Come September, and the whole of India is swept in a surge of festive fervour. Leading the festivities is the 9 day long Navratri celebrations – dedicated to Mother Durga, an embodiment of strength and the divine cosmic form. Legend has it Durga emerged from the collective energies of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma to kill demon Mahishasura. As such she is a form of Shakiti or power and the nine days are a celebration of nine forms of Durga and the final day celebrates her emerging victorious over the demon.
While the entire country celebrates Navratri with much gaiety, the celebrations in West Bengal are certainly unlike any other and the city morphs into a party zone over the last four days. Well this is easily the largest outdoor art festival that sees music, dance and art congregate on a single platform. The main attraction is centred around the pandals (temporary structures) that house large idols of Durga. In fact in nearby Kumartuli, the area of the potters who sculpt and paint the idols of the Goddess, work begins several months in advance. Interestingly the idol is unique and depicts the Goddess stabbing Mahishaura’s torso and riding a lion. To her left are Saraswati and Karthika and on her right are Lakshmi, Ganesha and Ganesha’s two wives depicted as two banana trunks. There is an image of Shiva above Durga and this complete frame is referred to as Chala and takes roughly about 4 months to complete. It is said that the Goddess with her four children visits her maternal home at this time which is the other reason for the celebrations. An important tradition is the Chokkhudaan or the offering the eye of Goddess Durga which is the paint that makes the eyes of Durga. This ritual is done in complete darkness and in the presence of only one sculptor!
These grand idols make it to the pandals that are decorated in various contemporary themes. In fact you will find that pandal hopping during these four days is the best way to soak into the sights and sounds of the festivities. Another important tradition is the Ashtami Puspanjali when flowers are offered to Durga on the morning of the eighth day of the festival. This is also the day when Goddess Durga is worshipped in the form of Kumari (virgin) and the one at Belur Math in Howrah started by Swami Vivekananda continues to date. In fact there are two pujas that are done including the ‘para’ or locality puja done at the pandals and the ‘barir’ or home puja still practiced in old houses of North Kolkata and affluent homes in South Kolkata. Every evening witnesses the Sandha Arati where drums, bells, chants and incantations continue to the next morning. The Sindur Khela happens on the last day of Durga Puja when married women smear each other with vermillion at the pandals and this marks the farewell of the Goddess. After this the idols are immersed in the river signifying Durga’s reunion with lord Shiva.
In fact if you want to understand why Kolkata is the City of Joy the best time to visit the city is during the Navratri season. Apart from the traditions, there are some more things that locals do including visiting Maddox Square in Ballygunge, praying at the Durga idol at Bagbazar, visiting pandals with friends through the night and spending time with family and friends. The whole city transforms magically and the fun vibe is impossible to miss. At the end of the day however, Durga Puja is the celebration of the supreme source of power and womanhood and that is what gives the festival its unending allure.