Being in Kolkata during the Durga Puja festival is the best occasion to feel the true vibe of this City of Joy. No joy perhaps comes without bit of a pain and Kolkata is no exception to this. Amidst the day to day chaos and honking, charming harmony is to be found only by those who arrive there fully prepared. I have put together a vlog (below) with a few iPhone clips I filmed during my trip there during the Durga Puja festival in 2016 and I can share with you these first-hand 10 steps to make the best out of your stay in Kolkata during this festive period.
Before you hop from one Puja Pandal to another, hopping before shopping is a must to feel the rush while not being crushed. This tip is more relevant provided you arrive a few days before the Puja festivity begins so as to get the mad rush in action. It is likely that the shopping centres will remain closed on Bijaya Dashami. However, if you want your tailor to finish stitching blouses before Puja festival starts, then be an early bird in Kolkata.
2. Pandal Hopping
With thousands of Puja Pandals being set up in the city of Kolkata and around its suburbs, it is unlikely that you will be able to witness all the amazing artistic creations in one trip. So do your own research and target the few that you would not want to miss during Shaptami, Ashtami or Navami. Have enough time in hand and be prepared to queue up for long hours. Also note that taxis may be scarce during this period and the ones still plying through the road may charge extra. Best is to strike a deal with a taxi driver either by yourself or through the hotel where you may be staying well in advance. This way, you can save yourself from the usual haggling with the taxi drivers in the middle of the street. If not more, I recommend the following 10 pandals a must-visit, in no particular order-
1. Shuruchi Sangha, 2. Ekdalia Evergreen Club, 3. Tridhara Sammilani, 4. Muhammad Ali Park, 5. Kumarktuli Park, 6. College Square, 7. Jodhpur Park, 8. Bosepukur Sitala Mandir, 9. Badamtala Ashar Sangha, and 10. Baghbazar
3. Dancing to the beats of Dhak
A quintessential musical instrument intertwined with the Durga Puja festivals, the Dhak is a kind of Indian drum hung around the neck and beaten with two drum-sticks. Although not much variety in the music it generates, nor that is required, the variation in the tempo is just good enough to set everyone in the mood to receive the arrival of the Goddess Durga and to keep celebrating her presence during the festivities. Sometimes volunteers do take turn in beating the Dhak, so if you are up for it, why not get the Dhak out of it with your own beatings?
4. Eat World’s BEST (Kolkata) Biryani & lots of it
Starve, anguish and suffer – as much as you can before you plunge into the finest Biryanis dished out in front of you in Kolkata. I strongly recommend the usual venues Arsalan, Shiraz, Aminia and Royal where you will be convinced that the true God of every religion resides in the tummy and as long as you worship that God, rest of them can be appeased easily. Leave some rooms for some delectable desserts to conclude the running down of the Biryanis.
5. Get stuck in traffic jams
Now this is the most optimistic step and especially more relevant in a full stomach of Biriyani. While everyone in Kolkata trying to outsmart each other with their street-smart self to discover the short-cuts to arrive at their destined Puja Pandals earlier than others – the resulting situation leads pretty much everyone to a grinding gridlock which moves in snail pace. Have enough charge in your phones to keep Facebooking or clicking for that perfect Instagram shot through the windows of your car or taxi before it may take a while before you can negotiate your through the traffic and finally arrive in the vicinity of your destination.
6. Eat to your heart’s content- Street food & Cultural dining
While the Goddess Durga is offered mostly fruits and sweets by her devotees, you can make merry on feasting some seriously famous street food Kolkata – egg rolls, khurir cha (tea in clay pots), hawai mithai (candy floss), Chowmein, and phuchka are the must haves so spread them out equally to keep your street adventures interesting during the festive week. Devour in moderation and control yourself because even the Goddess Durga is deprived of these amazing street food wonders!
To balance out this gastronomic adventure, drink a glass of fresh juice from the roadside juice makers or fresh coconut water or buy plenty of fresh guavas from the fruit mongers on the street, even better when it matches your outfit of the day.
For the extent to which Bengalis love good food, it is somewhat of a paradox that Kolkata has just a handful of good restaurants that serve traditional Bengali food. Like fast fashion, Kolkata’s rich restaurant scene is always changing, so I’ve updated my personal favourite list too to bring you to my ten best restaurants in Kolkata- 1. Bhojohori Manna, 2. Oh! Calcutta, 3. Koshe Kosha, 4. Barbeque Nation, 5. Ballygunge Place, 6. Zen, 7. Dum Pukht, 8. Banana leaf, 9. Flurys, 10. Bohemian.
7. People watch & wonder how Bengalis do it
Once you are done with the Thakur Darshan (sighting of the Goddess), you are encouraged to sight fellow homo-sapiens and lunatics around you in various Puja Pandals. Jokes aside, the all decked up Bengali and non-Bengalis flood the venues and it is worth deriving the pleasure from all the joyful gestures you will find them in. People from all walks of life and of all ages are in frenzy with their fashion, food and festive self. Note carefully even the Goddess Durga has the third eye on her forehead so that perhaps she can witness the caricatures of a chosen few!
8. Miles to go before you sleep and not slip
Okay this is the counter hypothesis of the 5th step about traffic jams. If push comes to shove and you want to take things in your own hands…errr…I mean own feet in this case – you may have to hit the road with your own dual limbs. In any case, the taxis would not have ferried you to the feet of the Mother Durga, so you would be better advised to walk towards the venue in anticipation of some good times ahead. Kolkata can be full of surprises and some of the surprises can be just beneath your feet so watch out for the hidden sink-hole or the water-logged drain! Go on a photo-walking tour with friends or all by yourself (if you are like me) braving the crowd and chaos to capture a frame of century old houses, to live through heritage, culture and archaeology in Kolkata, after all they used to say, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”
9. Eat bhog at pandal
Yes, yes, yes you got this by now that 3 of the 10 tips here are all about eating and it is true that any festival in Kolkata is turned to a feastival where even the Goddesses are well fed with the offerings by the devotees. So yes, the joy of lining up and waiting for your turn to receive the bhog (Puja meals distributed after prayer sessions) is a joy of its own kind. And it goes without saying that what you would taste in the bhog is simply by far superior than whatever you may have tasted elsewhere! Call it a miracle, a master-chef wizadry or being cooked by the Goddess Durga herself, there is certainly smell of some divine intervention in the ingredients – otherwise you would wonder how exactly the bhog could be so delicious? It must be a Goddess’ act!
10. Shindoor khela & Bisharjan
All work, all eat and no play? No way! Enough of eating and sighting deities and earthlings? Time to play and the first one to be involved in is the Shindoor khela. Made vibrant mostly by married women who colour each other with vermilions while background music adds to the vibe. You are welcome to watch and record a video from a distance and if too much into it – can join yourself irrespective of your marital status. Bisharjan happens on the final day of Durga Puja festivals i.e. Dashami – when the deity is immersed into the river with the aspiration of welcoming her anew the following year. Again best watched from a distance, but the conclusions do hold the climax not to miss, so make sure you have a plan to witness how the festivities are ended with this Bisharjan act.
There you go – the top 10 steps to make your Durga Puja festival experience in Kolkata a sure shot success. Goddess Durga is very much the resident and patron Goddess of Bengal, so it can’t get any bigger than this but during Durga Puja. And unlike one day’s of festivities, this one goes on for almost a week. So if you are in the pursuit to discover the City of Joy, why not arrive there during the most joyful period of the year? If you connect with these steps then share right now with your friends on Facebook and Twitter so that they can prepare better for their trip to Kolkata. If you have some new tips to share, why not write it below in the comments section? Until then – shubho bijoya to all of you!0