There are two major types of people in this world: those who love Durga Puja and those who hate it. And then there are those who hopped over the fence somewhere along the way. I belong to that category. Making the switch to loving the festival is not, however, always the easiest thing even if you are a sucker for food, arts, music, and culture — elements that define the festival. For some, it takes grit, and a lot of time, to fall in love with the overwhelming Pujos of Kolkata. But it is not impossible. With a little planning and preparation, you can enjoy, if not fall in love with, the beautiful experiences that the festival brings with it.
So let's get started.
Mark the dates
Durga Puja begins from the Mahalaya Amavasya, the day before the auspicious period of Navratras (the nine nights of the goddess) begins. The festivities, however, commence only on the 6th day, called Shashti, when the goddess and the four children are invoked, and lasts until Dashami, when she is sent off with a heavy heart and teary eyes. If you are planning a visit, reach Kolkata by Panchami and settle in before the action begins.
When to pandal-hop
In my 15 years as an insider at the Durga Puja—after marrying a Bong boy—if there is one thing I have learnt, it is to get the timing right. To witness the beauty and grandeur of the arts, crafts, and spirit of the festival, you will have to make an effort to beat the locals to it. In a Puja pandal, it always pays to be early.
To witness the beauty and grandeur of the arts, crafts, and spirit of the festival, you will have to make an effort to beat the locals to it.
Shashti and Saptami mornings are best to go pandal-hopping. The pandals are already up but the people have yet to come out in full force. There is still some space to walk, drive, breathe, the queues are smaller, and you can take your time to appreciate the themes, decor, aesthetics and the gods in each pandal.
It is important to know that Kolkatans do not sleep during the Puja, at least not in the nights. For that is when they are out with friends and families to revel and celebrate. If crowds intimidate you, avoid getting out in the night, especially on Ashtami and Navami, or be ready to swim in a sea of people and be swayed along in whichever direction they take you.
Get the commute right
Taxi drivers in Kolkata go crazy during the Pujas. They are in great demand and the public is ready to pay any price for their services, so don't be surprised if they quote obscene amounts. Either hop in or walk off—they will not wait for you.
Be prepared to walk a lot. Imagine you are in Paris or Rome, and it will be easier for you! In any case chances are you'll spot the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum somewhere along
A better way to commute is by metro or bus. They are cheap, take you from point to point and ply all night. Also, be prepared to walk a lot. Imagine you are in Paris or Rome, and it will be easier for you! In any case chances are you'll spot the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum somewhere along the road. In fact, Kolkata now has its own Big Ben too: but for the sweat streaming down every part of your body, you can very well imagine walking the streets of London.
If commuting into the city from the station, cross the Hooghly on a boat, soak in the beautiful skyline of the city, fill your lungs with fresh air, and hop into a taxi at Babu Ghat. It will save you time, effort and a lot of traffic.
Pick your pandals
The pandals come in all shapes and sizes. So do the gods. So while you will have a 100ft-tall Durga at Deshopriyo Park, you will also have a far more diminutive one at Hindustan Park.
The themes in the past have ranged from surgical strikes to demonetisation, from Bhutanese tourism to a humble village set up, from the Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu to the Somnath temple in Gujarat. Then there is recycling, global warming, deforestation. If the brilliance of Bengal is visible anywhere, it is in a Puja Pandal.
Every street in Kolkata has a Puja Pandal that you cannot miss and every each one showcases something unique. So, how do you then decide what to cover and what to skip? You don't — just start from one place and join the dots as you go. It is best to cover the most famous Pandals in the morning, and meander into smaller ones along the way. They are all interconnected and the crowds will lead you from one to another. Stay closer to your home/hotel/residence in the evenings—so that even if you have to walk home you can.
I'd recommend that you make it a point to visit the smaller pandals in North and South Kolkata—they often feature the most beautiful idols and most innovative themes.
Some of the lesser known pandals that you should have on your itinerary are: Mudiali Club, Shib Mandir, Seebak Sangha, 66 Palli, Maddox Square, Jorashonko, Kumhartuli, Hindustan Park, Durga Bari, Jodhpur Park, Dhakuria, Ahiritola, Kumhartuli. You can thank me later!
Food, food, food
No one eats at home during the Pujas. Not that they need to with a feast laid out at every nook and corner. Lined with stalls selling everything from biryani to korma, from coffee to cola, from ice cream to sweets, the streets of Kolkata transform into food courts during the festival. While most of the country fasts during this time of the year, Kolkata feasts.
Use the opportunity to sample Kolkata's lip-smacking variety of street food. Gorge on the tangy puchkas, try the zingy jhaal muri, taste the aloo kabli, and stuff yourself with cups of mishti doi, and dozens of rasgullas and shinghara. When you are done with street food (I never am), get on with chicken korma, biryani, kheer and kulfi, and later to noodles, rolls, momos, and more mishti doi.
The best thing about eating so much is that the walking offsets the effects—at least it digestion part of it. So when you are hungry again, head to the evergreen Park Street where, open from noon till well after midnight, the iconic eateries of Kolkata await you. Choose from Mocambo or Peter Cat, or walk into Bar-B-Que or Trincas. Be ready for long queues: the whole city is out to eat during the Pujas.
Plan your exit
Why would somebody need to plan the exit from a city? Well, because it is Kolkata and it is Puja. And I cannot leave you wandering on the crowded roads without a taxi — if I have got you in, I better get you out too!
Never plan a train or flight out on Dashami. The city swells that day like a river on the rise—there are no cabs, there are no autos, there are hardly any buses either.
So, first and foremost, never plan a train or flight out on Dashami. The city swells that day like a river on the rise—there are no cabs, there are no autos, there are hardly any buses either. Unless you have a friend who is willing to sacrifice the whole day battling traffic jams and barricades (trust me, no self-respecting Bengali will do this), it's best to leave a day before, preferably in the day. Else, you can always walk back from the airport after a missed flight, or sleep over at the Howrah station post train you couldn't catch on time. The city will always have space for you.
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