you know how the united states gets during december?
full of decadent treats and extended family…
with that energy and excitement in the air?
(and, you know how it’s not really just december, but more like mid-november through new years? ok, you’re right. halloween through new years.)
well, that’s what kolkata is like for the eight long weeks of september and october.
it’s festival season.
since kolkata has a relatively large muslim population (due to its close proximity to bangladesh), the festivities begin with the end of ramadan fasting, eid al-fitr (on august 30th this year), and ends with eid al-adha (november 6th this year).
yep, you’re right: two months in, and we’re still not finished. in fact, i assure you, we’re going strong :)
between these bookends you’ll find dozens of hindu holidays, most of which involve “puja,” the worship of a specific deity:
and many, many more.
worship involves prayer, sacrifice, offerings, etc. it commences, though, by building an idol of the particular deity and decorating and adorning it with flowers, jewels, and other ornamentation.
now, hindus throughout the world celebrate these pujas, depending on which deities they choose to worship. but in kolkata, durga puja reigns supreme. i mean, it’s a big ol’ deal.
this city goes on steroids. the core festivities last for four days in october, but just as americans decorate for christmas several weeks before the actual holiday, durga puja begins in september, when thousands of indian men begin constructing pandals.
pandals are temporary structures made of wood and rope, with colorful fabric pulled tightly over them. each pandal houses the deity durga, along with her accompanying deities. the bigger the pandal, the bigger the deities inside. deities are all made of clay and bamboo pieces, carefully and methodically constructed by master bengali craftsmen.
every neighborhood or apartment complex or other cluster of buildings has a pandal, which represents and is funded by the area’s residents. furthermore, each individual house has a small pandal. that means that here are THOUSANDS, of all shapes and sizes, throughout the city.
and, they take weeks and weeks to construct. so, for the entire month of september, kolkata looks as though it’s undergoing a massive infrastructural upgrade. (i may or may not have initially thought this was, in fact, what was going on.)
with the pandals completed and deities constructed, we finally enter the durga puja festival, during which:
the population swells, as hindus from all over india journey to this already over-populated city,
everything - buildings, rickshaws, trees, and everything in between - is decorated with lights and streamers and glitter,
markets are filled with people, shopping for new clothes and presents for friends and family,
and the smell of incense wafts through every window.
during the core four days people “pandal hop,” making their way (usually by foot, due to the massive, never-ending traffic jams) from pandal to pandal in order to not only worship the durga deity but also to observe the beautiful craftsmanship and unique beauty of each pandal. the city awards prizes and cash for the best pandals, so the competition is intense.
i saw one pandal made entirely of burlap,
another made entirely of tin cooking bowls and utensils, and
i even saw one with a ferris wheel, which looked like it was missing a few bolts and screws but was impressive nonetheless.
at the end of the festival, every idol in the city is immersed in the hooghly river, which runs into the ganges. there are thousands of deities to immerse - from every pandal, in addition to the idols in every hindu household.
the journey to the hooghly is as exciting as the immersion itself. families and neighbors rent trucks and pile into them, along with the durga idol and a drummer. the drive to the river is full of drumming, dancing, firecrackers, and overall celebration.
and it doesn’t end at the river.
all the men (who are prepared in comfortable lungis and turban-esque headgear) lower the idol from the truck bed, carefully carry it down the muddy, slippery river banks, and, in coordination, immerse it in the water. remember that these idols are big and heavy, so some of them require twenty or so men to complete this task.
all the while, people are yelling and singing, several drummers are drumming away, and thousands of people are crowding around to get a glimpse of anything.
(oh, and i am getting in everyone’s way trying to get a photo.)
with thousands of deities to immerse, you can imagine that this whole process takes about two days, and, for those two days, the roads to and from the river are packed. parking lots. as in, it would probably…no, definitely…be faster to carry the goddess by foot. but i guess that would involve convincing those men to do that, and something tells me they’re not jumping at the opportunity.
anyway, it’s fine to wait. durga puja was, like most things in india, a sensory overload. at times, i just stood…
watching the vendors and colors and children running around,
listening to the drums and languages and songs,
just taking everything in and, occasionally, pinching myself to make sure i really am here, in the midst of this fascinating culture.
i’ll post photos tomorrow :)