— This guest post was written by Suchira Ray, an avid traveller and a die-hard Calcuttan

Maa Aaschhen- A Lazy metro’s fiery transition

“Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn”. Elizabeth Lawrence once said this about the beautiful autumn. Turning of greens into burning oranges is indeed a sign of autumn but for Bengalis or May I say for Calcuttans portrayal of this special season is quite different and unique. When the scattered white soft clouds hovered in the crystal indigo sky, when the Kaash flowers grew enough to drool in the breeze, then the entire universe screams to the Calcuttans that “Ma Aaschhen” (Durga Maa is coming).

The perky city bursts with tireless energy during this period showing some commendable spirit which is totally contagious in nature irrespective of religion, caste, and race.

Akal Bodhon – Spring festival in Autumn

It’s said that the Autumn Durga Puja is actually an ‘Akal Bodhon’ (uncustomary time to start worship) which was started by Lord Ram who worshipped Devi before fighting Ravana. In Bengal as well as in Kolkata, Durga Puja was confined to Zamindars’ or royal households due to its huge expenses and elaborated regulations for a long time. Then in the early 19th century, twelve boys from Hooghly started community puja of the Goddess known as ‘Baroyaari(twelve friends’) puja’ and sometime later in the early 20th century Kolkata’s first official community Durga Puja Baghbazar (a place in north Kolkata) commenced.

Rupang Dehi, Jayang Dehi – Mahalaya & Kolkata

Seven days prior to the main event, on the day of Mahalaya, the Goddess comes to earth from heaven. In Calcutta, Mahalaya brings a feeling of nostalgia. On this day, the city wakes up in the wee hour with the poetic invocation of ‘Mahishashur Mardini’ tales (the tale of how the Goddess defeats Mahisasur) by Birendra Kishore Bhadra on the radio. It’s an unwritten tradition going on since the last 85 years. In the early morning, you can see ghats full of men taking dips in the holy Ganges (Hooghly) remembering their ancestors (this ritual known as ‘Tarpan’) for the last time before the Maatri era (Devi Paksha) begins. Mahalaya marks the end of ‘Pitri Paksha’ (men’s era) and the beginning of ‘Maatri Paksha’.

Chhokkhu Daan

Kolkata, however, starts the Puja preparation three to four months prior to the main festival. From preparing clay idols to building the pandals, it all starts well in advance. Even though the idol of Maa Durga is sculpted well in advance, the eyes are drawn only after Mahalaya. It’s a belief that drawing the eyes brings the soul of Maa Durga to the idol. So, on Mahalaya, the sculptors etch the soul of the idol and this ceremony is called Chhokkhu (eyes) Daan (offering the eyes).

Bodhhon – and it begins

On MahaShashthi (6th day after Mahalaya) Durga puja rituals officially begin after Bodhhon (awakening of Goddess) with ceremonies and prayers. After that each passing day till Dashami (10th day after Mahalaya and the last day) the Goddess is worshipped through different rituals. On Saptami- KalaBou Snan (banana tree – the bride of Lord Ganesh) is taken to the Ganges and given a ceremonial bath before placing it besides Lord Ganesh idol). Ashtami Anjali is considered the most significant day. Sandhi Puja, the last hour of Ashtami and the first hour of Navami, is the most auspicious time of Durga Puja. It is around this time that the Goddess defeated Mahisasur.

Sindurkhela – A culture to behold

Sindur Khela, Kolkata Durga Puja

On the last day of Puja, married women perform the ritual of ‘Boron’ which is offering sindur (vermilion) and sweets to the idols. Post this, the married women put vermilion on each other wishing each other a long and happy married life. This ceremony is called Sindur Khela.

Aabar Eso Maa (Maa, please visit again)

The celebration of Durga Puja ends with heavy hearts and teary eyes as Maa Durga is immersed in Hooghly. After Visarjan, it’s a customary ritual to touch elders’ feet and seek blessings known as ‘Bijoya Namaskar’

What’s so special in Tilottama – A Kolkata Tale

The puja in Kolkata is special because it is more of a festival than a ‘Puja’. And, the Puja traverses the boundaries of race, religion and case. People of all faiths celebrate the Puja with equal pomp and pride. People forget conflicts and clashes and enjoy the Puja. In fact, there is an unofficial custom of ‘Pujor Adda’ which means gathering of locals for endless chitchats during the Puja days.

Sabekiyana vs Theme Puja – Old vs New

There are two kinds of Puja in Kolkata. Traditional and modern. In the traditional way, known as Sabekiyana, the idol is portrayed in ekchaala where the goddess and her children are housed in a single bamboo shelter. The idol is adorned with sholar saaj (jewelry made with the white core of Shola read) or Daaker saaj (jewelry made of beaten silver). Traditional pandals are simple but they follow the strict ancient customs. The best part is that you can visit the traditional pandals/households without any invitation.

On the other hand, modern pandals are set up in different themes each year. From the pandal decoration to the idols, you can witness various thoughts and stories. The idols are built with various materials like paper, bottles, ropes, coconut shells. The themes are quite varied as well. You can see from Paris’s Louvre museum to Egypt’s famous pyramid, from India’s best places to themes promoting women empowerment.

Must to do in the City during Puja

Though it is impossible to cover each and every pandal and do every famous thing during Puja, still I tried to put some of the doable things and must watch pandals in Kolkata. In Kolkata itself, there are more than 2600 community pujas and every puja is unique in a way from another. Here’s is the list of some famous puja and their specialties.

North Kolkata

Baghbazar Sarbojonin (Kolkata’s oldest community puja turns into 100 years this year; Famous for its Sabekiyana puja (old ritual) along with ancient idol style; Siduurkhela and an outstanding colorful mela outside the pandal).

Some of the other famous pujas in North Kolkata are:- Kumartully Sarbojonin, Kumartully Park, Ahiritolla, Shatadal, Nolini Sarkar Street(Hatibagan), KarBagan(BidhanNagar), Telengabagan(BidhanNagar), Chaltabagan (must watch for unique lighting style).

East Kolkata

Shreebhumi, Lake Town Yuva Brinda, BharatChara.

Central Kolkata

College square (for lighting) and Mohammed Ali Park.

South Kolkata

Madox Square (one of the oldest puja in Kolkata famous for Sabekiyana), Ekdaliya, 66-Palli, 69-Palli, Bosepukur Shitala Mandir, Jodhpur Park, Barisha(Behala), Mudiyali, Hindusthan Park, Deshopriyo Park, Shiv Mandir, Chatala

Zamindars’/Royal Family’s Puja in Kolkata

Shovabazar Rajbari, Mullick Bari, Laha Bari, Dawn Bari and Sen Bari.

Kumari Puja in Belur Math on Ashtami

In Belur Math (headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda) Kumari puja is performed on Ashtami morning. Kumari puja is the ceremonial worship of young girls to celebrate the faith in worshipping Devi. In Bengal elderly people addresses young girls as ‘Maa’ out of affection and Kumari puja is a symbol of purest faith in feminine manifestation.

Breaking Stereotypes

From traditional to themed, from ancient customs to playing Sinduur Khela with widows, sex workers and unmarried women, Kolkata’s Durga Puja has come a long way from its humble origins in Hooghly. Since ages, Kolkata has been a city of progressive thoughts, secularism and equality and it has not lost these values with time. The city chooses to convey its thoughts and messages through this greatest festival. Each year, NGO organizations provide special tours to sex workers, orphans, widows and underprivileged children. And this year, Ahiritola Sarbojonin’s (one of the old and reputed puja in North Kolkata) theme is the lives of Sonagachi’s sex workers.

Durga Puja in Kolkata is something that you must not miss. The City of Joy turns into the City that Doesn’t Sleep. From all-night pandal hopping to 24 hour food joints, from jubilant streets to tireless volunteers, the city celebrates like there is no tomorrow. In Kolkata, the level of devotion is measured in terms of humanity and equality and Durga Puja is the worship the human spirit.

— This guest post was written by Suchira Ray, an avid traveller and a die-hard Calcuttan