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Durga Puja 2023: A sneak peek into what awaits you in Kolkata this festive season

A preview of what the City of Joy is set to offer visitors during Durga Puja, touted to be the world’s biggest public art festival.

Durga Puja 2023: A sneak peek into what awaits you in Kolkata this festive season

Friday October 20, 2023,

6 min Read

Come October, the city of Kolkata, in the state of West Bengal in eastern India, is swathed in myriad hues. The resounding chants of ‘Maa aschen’ (that translates to ‘mother is coming’) fill the air, as the Bengali diaspora celebrates the 10-day festival of Durga Puja, dedicated to the Hindu mother-goddess Durga. 

The ‘carnival’ begins on Mahalaya, roughly seven days before Durga Puja, to signal the arrival of the goddess. Legend goes that, on this day, Goddess Durga embarked on a journey from Mount Kailash to her maternal home on earth. 

It’s not just the religious and spiritual significance that enthuses the locals but they also love the spirit of camaraderie and celebration that awaits them. 

The festivities reach their pinnacle on the last five days, commencing with Maha Shashti, when Goddess Durga is believed to have landed on earth with her four children, and ending with the immersion of the idol of Goddess Durga on Vijaya Dashami to celebrate her victory over the demon king Mahishasura. This year, Maha Shashti falls on October 20 and Vijaya Dashami is on October 24. 

Durga Puja

Over time, Kolkata’s Durga Puja has perfected the art of retaining traditional rituals along with the inclusion of new formats in pandal decor.

Over time, Kolkata’s Durga Puja, or Pujo as it is fondly called, has perfected the art of retaining traditional rituals along with the inclusion of new formats in pandal decor, food and cultural activities. 

Apart from the fanfare, Pujo involves the intermingling of cultures and people from all walks of life, making it a festival like no other. 

Durga Puja is known as the world’s biggest public art festival. Such is its impact that it was included in the UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in December 2021. 

Dazzling decor 

In the months preceding the festival, almost every para or neighbourhood in the city teems with makeshift workshops, where local craftsmen collectively work on creating life-size images of the goddess to showcase during Pujo.

A member of the Ahiritola Sarbojanin Durgotsab committee says that preparations for Durga Puja this year began six months in advance.

The materials used to craft the idols include terracotta clay for its malleability and straw to create a lightweight structure. Over time, there has been a greater focus on the use of sustainable materials.

Papier mache is also used to create lightweight and cost-effective idols. Fabric is used to dress the goddess and her children, while jute helps bring out the details of the idols’ attire and accessories. 

“Sometimes, we also use sandalwood, rosewood and teak to carve intricate sculptures,” shares the member of the Ahiritola Sarbojanin Durgotsab committee. 

Durga Puja

The materials used to craft the Durga idols include terracotta clay for its malleability and straw to create a lightweight structure. | Image source: Shutterstock

The decor at these pandals is also a big draw during the festival. Every year, these marquee tents feature special themes that add a creative and artistic dimension to the celebrations.

This time around, there will be pandals highlighting topical themes such as climate change, women’s empowerment, and public health. Some of the pandals will also draw inspiration from global events, cultures and landmarks and feature replicas of famous international monuments around the world. 

“Watch out for themes like Paris Disneyland, Ayodhya Ram Mandir, menstruation, Mysore Palace, and more,” informs a member from the Ballygunge 21 Pally committee.

Must-visit places include Santoshpur Lake Pally for a pandal based on swatantra (self-reliance), Telengabagan Durga Puja for the Praanjoner Aatmakotha theme that focuses on women labourers, and Swapnar Bagan Yuvak Brinda for its pandal fashioned as a railway station. 

Focus on food 

No Durga Puja celebration is complete without food, and it’s fascinating that the offerings are constantly reimagined every year. 

That said, the bhog (traditional offerings that are considered sacred) remains an integral part of the festivities. It generally includes chholar dal (a Bengal gram lentil preparation sweetened with coconut and raisins), labra (a mixed vegetable side dish), bhaja (fried items like crispy potatoes or brinjals), payesh (a traditional rice pudding garnished with dry fruits), and, of course, misti doi (sweetened yoghurt). 

Durga Puja

No Durga Puja celebration is complete without food. | Image source: JW Marriott, Kolkata

That’s not all! Street food also flies off the shelves during the festive season. 

People of all age groups enjoy anything edible, says Anindya Sundar Basu, food writer, photographer, and the owner of Pikturenama Studios, a creative agency that focuses on food. 

“Whether it’s Kolkata Chinese, home-cooked Bengali food, street food or anything else, everything sells,” he says. 

And it’s not just the large restaurants that have an extensive menu, but the small-time entrepreneurs too set up stalls during this time of the year. Fish fry, cutlets, rolls, finger food, chowmein, biryani–you name it and they have it. 

“And everything is a hit,” remarks Basu. 

“As per tradition, on Durga Puja, the woman of the house got rest since the entire family ate out,” he adds, harking back to earlier times.

Some of the well-known hotels and restaurants in the city have curated special menus with a modern twist. 

At Sienna Store and Cafe, the idea is to offer everything Bengali to stay rooted. Although the team tinkers with techniques, the traditional flavours remain untouched. Its bajaar (market)-to-table menu will also feature ilish (hilsa), served pin boned. 

“It’s our labour of love. As kids, we never had to worry about bones in the ilish, as our grandmoms or moms would quite often pick the bones out for us. We wanted to give the diner a similar experience, plus we waste no part of this precious fish,” says Avinandan Kundu, Head Chef at Sienna Store and Cafe. 

At JW Marriott Kolkata, Maa Durga’s Griffin Odyssey package offers a complete experience of the celebration of Durga Puja. 

The curated staycation covers all the elements of the festival including cultural activities like dhak, dhol, and dhunuchi naach, alongside a scrumptious spread of Bengali food comprising Kolkata-style mutton biryani, kochi pathar jhol aloo diye (mutton gravy served with potatoes), sorse bhapa maach (steamed mustard fish), dhokar dalna (cottage cheese gravy), kasundi marinated fish fry, labra, and chingri macher (prawn) malai curry. 

Durga Puja

Image source: Shutterstock

“It’s not just traditional meals–guests can also enjoy Asian and Continental culinary traditions. Everything is grander and at a large scale this time around,” says Sunil Kumar, General Manager at JW Marriott Kolkata. 

There’s more

Apart from being a religious festival, Durga Puja is also a cultural extravaganza. Common performances showcased during this time at the pandals include dhunuchi–a traditional dance with incense burners as props, performed in honour of the goddess. There’s also music in generous measure, featuring classical instrumental performances, devotional songs, and folk tunes. 

Lastly, don’t forget to catch the many plays and theatre performances at the pandals, with mythological themes, a dash of history, and a touch of contemporary social issues. There are also dance and poetry recitals with the famous kobi gaan (a verbal duel among poets) taking centre stage. 

A world of festivity awaits you in Kolkata. You have to be there to experience it for yourself! 

(The copy was modified for clarity.)

Edited by Swetha Kannan