The first time I was away from Kolkata during Durga Puja, I cried on the day of Mahalaya. That was the first time I did not wake up at 4 a.m. to turn on the radio. Away from parents and friends, Munich felt like a jail. But then I got an invitation from a friend to attend a puja hosted by a group of Bengalis. The moment I saw Maa Durga’s face, I realised that it’s much more than a religious festival for us. It’s a festival of bonding, love, joy, friendship, belief, power and possibly every optimistic adjective that one can describe. Now I am in London. Yet another Durga Puja away from home, but I am still a Bengali at heart who can’t wait to visit the pandals, wear sarees, make new friends, dance on the beats of Dhaak, eat bhog, give puspanjali and stare at Maa Durga’s face as long as possible to find a different feeling of peacefulness that I can never explain in words.
—Monali Sengupta, London
This October, I discovered an hidden gem in Bungoma, Kenya during Navratri. An Indian community of 50 families nestled in this small town welcomed two exhausted travellers—myself, a man of the mountains from Dehradun, India, and my girlfriend, an adventurous traveller from California. We’d been on the road for nearly two months, though it was just the start of our one-year journey around the world. The entire community welcomed us like a long-lost family. They offered us housing, home-cooked meals, and shared with us stories of their incredible lives as Indians living in Kenya. We stayed there for the first two nights of Navrarti. It was purely magical to witness my American girlfriend wearing a saree for the first time and playing Garba for hours with such elegance and passion. The whole room was unable to take their eyes off of her. The people celebrated with such fervour, so alive with spirit pulsing through their veins, the children laughing and smiling with sweet innocence and joy. Later in the evening, they called me on stage to speak about my experience as a trek leader and search and rescue operator in the Himalayas. The next night they urged me to tell the of our impossible love story, of us beating the odds again and again to be together, even when the world tried to keep us apart. People starred at us with tears in their eyes and looks of amazement. By the time we left Bungoma, we were so humbled by the kindness and generosity of these people who were strangers to us just days before. We both felt we had found a family there, and had experiences we would remember for the rest of our lives.
—Devang Thapliyal, Dehradun
This year in Toronto, pujo was way too special as we celebrated it after a year due to the pandemic restrictions. I’ve been away from Kolkata for five years now. This year I took my Canadian friends to the Durgabari and realised that pujo is more than a religion or festival. It gives such an enigmatic feeling that nobody can take away or understand if they haven’t experienced it. I also had bhog after ages.
—Nistha Chakraborty, Toronto
My experience of celebrating Durga Puja for the first time abroad took place in the Bellfield Community Centre, Portobello in Edinburgh, Scotland. Historically this site was an old Parish church, but now stands as a community centre. In this old 19th century building, while the glass paintings of biblical narratives still survive, an idol of Durga rests. As the priest in English describes the mantras for the ritual, I am invited into a new space, celebrating the old tradition of Durga Puja. People dressed up in Indian traditional clothes. Wearing masks and applying sanitisers were also new mandatory acts that became a part of this old tradition. Nevertheless, this new form of celebrating Durga Puja in an old church in Scotland was an unforgettable experience. After eating bhog (food offered at the puja) and the aarti, I stepped outside the premises and suddenly found myself back into the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, away from the sound of the dhakis, away from the Bengali language, now suddenly in the crowds of another culture. That is the joy of experiencing culture on foreign lands.
As an 18-year-old, I flew far away from my home to the United States. I knew I was going to miss celebrating festivals at home the most. After a few months passed while settling in Cincinnati, the festive season began. Nostalgia was on peak. To my surprise, every year the India Students Association organised the biggest Garba Navratri celebration in Cincinnati at my university. It was just a one-day celebration but it was filled with performances, food, puja, and finally garba. I perform every year now, and Garba at the University of Cincinnati with my best friend and our crazy moves has become my fondest memory from the U.S.
—Radhika Bhargava, Singapore
We started Durga Puja [celebrations] in south Sweden in the city of Helsingborg. This happens to be the first and the only pujo in south Sweden. It was a great experience to initiate such a festival on a large scale in a distant land. Starting from planning to execution, it was a mammoth task. I have been part of the committee for two consecutive initial years, and it was a different kind of emotional and organisational engagement—right from booking venues and importing the idol to arranging food and cultural programmes.
Amongst the many rituals of Durga Puja, one is Kumari Puja. The Kumari Puja in Belur Math near Kolkata was started by Swami Vivekananda and is still the most well-known instance of it. The spirit of Devi is invoked in a young girl through the chanting of mantras. I did not expect to see Kumari Puja outside of India but behold, my surprise when I saw it in London! I was visiting the London Sharad Utsav which is celebrated in the iconic Ealing Town Hall when I spotted the ritual. It is a spectacle to watch the young girls from various backgrounds being worshipped as part of Kumari Puja. The Sandhi Puja on the same day was also spectacular with 108 lotuses and 108 lamps lit. The not-so-common rituals from India followed in London left me in awe.