive history.