It’s that time of the year, when unlike other times, this city does not sleep. Possibly the best time to enjoy a bonhomie of culture, breathtaking handiwork of local artisans & some lip smacking food – on a ‘perfect day during Durga Pujo in my city of Kolkata’.
The day started with ‘anjali’ or prayers at a ‘barir pujo’ – something typical only of Kolkata. While Durga has found a pandal or community centre for herself even overseas, infact all the way on the banks of Thames, it is only in Kolkata that she experiences & enjoys the hospitality of a traditional family pujo. Walk down any of the narrow lanes of North Kolkata & you will hear conch-shells blowing & ‘ghontas’ playing from one of the many old houses along the way. We attended the ‘Gooptu’ family pujo, a 300 year old pujo at Jhamapukur in North Kolkata, where the family deity, Durga, made of ‘ashtadhatu’ (eight different types of metals) has been with the family ever since she was discovered by Sadhak Ram Prasad, as many years back. It’s beautiful to see all the Bengali ladies in the family, all traditionally dressed in white sarees with red borders, running around various chores to ensure the pujo happens smoothly. The entire ambience created by the smoke from the havan, the flames from the diyas, the aroma of the flowers, incense & the ghee that is constantly poured into the havan, the synchronized sound of the conch shells & bells & the taste of the ‘choronamrito’ (sweet holy water in which the goddess is bathed) at the end of the ‘aarti’, leaves the five senses desiring for more.
Since we were fasting before the ‘anjali’, we immediately set off for Putiram as the pujo finished, for their delicious kachoris, irresistible jalebis & piping hot cha (tea). We could have done with an elaborate sit down breakfast with eggs, bread et al, but it’s just something else to do it the traditional way during this time of the year.
With a satiated tummy, we ventured out on the so called ‘pandal hopping’. It’s simple how this activity has got its name – it literally means hopping from one pandal to the other. Yes, there are like 5 pandals (or sometimes more!) within a distance of a kilometre – hence with an area of 185 square kms, you can well imagine the number of pandals that prop up in Kolkata just for these few days. It’s actually a matter of pride to be able to quote the number of pandals you have visited & particularly ensure the number is higher than your neighbour, cousin, friend & of course the highest when you post it on facebook!
The must visit pujos of North Kolkata are College Square, Mohammed Ali Park, Ahiritola, Chalta Bagan, Baghbajar – the common theme across the pujos being relatively simple pandals, but huge, traditional idols in ‘dhaaker shaaj’ (dressed in gold), the only prominent decoration inside the pandal being the massive sized chandeliers. However, you do tend to see renditions of a few modern day themed pandals as you move from North Kolkata towards Salt Lake, particularly FD block – which once themed its pujo around Harry Potter!
Exhausted from all the walking & after making sure that we had covered atleast 80% of all the pandals up North, we hopped onto one of the yellow-black taxis to drive down to one of the oldest & possibly most famous parts of Kolkata – the Park Street. While you have a plethora of old world restaurants to choose from, we stopped by at Peter Cat for their never-changing, delectable Chelo Kebab. Year after year, for more than a few decades, this dish has remained the same, from the dollop of butter & the fried egg on top to its ever consistent taste.
We then moved towards South, to the more posh part of the city, the side where the pandals are known more for the crowd that throngs them than the idol herself. It’s cool to be found hanging out at one of them & of course remembering to ‘check in’ when you are there. Besides this, one does get to see a variety & experimentative range of art here, from various themes to different depictions of the idol, creativity is at its zenith in this part of the city. Ballygunge Cultural, Shamaj Shebi, Maddox Square, Deshapriyo Park, Shib Mandir, Mudiali are few of the not-to-miss pujos of South Kolkata.
When in South Kolkata, how can you miss its street food? We walked down to Vivekananda Park, or VP as it is fondly called where the chaats are to die for. Call them golgappas or pani puris, there is something very different about the puchkas of Kolkata. Stuffed with a mash up of potato, coriander and an assortment of some secret set of spices, when the puchka is dipped in the tamarind water, it’s impossible to stop eating them. VP in Kolkata boasts of a row of chaatwalas who specialize in puchka, bhel Puri, alu dum, dahi puchka, batata puri and chana zor garam. A must visit street in Kolkata, it is yet to evolve into the hygienic ways of using gloves etc, but somethings when left more authentic are most memorable and needless to say, mouthwatering. If you still feel you haven’t whet your appetite enough, stop by for an egg roll, some chowmein or cutlets at any of the stalls next to the pandals.
As the crowd begins to thicken by evening, you can see all the ‘bhodroloks’ (gentlemen) & ‘mohilas’ (ladies) of Kolkata, waiting in serpentine queues to get a glimpse of Durga at the pandals, dressed in all their finery. Since we had touched upon most of the famous pujo pandals by then, we headed straight to Triangular Park (now famous for its appearance in the movie ‘Kahani’) to enjoy a ride on the Ferris wheel or the ‘giant wheel’ as it is lovingly called. While on the ride, don’t forget to carry with you a pink candyfloss & a packet of freshly popped corn to keep you entertained. Get off the wheel & head straight to aim for colourful balloons, all lined up one after the other, to be shot with an air rifle – another must do during Durga Pujas.
If all that eating wasn’t enough, we stopped by at Kasturi to savour some traditional Bengali cuisines from posto, dhokar dalna to luchi & kosha mangsho for dinner. Be ready to wait for a while before you get a table at the restaurant, but the wait is worth it.
We ended our day at one of the pandals along the way to witness the ‘shandhi pujo’ – one of the most auspicious & powerful invocations of goddess Durga. The pujo lasts only 48 minutes. It is said that the goddess actually descends into the idol as she fights the battle to win over Mahishashur in her Chamunda avatar. As the 108 diyas are lit, 108 lotus flowers offered & the aarti starts, a surreal ambience is created where you can’t help but feel the presence of power through the glowing eyes of Ma Durga – a time in Kolkata that one patiently waits for all through the year. The heart breaks as you realize that one more day, and it will be time to bid adieu to Durga for yet another year, with hope in everyone’s eyes and a prayer on everyone’s lips – “ashchhe bochhor abar hobe”.