Kolkata takes Durga Pujo seriously. For five days, the city is a non-stop, riotous party with every corner hosting colourful and imaginative pandals dedicated to the Hindu goddess Durga. Pandal-hopping is the best way to experience everything the city has to offer during the festivities – larger-than-life idols, lip-smacking food and all-night adda. This year, Kolkata will also get its first transgender Durga, fashioned after Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous deity composed of Shiva and Parvati, at the Udyami Yubak Brinda Durga Puja. To start you off on pandal-hopping this Durga Pujo, we asked Kolkatawallahs at NGT and our parent company Amar Chitra Katha for their favourite haunts. Read on.
Ballygunge Cultural Association: This is a vibrant and fun pujo that just gets more lavish each year. Its eclectic mix of members, from national sportsmen to cultural giants, is reflected in the massive pandals, interesting murtis (idols), and most energetic dhakis (drummers). This year, the BCA will be celebrating its 65th year with a pandal done up in appliqué work and a 25ft-high idol of Durga idol. Since you’ll be in the area, make sure to stop by the Samaj Sebi Sangha pandal too. Though smaller than BCA, Samaj Sebi Sangha beautifully decorates the entire street leading up to the pandal with lights.
Shibmandir Durja Puja: Shibmandir is probably one of the trippiest, most vibrant pandals in Kolkata. It was one of my favourites as a child, with its over-the-top lights, inspired decor and the occasional manic theme.
Where: Rabindra Sarovar
Kolkata has a thing for themed pujos. Every organisation or group decorates the pandal, and sometimes even the idol, according to a theme. So, there could be pandals fashioned out of glass bangles or earthen pots, or based on the cultures of various Indian states.
Suruchi Sangha: This pandal is very artsy and focuses on a different Indian state each year. What I love about the Suruchi Sangha pujo is that the idols also reflect the theme.
Where: New Alipore
Rajbari Pujos: I remember going on a tour of the Durga pujos hosted by the rajbaris, or zamindar homes. These old houses, mostly in central and north Kolkata, have pujos that have been hosted by the family for centuries. The idol is placed in the thakurdalan (courtyard). Most homes have their own unique customs. In one residence, the asura is always blue or green. At another, all the married women of the house wear huge naths (nose rings) during the pujo. The atmosphere is beautiful — grand yet homely.
Where: North Kolkata
Bosepukur Sitala Mandir: This group comes up with some really innovative themes, especially in their pandal decor. Once, the entire pandal was made of kulhads, or terracotta teacups. Another time, clay was moulded to resemble biscuits, in an attempt to raise awareness about equal food distribution.
Jodhpur Park Durga Pujo: Jodhpur Park made news last year for having the first ever 3D-printed idol in its pandal. Previously, to showcase the year’s theme of blending the old and new, they created an idol from 60,000 pieces of paper.
Where: Jodhpur Park
Baghbazar Sarbojanin Durgotsav: This is one of the oldest pandals in Kolkata, and people visit for the traditional idol.
Maddox Square: Held in a large park inside a quiet residential neighbourhood, this pujo dates back to the first half of the 1900s and is a centrepiece for South Kolkata pandal-hoppers. This particular pujo has a wonderfully intimate air and is rooted in its neighbourhood. Young people congregate for endless adda sessions and gorge on greasy fish fry and biryani. The protima (idol of the goddess) is in the ekchala style (with Durga, her four children and the asura under one “roof” or backdrop) with an emphasis on traditional craftsmanship and elaborate crowns for each of the gods and goddesses. One of the other highlights of this pujo is the magnificent aarti (ritual) carried out by the old priest, as he dances almost in a trance to the resounding sounds of the dhak or drum. The young and old gather in their finery to catch a glimpse of the goddess and the air is filled with rich smells, colours and sounds; for me, the essence of the festival lies in this very moment.
Tridhara Sammilani: This pujo started off relatively small, languishing in the shadow of its more glamorous neighbours, Ballygunge Cultural Association and Samaj Sebi Sangha. Over the years, this pujo has displayed much creativity and imagination. One of its unique features is a tiny free medical clinic run by the Tridhara club, which gets a makeover according to the year’s theme. One of my favourite themes was a lovely recreation of an old zamindari house, complete with the trademark shuttered windows, fading paint, cracked walls and a horse and carriage waiting in the courtyard.
Babu Bagan and Selimpur: These two pujos in the Jadavpur area of south Calcutta make sure that each year’s presentation is more dramatic and creative. Elaborate themes are worked into the lights and decorations on the streets leading up to the pandal. Both the Babu Bagan and Selimpur pujos are an exciting showcase for contemporary and traditional styles of art, and incorporate local craft. Past themes have ranged from ancient cave temples to pantheism, including one depiction of a bare-shouldered Durga in a battle sequence complete with theatrical light and sound installations.
North Kolkata has its share of must-visit pandals too, each one vying to out-do other tableaus across the city. Try the Mohammad Ali Park pujo, the Nalin Sarkar Street Sarbojanin Durgotsab, the Dum Dum Park Tarun Sangha and the College Square Sarbojanin Durgotsav. Brace yourself for wildly creative themes, complete with light and sound installations, and kilometre-long lines.