Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Very Kolkata Durga Puja

I think it was during the D.C. Fulbright orientation that I first heard about Durga Puja in Kolkata.  At that point in time I had no idea what the festivities were all about, only that they were huge, and that this was THE time to visit Kolkata.  Conveniently, the Navyug schools had four days off for Dussehra/Durga Puja, and the Kendriya Vidyalaya schools (where other ETAs have been placed at) had a full ten days off.  So, three other ETAs (Krish, Joanna, and Stephanie) and myself booked our Kolkata tickets for this time.  Needless to say, we were very excited.

As our plane from Delhi left at 6am on the morning of Saturday, October 1st, we made sure to arrive at the airport extra early.  This meant a taxi at 2:30am.  The driver turned out to be extremely fast.   There were few cars on the road at that time, but we quickly overtook all the vehicles we came across.  It was quite terrifying for us, especially in our sleep-deprived state.  As there were no seatbelts in the backseat, Stephanie and I clutched the handles above our heads, and joined hands across Jo’s body to create an arm seatbelt for her.  Fortunately, we reached the airport safely, and far ahead of time.  It was a long wait, but this was certainly far better than missing our flight. 

Soon after touching down in Kolkata, we found a taxi to take us to our destination: the house of Zoe and Irene, two Kolkata ETAs who were very generously allowing us to stay with them for the duration of our trip.  The drive was long but scenic, and allowed me to get a preview of Kolkata.  I immediately noticed how much more lush Kolkata was than Delhi.  Before we reached the city proper, especially, there were many palm trees, ponds, marshes, and green green fields.  Our driver was a little confused, but eventually we found our way to Zoe and Irene’s house.  

Lush, green, marshy Kolkata scene

Our hosts were exceedingly gracious and welcoming from the very beginning, and helped us to get settled in right away.  It was really great to catch up with them, and to exchange stories about our different experiences living and teaching in India.   There was a lot of overlap in what we had gone through, especially with regards to teaching, but there was also much that was different.  One small but important difference was that these girls had never really had to argue with a rickshaw driver, as Kolkata auto-rickshaws only run on fixed routes with fixed prices.  Additionally, unlike us Delhi ETAs who had spent our three weeks of language training in Mussoorie, far away from our “home” city, the Kolkata cohort had spent their language training time in Kolkata.  This had given them a little more time to get cabin fever, so they had travelled a little more than we had.  Their descriptions and pictures of Puri, Orissa and Bishnapur, West Bengal, were beautiful—these places are definitely now on my “to-visit” list!  They also shared some useful information about travelling to Varanasi and Himachal Pradesh.  The biggest difference, however, was also the most obvious—Delhi and Kolkata are two very different cities: linguistically, culturally, and food-wise.   Needless to say, I was very excited to explore all that Kolkata had to offer.

Our first day was mostly spent recovering from our early morning, but I did manage to take a night walk, during which I witnessed the festivities beginning.  There were colored lights everywhere, music was playing, children were eating cotton candy, and the atmosphere was full of excitement.  Some of the pandals had already been unveiled, so I spent some time admiring those.  The lights, colors, intricate designs, and sheer size of some of these structures were overwhelming!

Before I write any more, I should probably explain something about pandals, because they are a huge part of Durga Puju, and were a huge part of our trip to Kolkata.  The story of the pandal begins with the story of the festival, so I will begin there.  There are several different legends of the Durga Puja festival, but I will share the one that seems to be the most common.  It is said that Mahisasur, the buffalo demon prayed to Lord Brahma for eternal life and invincibility.  Brahma granted him his wish.  Despite his seemingly earnest prayers however, Mahisasur misused his power, and wreaked havoc the world over, even threatening the Gods.  The Gods knew they had to stop him somehow, so they created a ten-armed maiden.  In each hand, they placed a weapon designed to fight the demon.  The maiden, Durga, was given a lion as her mount, and sent to fight the demon.  She slew him, and the world was saved.  For more information, see
Bengali Hindus believe that Durga returns to Earth every year in the month of Aswin (roughly corresponding to September/October).  To celebrate her return, Bengalis create beautiful structures called Pandals.  Pandals are large, almost hall-like constructions that house beautifully made scenes of Durga (who is at the center) slaying the demon.  Surrounding her are her four children, Saraswati (the Goddess of wisdom), Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth), Ganesh (the remover of obstacles), and Kartik (the protector).  During Durga Puja, Kolkata residents generally spend time at their own Pandals, and then travel around the city admiring others (this is known as “Pandal hopping”).  On the last day of the festival, the Durga idol is taken to one of the holy rivers in the city, immersed, and sent back home to Heaven.  Below is a picture of the first Pandal I saw.  There were many more to come.

Intricate Pandal art (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

 The next day we went to see a Pandal a little further away in North Kolkata.  This pandal had been prepared by the residents of a housing complex in which Sarva, a friend of the Kolkata ETAs, lived.  The Pandal was beautiful, but the highlight of the evening was a ceremony in which Sarva’s daughter, Sky, played the part of Durga:

Sky (centre) as Durga with two friends as Lakshmi (left) and Saraswati (right)  (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

The next day, we took advantage of a Bengali food festival going on in a hotel close by to Irene and Zoe’s house.  I was very excited to try Bengali food, which is famous all over India.  In particular, West Bengal is known for its excellent fish and prawns, both of which I was very much looking forward to.  Bengali cuisine is also known for its liberal use of mustard and jaggery.  The meal was delicious, and I ate way too much.  


That night, we met up with some of the Calcutta ETAs and their friends. It was very interesting to talk to them, as they were almost all Bengali, born and bred, and very keen to talk about their city and state.  One thing that was particularly striking to me was the intense pride that Bengalis have in their culture.  Because Delhi is a capital city, nearly everyone there is originally from somewhere else, so very few “Delhiites” that I had spoken to had talked about their city with such fervor.  While I certainly did not always agree with these young Bengalis’ disparaging comments about Delhi, I eagerly listened to their recommendations for things to do in Kolkata.

After eating Chinese food, we all went to a dance club together.  It was very fancy, and a lot of fun.  It was also very interesting, as it showed me a side of India that I had not really experienced yet, and reminded me of how diverse and full of contradictions India is.  India is a land of villages, of rice paddies, of Gandhi, jungles, the Taj Mahal, and of poverty stricken slums.  It is also, however, the land of call centers, Bollywood excesses, sleek hookah bars, a class of young, hip, urban elites, and, yes, chic night-clubs.  Each and every one of these things is a legitimate part of India, and if it takes a night out on the town to remind me of this fact, then so be it.

The next day, a large group of us went on a bus tour to a number of the most famous Pandals in Kolkata.  The bus tour, organized for American Fulbrighters in India by a Fulbright alumnus, was extremely efficient and enjoyable.  I was able to see many beautiful pandals, eat a traditional Durga Puja lunch, and also spend time chatting with many other interesting Fulbrighters.  The trip reminded me how lucky I am to be part of this network of intelligent, interesting, earnest people.  Below are some Pandal pictures, mostly from the tour.
Beautiful Pandal

Buddha themed Pandal

Pandal made of recycled materials; reminded me of the Magic Garden in Philly

That night, a group of us decided to do some more Pandal hopping, as most of the pandals are beautifully lit, and therefore best viewed at night.  The pandals were beautiful, but my favorite part of the evening was viewing one pandal that was actually inside someone’s foyer.  The family had opened up the pandal to the public, and therefore many people were coming in off the street and admiring it.  When we did the same, the family grew very excited, asking us where we were from, and what we were doing in India.  We ended up sitting with them for a while, and talking.  The children in the family were especially charming: there was a very eloquent nine year old girl named Diya, a little toddler nicknamed Mishti (which means “sweet” in Bengali) and a seven year old boy nicknamed Prince who was infatuated with America, and a very talented artist.  We chatted with the adults and Diya, admired Prince’s drawings, and laughed at Mishti’s antics.  It was a wonderful evening, and a perfect example of the famous Indian hospitality (one of the many many many examples that I have experienced).

By Wednesday, we Delhiites were a little bit Pandaled out, so we decided to do some Kolkata sightseeing.  First item on the agenda was the Victoria memorial, a beautiful monument to a very interesting (if not necessarily beloved) lady.  Inside the memorial was a very informative museum, which explained a great deal about life in Kolkata during the Raj, and about the days when Kolkata was the British capital of India.

Victoria Memorial (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

The next item on the agenda was Rabindranath Tagore’s house.  Unfortunately, we arrived only to find it closed.  We were able to peer through the gate though, so that was something.  We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the neighborhood, where we stumbled upon a structure known as the marble palace.  It’s a little bit of a surprise when one first comes across this gated property, right in the middle of a dingy, crumbling winding Kolkata neighborhood.  The mansion is a large, white, marble British-style mansion, surrounded by a green garden with fountains and statues.  The gate is guarded, and boasts a huge sign informing all passersby that photo-taking is prohibited, and admission is dependent upon a letter of permission from the Governments of West Bengal and India.  We were allowed to look though, and look we did.  As we walked away from the marble palace and back into a more typical Kolkata back alley, an elderly man beckoned to us and directed us into a large, crumbling building, explaining that there was a “golden Durga” within.  There certainly was, and she was beautiful.  After being so shut out of the palace, it felt very nice to be so warmly invited inside somewhere.

That night, a huge group of Fulbrighters met up for dinner at a fancy Bengali restaurant called “Oh!  Calcutta.”  Bahut tasty.  Afterwards, we headed to Salt Lake, a suburban area of Northern Kolkata, where Julie, Sarah, and Pamela (the other Kolkata ETAs) live.  There we viewed an enormous Pandal, about the size of a three story building.  Beautiful.
HUGE Pandal

The next day, we headed back to Delhi, as most of us had to be in school the day after.  We were sad to miss the immersion of Durga, but grateful to have been able to be in Kolkata during this truly special time.  The trip was very interesting for me for other reasons as well, as it gave me a glimpse of what life would have been like had I been placed in Kolkata. 

In some ways, the trip made me a bit wistful.  Delhi is a booming, cosmopolitan, modern, made-over city, which is wonderful, but can sometimes feel a bit sterile.  Kolkata on the other hand, seems to have experienced little in the way of renovation since 1911, when it lost its capital city status.  Much of Kolkata is disintegrating; old, old buildings with crumbling walls and trees growing out of the roofs line the boulevards.  Desperately poor people conduct their daily lives on the streets.  (This happens in Delhi too, but the phenomenon seems much more widespread in Kolkata.)  Even the nicest houses (maybe especially the nicest houses) can make one feel as if he or she is still living in Victorian times.  I have heard Kolkata described as “falling in on itself,” and as a “shit hole.”  As strange as it seems though, both of these comments came from people who truly, deeply love Kolkata, for this is part of the city’s charm. 

Kolkata Building (Photo Credit: Krish Varma)

Kolkata Street

While Delhi’s appearance speaks to India’s hip, hi-tech future, Kolkata (to the passing tourist’s eye, at least) is a page ripped out of a familiar, beautiful picture-book India that is quickly disappearing.  And perhaps the most wonderful thing about Kolkata, as I mentioned above, is that Kolkatans are fiercely proud of their city, and eager to show it off to visitors.  Delhi on the other hand, sometimes seems not to have an identity of its own. 

Kolkata was beautiful and fascinating, and part of me wishes that I could have spent a year there.  Nevertheless though, I was very happy to return to Delhi.  As I made my way through the following day, I realized how much I had missed my daily routine, my kids, my sabzi-wallah (vegetable seller), my morning walk, and all of the other things that are so unique to my experience in Delhi.  And, despite the fact that most Delhi-ites come from elsewhere, I am realizing more and more that the city has its own identity and personality.  It is its diversity that makes it such an interesting, complicated place.  Thus, even after my amazing vacation in Kolkata (where I would have been equally happy to spend my year), I was very happy to come back HOME to Delhi!


  1. There are lots cheap airlines that operate cheapest flight to CCU and offer cheap airfares for the trip.

  2. Thanks for this interesting information.For more information about Kolkata visit at

  3. This is a subject close to my heart cheers. Thanks
    Navdurga pooja online