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To see grey clay turn into human figures is to witness one of the true marvels of human ingenuity.

Everything you need to know about the frenzied, magical Durga Puja in Kolkata

By Indrajit Hazra

For five straight days in October, the Durga Pujo—or just Pujo—is a giant, crowds-crawling Oktoberfest without the booze.

Perhaps it is the only occasion when Bengalis en masse give themselves sanction for unabashedly showing off new clothes, new energy levels, new acquisitions, and members of families. With some powerful magnetic force aligning all the iron filings scattered about, Kolkata becomes rearranged, paradoxically charged with Pujo-fuelled derangement.

That the goddess comes to town with her children, leaving her reluctant-householder husband behind on Mount Kailash, makes Pujo a singular celebration of family values and domesticity, unlike the Kill Bill independence of Kali.

Durga’s idol resides for five days in the pandal, a canopy-covered area made of bamboos and cloth. It is really a larger-than-life family portrait with the mother holding forth in the middle and the four kids and an interloper caught in the carefully-crafted studio clay “photograph.” Hopping from one pandal to another, encountering and measuring small village-sized micro-economies centred on each pandal, is an activity sport.

Durga’s idol resides for five days in the pandal, a canopy-covered area made of bamboos and cloth.

My mother’s family has been having a household Durga Pujo for around 150 years now. The house in Maniktala is a ramshackle affair in a ramshackle neighbourhood, remarkable that chunks of it don’t fall off. Every year, though, this cave, home to my aunts and uncle and remnants of a long-dissolved joint family, erupts into light and modernity. The household Pujo conducted on a raised courtyard (dalaan) near the entrance of the deepest building I’ve ever been inside, joins the thousands of other Pujos outside, thereby forming a bond with all of Kolkata. In fact, Kolkata becomes a single discernible entity for these five days every year, and only these five days.

Durgo Pujo started to move from being worship (pujo) to being a social festival in the eighteenth century when Kolkata’s zamindars began competing for the honour of throwing the biggest and most novel party.

This feudal free-marketism took the homely, religious affair and converted it into a full-blown entertainment and lifestyle phenomenon. But the show took a major leap into the public space when the founder of the Rai family of Shovabazar, Nabakrishna Deb, organised a new venue to host the Pujo in 1757 to honour Robert Clive, fresh from his victory at Palashi (Plassey) and ready to establish the supremacy of the East India Company in Bengal.

Clive had wanted to perform a thanksgiving ceremony after his victory over the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah. But St Anne’s Church, the only church in Kolkata, had been razed by the now-defeated Nawab. Which is when Nabakrishna, knowing which was the power in ascendancy in Bengal, made Clive an extraordinary offer: Clive could make his thanksgiving prayer at the goddess’ feet at Nobokrishno’s Durga Pujo.

Pujo is a mass-sanctioned eating, drinking, hanging out, shouting, crowding frenzy.

Clive apparently said, “But I am a Christian”, to which Deb replied that he would take care of things. He proceeded to have the Pujo in a new venue so as to not make the more conservative Hindu members of his household erupt, and brought in nautch girls for entertainment besides beef, ham and alcohol for refreshments, essentially turning the Test match sobriety of the Pujo into an IPL-style dhamaka. While we may now baulk at Nabakrishna fawning over the Briton, there’s no denying that the “Maharaj Bahadur” was responsible for making Durga Pujo the full-throated, all-inclusive, inebriated celebration that it is today. Pujo is much, much more than just a Bengali Hindu religious festival. It is a mass-sanctioned eating, drinking, hanging out, shouting, crowding frenzy.

The venue of this first “Company Pujo” was the Shovabazar Rajbari. The property was originally built by another Kolkata zamindar, Shovaram Ghosh, in the early eighteenth century. Nobokrishno bought the property in 1757 and redesigned and extended the courtyard for the special Durga Pujo festivities in honour of Clive. Today, two small statues of lions standing on rectangular plinths on either side of the entrance to the Rajbari greet the visitor. Someone recently thought it fit to paint the animals a frightful yellow and their erect penises a salmon pink. Their paws rest on two footballs, two globes that were probably simple white spheres before they were kitsch-attacked by some Bengali Diego Maradona fan.

When I visited the Shovabazar Rajbari in early 2013, a restoration project was on. As were repair-work and preparations specifically for the year’s Pujo, still some seven months away. The admixture of medieval Bengali, Mughal and European architectural influences, especially the corridor at the entrance (loggia) and the two columns on either side, mirrors the bubbling of various cultures in eighteenth-century Bengal. Courtyards such as those in Shovabazar, with their box-like interiors, became the models for the pandals which, for all their excess, often display incredible craftsmanship and extraordinary themes.

At Shovabazar, the raised courtyard overlooks a grassy square that was being given a trim as I walked about the perimeter. I distinctly felt that I had walked into somebody’s garden house unannounced. The whole place was framed by green slatted windows with bars, and a few small balconies. I couldn’t help but think that in any other city they would have converted the property into “the hottest outdoor spot in town”. A candle and a bottle of Sauvignon blanc at each table in the evening with the Hooghly breeze wafting in while customers sit at the lawn of this historic and surprisingly well-kept place? I certainly would have asked for my corner table close to the unfinished idol.

But if Durga Pujo is the time to be festive and break out of routine, it is still the panoply of idols that exist in the centre of it all. To see grey clay turn into human figures is to witness one of the true marvels of human ingenuity and imagination. Like always, I would be visiting my mamarbari (maternal uncle’s house) almost every weekend as a boy. During those months leading up to Pujo, I would be able to see the progress, in a slowed down stop-motion manner, of wood turning into straw, turning into wet clay, turning into hard clay, turning into form, turning into colour, right until covered by a cloth before the first day of Pujo, the magical creation would rise to one step short of flesh.

For household Pujos, the kumor (artisan) would be summoned from his village, and provided a room and boarding for the months he would need to finish his work—Michelangelo engrossed in his own Sistine Chapel. In a piece for the Kolkata newspaper The Telegraph, writer Sunil Gangopadhyay describes the magic of following this work-in-progress at his mamarbari in a village now in Bangladesh: ‘Every morning the kumor started his work, we children gathered around him and gaped in awe as he gradually turned a fistful of straw and a huge mass of clay into a perfectly formed, larger-than-life figure. And then came the most intriguing part—the painting of the third eye of the Goddess. The artisan would sit in meditation sometimes for hours and then suddenly in one swift stroke of his paint brush, it would be done.’

The thousands of idols that go into pandals all across the city and beyond, come overwhelmingly from one neighbourhood in north Kolkata—Kumortuli (Potters’ Quarters), is a giant studio. To see clay forms in their various stages, clustered together or lined up along the street, is to see human forms frozen by some Gorgon’s curse. Nowhere in Kolkata is the human anatomy —especially the female form—so casually and openly displayed as in the lanes of Kumortuli weeks before they become empty. To see a naked ten-armed lady with one leg on a yet-to-be-coloured lion and the other on a well-toned man looking up at her—with a mixture of fierce aggression and pain reminiscent of Caravaggio’s finest—is to be face-to-face not with religion but with the ways of the flesh, with life. Even Kali, for all her terror and brazen nudity, cannot match the effect of these yet-to-be-completed-and-sanctified sculptures of an improbably composed Durga frozen in the act of slaying a demon.

The thousands of community Pujos that engulf Kolkata are themselves the product of a radical departure from the more restrictive, old household ones.

The first recorded Durga Pujo to have been organised outside a family setup was in 1790.

The first recorded Durga Pujo to have been organised outside a family setup was in 1790 when twelve Brahmin friends in Guptipara in Hooghly district decided to gather subscriptions (chaanda) from neighbours and start their own pujo. This made the pujo far more participatory. It belonged to everyone in the neighbourhood, rather than remaining an event hosted by a bunch of rich folks one had to mind oneself in front of. This baroari (“12 friends”) pujo is the model for today’s Sharbajanin (“open to all”) Pujo festivities.

Pujo in Kolkata, like the shorter and almost-as-dizzying Christmas, is a five-day condition that affects everyone. It is about being Bengali, and not so much about being Hindu. But it is only as a Kolkatan that you can really enter and get swept away by the whirligig. Unless, like many looking to get away from the human and traffic tsunami, you decide to flee from the city for those five days. Across the entrance of the Shovabazar Rajbari where Kolkata’s first “cultural” Durga Pujo took place in October 1757, the signboard hanging above an office space announces holiday bookings to Gangtok, Pelling, Tarapith, Mandarmani, Bokkhali, along with staple vacation destinations for the peripatetic Kolkatan: Puri, Digha, Darjeeling, Kashmir, Delhi, Agra and Hardwar.

It is on the sixth day of the Pujo each year that the raw power of the festival really becomes overwhelming paradoxically with its departure. The idols, so carefully created, have been immersed in the Ganga the day before, on Dashami. The cruelty of the act of drowning Durga and her companions is overlooked as the din accompanying the journey to the river tries its best to postpone any forthcoming sorrow of dealing with life without the goddess as long as possible.

But soon enough, the pandals are stripped like armour off the body of a fallen soldier. The courtyard of my uncle’s house, where only a few hours before, specially erected tube-lights, smoke, incense, spectacle and people in their own versions of regalia reigned, becomes an empty space radiating an immense absence. The single low-watt bulb that hung at the end of it all was my first encounter with a hangover. As well as with death.

Excerpted with permission from Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata, Indrajit Hazra, Aleph Book Company.

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