Cars, trams, buses, autos, rickshaws, taxis, trucks and bicycles are all pushed aside, immobilized by the sheer number of people in the streets and alleys of Kolkata. Roads are closed, pavements get broadened and fenced off, and the traffic police work overtime. It seems like no one stays at home, that everyone is outside in public; aeroplanes and trains arrive in the city crammed with people and depart empty. It is Durga Puja time: a time for all to visit the makeshift temples that sprout everywhere and offer prayers to the goddess. It is about new clothes, spending time with family and friends and devouring plate after plate of hot and sweet delicacies. It is the annual joyous state of emergency that seizes all Bengali Hindus and lasts for five days.
The autumnal celebration is known as both Durgutsab, the Festival of Durga, and Durgapuja, the worship of Durga. In the centre of attention is Ma Durga, the mother goddess.
Ma Durga – the victorious killer of the atrocious deity Mahishasur. Ma Durga – flanked by her four children. Ma Durga – with her unparalleled beauty, her all- conquering strength.
Uniquely linked to this occasion are provisional tent- like structures called pandals that are built to house the goddess. Members of the iron worker caste have become drummers, dhakis, beating the dhak (drum). Loud music crackles from countless speakers. Decorative religious placards and commercial advertisements fashioned from numerous multicoloured light bulbs adorn streets and buildings. Never- ending streams of smiling people flow gently from pandal to pandal, or visit the royal houses, rajbaris, which have opened up their thakur dalan, or in- house temple, to the public, providing a glimpse of bygone days. Stalls sell fast food, slow food, toys, soft drinks, ice cream, clothes and fruit. Theme- based pujas abound, with pandals that resemble a pyramid, a house of cards, a fishing village, a volcano or a tsunami memorial. Ma Durga appears in various guises within them – as a pharaonic queen, as the Queen of Spades, as tribal art that glows like shining metal. Cultural events take place on makeshift stages on every second street corner: recitation of known and unknown poems, dance performances, bands playing old and new songs, a woman singing songs of Rabindranath Tagore, known as Rabindrasangeet – all blaring through loudspeakers competing with each other.