Only a few days to go… the streets of Kolkata would already be blocked with half finished pandals… there would be a new smell in the air, a change in the forms of clouds in the sky, even the sun would be shining differently, the streets, the malls and the shops would all be packed with people who are out on a shopping spree… Esplanade, New Market, Gariahat, South City Mall, all would be chock-a-block… ride out of the city and one would find the horizon filled with white “kash”… it seems everything about this city at this point, from the air to the streets people walk on, is indicating towards one big marathon celebration that is about to begin… the ceremonial worship of our mother goddess – the Durga Puja…
Though Durga Puja, one of the most important festivals of the Hindus, is celebrated with much gaiety and grandeur all over India and abroad, it gets a different meaning altogether when you are in West Bengal. Durga Puja is almost synonymous with the state of Bengal. When you speak of Bengal you will have to mention Durga Puja and when you mention Durga Puja you cannot escape thinking about West Bengal and precisely Kolkata. During these few days of the Pujas the whole of West Bengal seems to be pulsating with the celebration. During these days when you are in Bengal, you can see Durga Puja, smell it, feel it in your heart, and even you can eat “Durga puja”!
The rituals of Durga Puja entail ten days of fast, feast and worship; however, the last four days - Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami - are celebrated with much grandeur. However, the puja mood starts off from Mahalaya, specifically with “Mahishasurmardini”, a two-hour radio program. While earlier it used to be conducted live, later a recorded version began to be broadcast. On this day probably the whole of Bengal wakes up by 4’o clock in the morning to listen to the enchanting voice of the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra and the late Pankaj Kumar Mullick on All India Radio as they recite hymns from the scriptures from the Devi Mahatmyam (Chandi Path).
Durga Puja is celebrated every year in the Hindu month of Ashwin (September-October) and commemorates Prince Rama's invocation of the goddess before going to war with the demon king Ravana. This autumnal ritual is also known as 'akal-bodhan' or out-of-season ('akal') worship ('bodhan'). It was Lord Rama, who first worshipped Devi Durga by offering 108 blue lotuses and lighting 108 lamps, at this time of the year. The actual worship of Goddess Durga according to the Hindu scriptures falls in the month of Chaitra which roughly overlaps with March or April. This ceremony is however not observed by many and is restricted to a handful in the state of West Bengal. Durga Puja was popular in Bengal in the medieval period, in the late 1500s. It is said that the landlords or zamindar of Dinajpur and Malda initiated the first Durga Puja in Bengal. Again acccording to another source, Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur or Bhabananda Mazumdar of Nadiya organized the first Sharadiya or Autumn Durga Puja in Bengal.
So with this long a history of celebrating this festival one can rightly say that to feel the real essence of Durga Puja one has to be in Bengal. The celebration in Kolkata becomes equivalent to the Rio Carnival of Brazil. Having grown up amidst this celebration now when I’m away from it for the first time, it feels a part of me is missing. I’ll miss those thousands of pandals all clamoring for attention and admiration. I’ll miss the streets that would look so different when adorned with lights. I’ll miss the crowd, the pandal-hopping, the road-side food stalls, the phuchkkas… I’ll miss the 24 hours mad carnival. All these years when I was a part of it I never thought I would miss it so much. I always wanted to go out on tours during the pujas but somehow I never did. But now when am away from it I want to go back!