Celebrating the Mother Goddess – Josh Bergeron
Celebrating the Mother Goddess
The wails of multiple Indian women pierce the sticky, humid air on Ahiritola Ghat, where concrete slopes down and fades into the sacred waters of the Hooghly River, the local arm of the mighty Ganges. I fleetingly glimpse scenes of crying and I assume pain is involved, but I only find bittersweet tears of joy on the faces of these women as they bid adieu to their Hindu Mother Goddess Durga on the last day of the festival. As she falls back first into the river, slowly disintegrating and dissolving, goddess Durga ends her brief stay on Earth and leaves the physical world to rejoin her husband Shiva on Mount Kailash. This is Kolkata, India, and I am here for Durga Puja, arguably the most important festival of the year for the Bengali people as well as Hinduism. This year, per the lunar calendar, the holiday occurred on October 18 through 22 during the last five days of Navaratri and Dussehra, although festivities begin weeks ahead of time.
Once named Calcutta, India’s most densely populated city is also the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, homeland to Hindu Bengalis and former headquarters of the British Raj and the Colonial Empire during Occupation. For Durga Puja, Kolkata buzzes like a swarm of insects brimming with activity and preparation as approximately 2000 handmade massive tent-like pandals are erected onto city streets in the weeks leading up to the festival, some rising up several stories in height. I felt caught up in the unavoidable activity as I crisscrossed the tightly knit metropolis witnessing skeletal cloth covered bamboo frames appearing in seemingly random places on streets, with little to no consideration of blocking or diverting traffic. At first glance, drivers didn’t seem to mind their new obstacles, but I later read an article in the local English language paper The Telegraph, about how pandals are an added source of Puja traffic headaches. “Organized chaos” I thought, recalling what local guide Manjit Singh told me about driving in Kolkata.
The pandals are constructed by pandal builders hired by a specific neighborhood or street who pool their money; although the purpose of a pandal is always the same – to house and display the idol of the goddess Durga – the various decorative themes of the pandals exhibit even more flair than front yard Christmas scenes across suburban America. From military reenactments to comical underwater cartoon setups, pandals are meant for crowds to enter and walk through while gazing at the idol of goddess Durga and soaking up the proud creativity displayed by each neighborhood’s temporary creation.
The Durga idol is a painted and ornately decorated sculpture made of river mud and constructed upon handmade straw mannequins tied to bamboo frames. Superficially resembling a kind of Hindu nativity scene, idols usually show a ten armed Mother Goddess Durga riding a lion alongside her four children, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, and Kartikya, as she slays the male buffalo demon Mahishasura. The sun-dried idols are usually made by specialized artist-sculptors from the Kumartoli district, or Potter’s Village, in North Kolkata and are commissioned by the same neighborhood districts. The idols are then transported by truck by pandal porters from Kumartoli and housed in their respective pandals throughout the city.
As I made my way through the throngs of people, I for once was on the taller side, and as I peered above the heads of the crowd, I spot my destination – Kumartoli Park – where inside hides a massive pandal and idol. The Kolkata Police has already roped off the streets and funnels the masses dressed in their best new clothes, towards the entrance of the park. I feel like a schlub in my dirty REI pants and stretched out t-shirt I got for free from work, although due to my dark hair, skin and Asian features, most people assume I am just a tourist from neighboring China. As the Kumartoli pandal comes into view, people simultaneously cheer, snap photos, and record video holding their mobile phones high above their heads.
The heat of the crowd surges like the living crowd itself, and I find myself sweating profusely in the evening heat. We all push through and try to simultaneously take in the various scenes within the pandal, and before I realize it, I reach the exit and the pandemonium subsides. The fun is just beginning though, and we all spill into the awaiting carnival setup next door in other half of the park. Just like their American Carnie counterparts, festival organizers bring in mobile rollercoasters and dizzying spin rides complete with cotton candy vendors, music, and light shows, along with a seemingly endless supply of mouth watering Indian street food.
Such activity, or pandal-hopping, goes on all night as tens of thousands of holiday goers move from pandal to pandal using whatever means materialize at their disposal, whether on foot, by tuk-tuk, or via Metro, long into the early morning hours. Kolkata vibrates as a cacophony of urban noises from the horns of her trademark Ambassador cabs to the snaps and pops of firecrackers light up the night sky and fill the air. Durga Puja is a massive party fueled by families and friends coming together, putting aside differences, and sharing in the communal merriment of the most special of occasions.
Amazed at the seemingly endless reserves of energy exhibited by my fellow Indian hosts, I am visually and mentally stuffed as scenes worthy of capturing appear everywhere, coming fast and furious. I return to my hotel on AJC Bose Road parched and aching, yet I remain beyond satisfied. I unload my haul and dump thousands of images onto my twin Lacie Rugged hard disks, unable to really edit them until at least tomorrow. Long after I enter the world of dreams reliving every moment of the day’s festivities, thousands of Kolkatans are still at it, frolicking in the streets, celebrating the Mother Goddess. Thank You Kolkata.
You can find more of Josh Bergeron’s work here.