Several festivals around the world are known to be among the largest of their kind. Smile.
Durga Pujo is celebrated from the 7th to the 10th day of the waxing phase of the moon during the month of Ashwin in the Bengali almanac or Panjika (in the September/October timeframe). The celebrations are concentrated mainly in the Indian city of Kolkata with a population in excess of 4.5 million. Hundreds of Durga Pujos are performed in the city. (Kolkata Pujo Guide)
Outside the city, Durga Pujo is more widely conducted in the state of West Bengal (population 90 million), and is performed in major cities in the continents of America, Europe, Asia, Austraila and in South Africa.
While the residential Pujos in Kolkata are relatively modest, many of the Sarbo-janin (All-people) Durga Pujos are celebrated lavishly, and collectively draw hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Durga is the favorite Goddess of Bengal. Pujo means worship. The Goddess comes down from the Himalayas once a year to delighted devotees, who celebrate her Presence for four days and nights. Aside from being a religious occasion, Durga Pujo has an overwhelming aspect of economic and social rejuevenation and renewal in the state of West Bengal.
Although Ma Durga is popular, most of the visitors to the Pujo pandals (shamianas/awnings) are not there for religious reasons but are attracted by the art, the architecture, the lights, the adaptation of technology (such as 3D printing put together in a massive scale, as was the case at the Jodhpur Park Pujo pandal in 2015) and innovations in illumination. Durga Pujo is an annual opportunity to indulge in the grandeur of the occasion.
Pujo celebrations coincide with the original harvest season (now there are multiple harvests in a year). This event provides the main economic turnover in Bengal when most chlidren and adults dress in new clothes. Families, friends, businesses exchange greetings, sweets and gifts. While the Pujo in Kolkata and West Bengal are held in strict accordance with the lunar calendar, Durga Pujo is conducted all over the world at approximately the same time, taking into consideration the local calendar and density of the Bengali population.
Durga Pujo played a role in the Indian independence movement. The British banned this Pujo from 1932 to 1934 but dormant enthusiasm rekindled it in 1935. Popularity of Durga Pujo has exploded since the British quit India in 1947. Earlier, the Pujo and celebrations was typically confined to affluent ancestral homes, but crowd funding and corporate sponsorships have expanded Durga Pujo among the masses to an inescapable reality in Bengal and in Kolkata city.
Before the first day of the Pujo, dhakis (drummers) gather at public places, looking to be hired by Pujo organizers. In Kolkata, dhakis gather in large numbers at Sealdah Railway station and hundreds play their drums to an impromptu frenzied but coordinated percussion, and dance as well, creating a surreal experience.
Temporary pandals (simple tents that have evolved into complex, typically uplifting, sometimes soaring structures) are erected for the Sarbojanin (Public) Pujos. Every square inch of the humungous pandals is detailed with themed, traditional or modern art and embellishments. The level of detail and dedication that goes into this temporary art form is striking considering the fact that the pandals are dismantled within a few days. The streets are also adorned with imagination and sometimes gaudy expertise giving the city of Kolkata a festive look throughout the Pujo days. Citizens dressed in their affordable finest and tourists visit the pandals over four days to greet Goddess Durga.
Purohits (Priests) perform Pujo at each of these pandals and residences where the Protima (Image) of Durga is installed. The Purohits fast before performing the Pujo, and either conduct the ceremonies from memory (if it is a generational occupation) or have a reference manual - Purohit Darpan (darpan means mirror). Around the Pujo are a cornucopia of coordinated activities from shopping, cooking for hundreds, cultural performances, to massive traffic control exercises for vehicles and thousands of pedestrians.
At the end of the four day Pujo, participants seek the blessings of Goddess Durga one final time, and carry her to the river for Bisorjon (immersion in the water - see picture). The despondence and tears accompanying the Bishorjon are washed away with celebrations of Durga's achievements and the anticipation of Her return next year.
Certain traditional rituals that followed Bishorjon appear to be dwindling. They include Kolakoli, a male to male embrace with two hugs to the left and one inbetween to the right, and Pranaam of elders where girls, boys, women and men symbollically seek the blessings of older generations by stooping down to touch the dust on the feet of their elders with their right hand, then bring the forefingers up to their own head and chest. The elders then place their right palm on the younger one's head and bless her or him.
More material will be made available on Ma Durga, so watch this space. (Why does she have ten hands? Who are her companions onstage? Why do one of them have the head of an elephant)?
Durga Pujo has created some environmental issues. When there were only a few Pujos, the river could easily absorb the clay Protimas. Now with the growing population and Pujos, the environment is under pressure. Sometimes, electrical power is pilfered to support extravagant lighting in and around the pandals. Goons have been known to collect chanda (contributions to support the Pujo) with degrees of coercion involved. Older residents in certain neighborhoods have complained to the police about the music and announcements from pandal loudspeakers. Traffic in Kolkata city is chaotic during the four days of Pujo and pedestrians need to be managed also.
On the other hand, the gentleman who came to collect chanda from me was surprised by my donation (thanks to the almighty dollar), and gave me coupons for four family meals at the local Sarbojanin pandal, instead of one. I was also quite impressed with the local authorities because my family was able to conduct the immersion of our (residential) Durga Protima in the Ganges river in a matter of minutes after our arrival at the Ghat (river bank), where hundreds of privately worshipped Protimas were "streaming" in for immersion.
Sometimes, the authenticity and meaningfulness of the Sarbajanin (Public) Durga Pujo in lost in scaling to the masses as the associated macro activities tend to sap energy and perhaps attention away from true origin of the celebrations. The tamasha (hoopla/hype) surrounding Sarbajanin Durga Pujos is typically considerable. Probashi Pujos (Pujos conducted in other Indian states outside Bengal) are usually way more sincere, judging from my personal experience. The mantras (prayers in the Sanskrit language) are explained in Bengali and English, if required, and the symbolism becomes palpable.
Over the last decade several responsible organizers in Kolkata and Bengal have taken steps to reduce the din and focus on the actual Pujo.
In a different context, on Nov 8, 2016, the government of India enacted unprecedented measures to reign in unaccounted (untaxed) income. The free wheeling spending of the affluent class will potentially be curbed. This will have an impact on prices (of major assets) and on spending. If tax exemptions are not available for spending on Pujos, the celebrations will perhaps return to the simplicity supported by modest donations.