In the US, we are a little deficient in tradition. Sure we have holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and others, but our country is so new and diverse that our culture is a little less defined. Or at least it feels that way when I travel to countries where tradition spans centuries. I’m fascinated by the rituals, and will raise my hand high for any opportunity to participate… or at least spectate. Turns out, I picked the right time to visit Kolkata. October typically marks the start of festival season, with Durga Puja leading the way as the biggest in West Bengal. It celebrates the victory of Goddess Durga over the mythological demon Mahishasura, and Kolkata is the center of the action. Giant pandals, or temporary structures, are erected throughout the city to house elaborate clay idols depicting the triumphant scene. The city shuts down for the final four days of the festival and the streets are flooded with people. More about the history of Durga Puja can be found on my Kiva blog post.
My puja celebrating started at 3:30am on the first day. Mr. Das, the CEO of BJS, said that was the best time because the crowds aren’t as bad. Not AS bad? Oy. Because lights also play a role, people often celebrate at night and sleep during the day. So Mr. Das picked me up at my guesthouse in the wee hours of the morning to go pandal-hopping with his family and Ritu, another BJS co-worker. I was shocked by the number of people who WERE out. Many pandals nowadays are financed by corporations and are quite elaborate. I marveled at the fact that these displays were temporary, and would be deconstructed in just four days. We crisscrossed the city in a hired car, visiting about six different pandals. They were extraordinary pieces of art, with fine details painted on each statue and even the ceilings intricately designed. At 11am, we were out of steam and I was delivered back to my guesthouse for some sleep.
The last day of the festival was the most culturally rich. Ritu invited me to her aunt’s house for a “home puja” and I jumped at the opportunity as I love, love, love going to peoples’ homes. One room was dedicated to a shrine with food spread everywhere: fruit, dal, curry, vegetables, sweets, etc. It was a feast for Durga.
A few rooms down where Ritu and I were sitting, my eyes started stinging. Ritu led me to the shrine room where an open wood fire was burning. Leaves dipped in a paste were thrown onto the flames to cleanse the home and rid it of any negative energy. Charcoal from the fire was mixed with water and dabbed in the middle of everyone’s foreheads to ward off negative energy. I bent over to receive my coal marking and a sprinkling of water on my head, then watched until my eyes were blurry. I don’t know how those men stayed in there without losing their body weight in tears. Years of practice, I suppose.
Later, the women gathered a plate of sweets and other items and we headed to the local pandal where Durga and her children were waiting for us. I looked at the statues and asked Ritu why their mouths were all messed up. “It’s from sweets,” she said. Women smash sweets into their mouths as part of the custom. Traditionally it was a way of wishing Durga a safe journey back to her husband Shiva, as the festival celebrated her short visit to see her children.
The women also place sindur , or red powder, on the foreheads of the idols and on each other. Married women in India wear sindur everyday at the top of their forehead and into the part of their hair; it’s like their version of a wedding ring. On this occasion, however, sindur is distributed liberally and my coal-anointed forehead was joined by sindur cheeks. I absolutely loved it.
We returned to the house for a delicious prasad plate, which includes the foods offered to the gods. First the gods eat, and then the people! It was followed by hilsa fish and rice, the hallmark of Bengali cuisine. Hilsa fish is prized for its flavor, but not so much for its many pin bones. Slow and steady is the name of the game. While eating, I always had one hand in my mouth fishing out (no pun intended!) the bones. The prasad included fruit, khichri (a comforting dal dish), chutney, sweets and my favorite of all: payesh (Indian rice pudding). Mmmmmm.
Later that night, Ritu and I joined the massive procession of pandal idols that make their way to the Ganges where they are “returned” home. Clay from the banks of the river is used in their creation, so the idea is that they are returned so the clay can be reused next year. Nice tradition, but toxic paint and adornments that are used nowadays pollute the river, so it’s not the effective recycling program it’s intended to be. The spectacle, however, was fascinating. People crowd the streets to watch drummers lead the way as trucks holding the fated statues follow. They are all headed to some part of the river for the ceremonial dump. Ritu and I followed, looking for the least-crowded ghat we could find. We stood and watched as statue after statue was carried down the slippery steps and into the river with a heave ho and a splash. A layer of idol dressing floated atop the water. It was strange and intriguing and somewhat disturbing, yet highly entertaining. The Indians sure know how to put on a show. Time to start planning next year’s pandals!