Wow, last week I was able to experience one of the largest religious festivals I have ever seen and witnessed some truly unique aspects of Indian, particularly Bengali culture. If we try to compare Durga Puja to some of the more familiar western holidays I would describe Durga Puja as a mix of Christmas, Mardi Gras, and the Fourth of July. Basically it's a giant celebration that gets most of the people of West Bengal riled up in a frenzy of joy and devotion to the Hindu Gods. [caption id="attachment_5720" align="aligncenter" width="456"] Goddess Durga surrounded by her children.[/caption]For Bengali Hindu's Durga Puja is probably the most important religious occasion of the year. The event celebrates Goddess Durga who is one of the main forms of primordial Mother Goddess Shakti. The Puja Festival represents the victory of Good over Evil, through the story of Durga destroying the evil water buffalo demon, Mahishasura. The festival comprises of about six days which are known as Mahalaya, Shashthi, Saptami, Ashtami, Nabami and Dashami, and the days are set according to the Hindu religious calendar[caption id="attachment_5717" align="aligncenter" width="355"] Kumortuli is the historic potter's quarter or North Kolkata where many of the sculptures are created.[/caption]
.In Kolkata and most other parts of West Bengal, the Puja season is a moment for the community to come together, whether they be rich or poor and enjoy the splendor of the beautiful and elaborately decorated ''pandals", which are temporary fabricated structures for public worship, that that are erected throughout the city. The way it works is that each neighborhood has a Puja committee that raises funds through donations, public events and lotteries. The funds are then allocated to the erection of pandals, sculpture construction, ceremonies etc. Many corporates are getting involved with funding local Puja events which means that each year the Puja gets bigger and better (and also more commercialized). Each year there are awards given to neighborhoods with the best looking, and most creative pandals and there is some intense competition. One year, my parents had called and informed me that there was even a Harry Potter themed pandal that was designed to look like Hogwarts![caption id="attachment_5722" align="aligncenter" width="685"] A beautiful pandal erected in the Mudiali neighborhood of Kolkata.[/caption]So the six days of pujas, the streets are packed day and night with people pandal-hopping with friends and family. I myself partook in this tradition and was able to see some really cool pandals and sculptures, and I marveled at the details and work that went into erecting something that was only going to be there for six days! My friends and I also went to various fairs going on in the larger neighborhoods where there were carnival rides, amazing street foods, and cultural programs all going down till late in the night. It was very surreal to see so many people out and about celebrating, and then look down at your watch and realize it's almost 3am![caption id="attachment_5721" align="aligncenter" width="343"] The throng of people waiting to visit the Mudiali pandal (this picture was taken at 2:30am!)[/caption] [caption id="attachment_5718" align="aligncenter" width="610"] A glimpse of the carnival atmosphere of the Pujas[/caption]Although the Pujas are a massive social, community event, where many kids are finally allowed by their parents to go out till late in the night with friends, there is of course a serious religious aspect to the six days of celebrations. Every year my extended family from my mother's side who all live in the neighborhood of Bowanipoor host a small Puja at the familial compound. The priest or "sadhu" recites ancient sanskrit mantras in the praise of the Goddess Durga which is known as the "aarati". I am personally not very informed of the symbolic meanings of many of the rituals and pestered my mom throughout the ceremonies to explain to me what was going on.[caption id="attachment_5719" align="aligncenter" width="505"] A small puja done at our familial home in Bowanipoor.[/caption]By the end of the week the anthropologist in me was blown away by the examples of Indian culture I was able to witness, and this time I made an effort to actually understand what was going on. Within this blog I was only able to scratch the surface of what Durga Puja means to the people of India, and everything I witnessed. The most important thing I took away from last week was how important the Puja is in being an inclusive occasion where people from all walks of life get to enjoy the holiday with friends and family, as a community.