As someone who does not relate to the religious and spiritual sentiments of any ritual, the idea of being involved in a puja does not appeal to me. However, Durga Puja, a significant part of Bengali culture, has been a major highlight of my life throughout my school life in many different ways. Childhood was marked by ‘puja vacation’, a few days when school was out, kids received gifts from elders and were treated to new clothes by parents. In teenage years, it became more about going out with friends and staying out all night to pandal-hop—an activity that is synonymous with Durga Puja. Going across the city, from pandal to pandal, marvelling at the myriad themes and expert craftsmanship to everything from the idol and pandal to the lights festooning the streets; pandal-hopping remains an integral part of the celebrations for a majority of people.
As I got older, I realised that the part of the festivities involving ritualistic practices, pomp and show didn’t align with my understanding of the world. Consequently, I started to explore the celebrations a little away from the city I have always lived in, to see if there’s any difference. In the process, I found a part of my hometown that felt much more welcoming to me than the ostentatious revelry of the big city. The small pandals in the middle of nowhere seemed to have held on to the essence of what we call a ‘celebration’ and in a way that is not nearly as brash or commercialised. The decorations are simple and there are no kilometres-long queues just to catch a glimpse of the idol. Although loudspeakers have started making an appearance at even some of the smaller pujas, usually, what can mostly be heard around them are the sounds of dhak and dhol (traditional drums) along with ululation.
This year, I decided to document Durga Puja celebrations in Agartala and its outskirts, providing an insight into the experience of this festival far from the big cities. Agartala is an amalgamation of rural and urban lifestyle. While large parts of the city are packed with people during Durga Puja, you can drive for about 30-40 minutes in any direction from the centre of the city and you will eventually arrive in less populated localities, with a number of open fields and fewer concrete buildings. Many such areas around natural ponds, small streams, wide fields and tea gardens make for ideal destinations for weekend escapades. And it is in these far-flung neighbourhoods, away from the milling crowds, the noise and light pollution, that I found the true essence of Durga Puja—that all-encompassing celebration which is as inclusive of grandeur as it is of simplicity. It is just as much a festivity for those brought together by a sense of community, as it is for those drawn by faith. This time and part of my home in Tripura will remain etched in my mind as a sweet feeling I would love to return to.
Stalks of Kans grass or kash phool, which might as well be called the unofficial herald of Durga Puja’s arrival, sway in the wind on a bright sunny afternoon.
A man opens the curtains on a small pandal—a structure made for hosting the puja—early on the morning of Ashtami, the eighth day of the festival.
Water to be used in a ritual is carried to the location of a puja from a stream by two men as dhakis (drummers) play the dhak (drum), a quintessential part of Durga Puja.
A man cycles past an otherwise silent lane decorated by colourful lights in a pattern typical of Durga Puja which is generally seen on a bigger scale on city roads.
A woman accompanies a child home, close to a roadside pandal, as it starts to rain heavily.
A group of people gather to immerse idols in a small pond close to Durga Bari tea estate, Agartala, Tripura, on the evening of Vijaya Dashami, the tenth day of the puja.
Also Read | The Sceptic’s Guide to a Vegetarian Durga Puja
Sayandeep Roy is fond of exploring places without a fixed plan. He finds joy in stumbling upon lesser known trails, waterfalls or sleepy cottages. A collection of short stories by Ruskin Bond, and a camera are his constant companions along the way.