Visited - OCT 2018 Many thanks to my friend from Kolkata who provided local insights and made sure I covered all the important sights and sounds of Dasara in Kolkata.
Dasara in Kolkata was on my bucket list for long. This dream was fulfilled in 2018. I didn’t write immediately about this joyous experience, but it is still fresh on my mind. Also, Dasara 2019 has got my nostalgia going…what a wonderful experience it was! I need to write a lot to do justification to this wonderful experience beyond the colorful pictures.
Kolkata is a beautiful city. Tarnished by images from movies, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. Yes, there were crowded places and dirty alleys more in old city surroundings, but I realized quickly that, that alone is not Kolkata. I saw a vibrant city. Not sure how much of it subsides after Dasara festivities, but it had certainly come alive for the festival. I will write more about Kolkata in a different post. This one is all about the Durga Puja celebrations. Other names for this festival include Navratri, Durga Pujo/Pooja, Dasara/Dussehra etc.
Next to write about is their amazing Pandals (aka tents). These are massive structures and some of the tent decorations leave you wondering in disbelief, if those were really temporary structures purely built for the festival. The festival ritual has people visiting their favorite goddess Durga, by Pandal hopping. Goddess Durga is a warrior goddess adeptly handling multiple weapons while destroying evil.
Every Pandal had huge lines and unbelievably packed streets before you can get in and get a glimpse. But the process is extremely well managed and looks unbelievably simple for a crowd that large. There are some notable Pandals by clubs/associations that have participated for over a century. Some popular names include Ekdalia, Bagbazar, College Square, Kumartuli Park etc. These normally get on everyone’s list and are the most crowded. There are other lesser known Pandals decorated with equal fervor and a joy to visit.
Pandal hopping is more popular in the evenings and late into night. It is a beauty to see the city come alive. But pandals are quite busy during daytime as well as there are enough people wanting to avoid the massiveness of the evening crowds. But if you are a cultural tourist, evenings are a must. Note that Pandals are all over the city and it is important to plan it in sections by region.
Lots of street food options exist. If that’s not for you, stick to your hotel. Many restaurants are closed too for Puja holidays or offer only limited menu items.
It is important to note the entire city stops working during the last 5 days of the festival. So, shopping centres and sightseeing may be closed. I had the joy of shopping at Adi Dakeswari Bastralaya minutes before the shutters were to come down. Nevertheless, a wonderful experience and amazing sarees!
Other things to know and do is the courtyard celebrations poularly called Bonedi bari pujas. These happen in the courtyard of ancestral homes of royal families. One such puja I visited was called Shobabazar Rajbari. The puja and celebration is open to public. One can also get yummy treats made right at the location. Even though goddess Durga is at the centre of it, the experience is different from visiting a Pandal.
Ramakrishna mission is a famous spiritual organization known for its humanitarian and social service activities. Their facility at Belur is a popular location for Dasara celebration. They have a calendar of events and one can see a sea of people here. There is a ferry for crossing the river from Belur Math, but the lines at this time of the year is notoriously long. You are better off taking the road route and crossing the Howrah bridge.
From the seventh day of the festival(Saptami) to the ninth day the festival(Navami), the Pandal hopping is at its best. The 10th day (vijayadasami) or the days after, tents start coming down and idol immersions begin. There are some organised processions before immersion and fun festivities, of which I got just a glimpse. Now I have a reason to visit Kolkata again! If you are a cultural buff seeking festival destinations, this one must get on your list too.