Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

Holiday season, pt 2a: Durga Puja

Posted by Chris on October 18, 2007

Most of my information here is from Wikipedia and a conversation with a non-Bengali/non-Hindu. So if I’m wrong, it’s not that I wasn’t trying, I just don’t speak Bengali.

Durga Puja is the biggest festival of Bengali Hindus. There are many pujas, for the different gods, and different pujas are emphasized more or less depending on the region. Puja means worship. This puja lasts Wednesday through Sunday—5 days (it’s on lunar calendar, different dates each year).

The goddess Durga holds the prominent position of being married to Lord Shiva. Ganesh, the elephant-looking god from the museum pictures, is one of their kids. Apparently, Durga can take different forms. She is also Kali, to whom most accounts attribute the root of the city’s name (once it was Kalikatt or something like that). There is also a famous Kalighat Temple here.

It’s been a crazy transformation around here. These pandals have mostly been built in the last week. They have bamboo frames with cloth stretched over them that is used to make it appear as if they are made of brick or stone and ornately designed. According to Wikipedia there are over 10,000 pandals in Kolkata.

Wikipedia also says that everyone, irregardless of religious beliefs, celebrates. My experience does not validate that claim. Muslims and Christians I have talked to have very little interest in any more than observing the madness. Some have said they are leaving the area to get away from it or just trying to live out their normal lives.

Commercialization/secularization. It really does remind me of Christmas in some of the traditions that have been built up surrounding it. Pandals have other motivations—there are cash prizes in some areas for the best. Some communities are given large sums of money by corporations to construct their pandals. This sort of reminds me of Christmas decorations. For every nativity scene, there’s someone with 25 inflatable snowglobes with life-sized Santas inside. For many, in addition to offering worship, it is just a fun activity to walk around and see the pandals.

Before puja, the women shop for gold jewelry and new clothes. Each woman wants a new saree and driving home last night we saw lots of brightly adorned women. The men also buy new clothes. There are Puja discounts for the weeks leading up. Businesses are started just for this time, such as buying sarees wholesale to then re-sell in your village. Bamboo frames are erected on the side of the road for temporary advertisements.

Puja wishes are everywhere. Even more so than Christmas in the US now that we’ve become so PC and Happy Holidays-oriented. Conversations, billboards, stores, radio announcers—all constantly remember the upcoming Puja.

The picture below is a pile of bamboo last week; for weeks, I’ve seen this all over the city, being cut and transported—it is to build all the pandals. I also have there some pictures of a couple pandals I saw on Thursday. I will post again after Puja about my personal perception of the whole event.

Bamboo poles for pandals

Layout of idols inside a pandal

This one has your normal looking idols to the side, with an array of terra cotta pottery gods in the center

outside view of Terra Cotta pottery-themed pandal

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3 Responses to “Holiday season, pt 2a: Durga Puja”

  1. mom said

    It sounds very interesting. I can see why Christians and Muslims would not participate since it is a religious celebration. It would kind of like be as if the Jews celebrated Christmas. The ppics are very interesting. The pandals and decorations are very ornate and colorful.

  2. Ronin Mansolaris said

    This is where you’ve got it wrong: the percentage of Bengali Hindus who celebrate Christmas in Calcutta is likely far in excess of the percentage of Christians who celebrate Durga Puja, but you can bet on it that most Christians who are able to ambulate during the Pujas take to the streets to participate in the “madness”.

    In fact, Christmas in Calcutta – all over urban India, for that matter – is a pretty excessive affair considering that the Christian population in the country is minuscule. It’s a leftover of the colonial regime, many aspects of which stubbornly persist even two-thirds of a century after Independence.

  3. Chris said

    That may be so, all I had to go off was a few anecdotal stories from people I talked to. Where I lived, virtually everyone was Hindu so pretty much everyone did participate.

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