It’s that time of year again. Bengalis around the country, and the world, are gearing up for their five-day extravaganza. Those in Bengal right now will witness blooming kaash flowers that herald the season, see scores of dhaakis travelling to Kolkata and other cities with their drums, and hear the constant symphony of “Ma aaschen” (Our mother is arriving soon). For those outside—some away from home—it is still difficult to miss the joie de vivre that comes with the festival. From October 15 to 19, parts of cities around India will be transformed—brightly lit pujo pandals, music and dance, delicious aromas, and raucous laughter will take over the night.
Kolkata rules the list, but from Mumbai star-studded affairs to Bangalore’s musical nights and Banaras’s history, there’s something special about pujo everywhere. We decided to look into the celebrations and here’s a round-up of the pujos you should not miss from seven Indian cities. To start with, how do you spend Pujo when you’re in the city to be—Kolkata.
The City of Joy decks up for five days of pujo—“theme” pujos, as they are called, pulls all stops to create masterpieces (there’s a Braille themed pandal this year, and a replica of rajbari that cannot be distinguished from its neighbouring ancient structures). Pandal-hopping is a given, and there’s usually one dish worth trying in at every stop, but here are some other Pujo things you should definitely make time for.
In Kumartuli, the city’s famous artisans’ quarter, Durga idols for the world are sculpted every year. During Pujo, you may not find the idols of the goddess; work has already begun on upcoming Lakshmi and Kali pujas. But the gallis of Kumartuli are celebrating as well. In their simple neighbourhood pandals, in between their clay creations drying or waiting to be painted, the artists enjoy the festival with friends and family.
Before Durga Pujo became a public celebration, it was to the homes of zamindars and merchants that people went to celebrate. Bonedi bari or aristocratic homes around Kolkata still bring Ma home—each with interesting customs. Jagat Ram Mukherjee’s circa-1740 home, worships a foot-tall, solid gold idol. At the Jorashanko Daw Bari, home to the city’s first ammunitions dealers, Sandhi Puja begins with the firing of a small cannon. It is these little snippets of history—and the bhog, which often includes recipes over 100 years old—that are the charm of the bonedi bari pujo.
Before the “theme pujo” took over the cityscape, pujo pandals were all about the colour, and lights. Some still keep it old-school, and no one quite does lights better than College Square. At the lake in front of the simple pandal facade, colourful lights create a children’s storybook-like scene. Fairies, boats, giant animals, even a famous monument or two shimmer in the water. You might find yourself standing beside a 10-year-old, equally bright-eyed and smiling.
Quiet Ashtami mornings of ritual prayers and pushpanjali, and the vibrancy of Dashami’s sindoor khela are made special by the bonhomie of the para (neighbourhood) pujo. All those who cannot lay claim to such homely para feelings, head to one of the city’s pandals. Pujo is about kinship, such as Durga Bari in Ballygunge. No masterful creations based on a theme, no throngs hustling to get in, just people gathered around their goddess to celebrate with family, friends and their community.
Pujo is never complete without an adda. The season of homecoming is the time when families get together and friends catch up, sometimes after years. While every other verandah, pavement, and nook just around the corner becomes an adda spot, many of the city’s youngsters head to the sprawling ground of Maddox Square. Here, the dhaakis are never out of earshot, the food (thanks to all the stalls) is always at hand, the pandal is right by your side and you can chat the night away with friends—sitting on a newspaper on the pandal grounds, just the way it should be.
Every year, the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation has special ‘Puja Parikrama’ tour packages. There are bus tours to see pujos in and outside Kolkata, some specially focused on bonedi bari pujos, and even seasonal ferry tours. Click here for details and bookings.
Lubna Amir is Assistant Digital Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.