Durga Puja or Sharadotsav, is an annual Hindu festival celebrated throughout Eastern India, commemorating the goddess Durga and her victory over the demon Mahishashura. Idols of the Goddess are made of clay over a basic frame made of bamboo and straw. In most cases the bamboo and straw is reused from earlier idols, salvaged from the rivers from previous celebrations, including from other deities like this one of Kali, another Hindu Goddess.
The straw acts as a base for the application of the outer clay skin layer. The clay is taken from the bank of the Hooghly, another name of the River Ganges which flows through Calcutta, and cleaned of debris, before it is processed to the right viscosity. Parts of the body are prepared separately from moulds, like this abhaya mudra, or compassion gesture, is common to almost all the idols.
Durga puja is Bengal's most important festival, and Calcutta is the epicenter of the festivities with thousands of idols being worshipped throughout the metropolis. The idols are constructed in potter communes throughout the city, but most famously at a locality called Kumartuli, which has been churning out beautiful Durga idols for more than 200 years. Kumhar means potter in Hindi.
A craftsman gives finishing touches to an idol of Goddess Lakshmi at Kumartuli. Kumartuli images are generally ordered well in advance and there are few off-the-shelf sale. Artists have their own studios and the skills are passed down from father to son. Price of the idols depend a lot on the lineage of the artist. Nowadays, Kumortuli’s clientele has extended to America, Europe and Africa, among the expatriate Indian communities living there.
The garments, jewelry, weapons and other accouterments are made within Kumartuli by specialized craftsmen. Idols made of Shola pith, or the stem of a water hyacinth, are particularly in demand from Durga Pujas outside India because of the exceptional light-weight of the shola pith, making them ideal for air travel.
Durga puja has been celebrated since the medieval period, and has evolved and adapted with passing time. It was during the 18th century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among the landed aristrocrats of Bengal, the Zamindars. The prominence of Durga Puja increased gradually during the British Raj in Bengal. Later, Hindu reformists identified Durga with India, and she became an icon for the Indian independence movement.
The finished idols are often extremely heavy, and it takes the effort of scores of hired porters to transfer the idols from the artist studios in Kumartuli, to the waiting tempos and trucks which will transport the idols to their ultimate localities in Calcutta.
The basic form of Durga slaying the demon Mahishshasura consists of the Goddess riding a ferocious lion, and holding ten weapons in ten hands and plunging a trident in the demon's torso. Durga Puja also includes the worship of Shiva, Durga's consort, in addition to Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya, who are considered to be Durga's children.
During the week of Durga Puja —wherever space may be available—elaborate structures called pandals are set up, many with nearly a year's worth of planning behind them. The word pandal means a temporary structure, made of bamboo and cloth, which is used as a temporary temple for the purpose of the puja. Puja committees decide on a particular theme, whose elements are incorporated into the pandal and the idols.
Durga Puja, though seems like a benign family festival, does to a certain extent glorify violence. Pandals compete with each other in new ways of depicting Durga's epic battle with Mahishashura and sometimes, like in this one, leading to a graphic and grotesque depiction of Durga slaying the demon.
While some of the pandals are simple structures, others are often elaborate works of art with themes that rely heavily on history, current affairs and sometimes pure imagination. This pandal has been designed in a 1:1 scale of the Great Stupa of Sanchi, down to the intricate detail of the Jataka tales depicted on the iconic gateways. It is also a reflection of the inclusiveness of the festival which can integrate Buddhist symbolism with a Hindu festival seamlessly.
The pujas have also to a large extent become a visual spectacle. Use of exotic materials to decorate a pandal forms common practice in many of the famous Pujas in the city, like this one which has recreated the style of Jamini Roy paintings using colorful electrical wires. This is highlighted by the media in a pre-puja build up, and often attracts larger crowds to the more creative pandals. The design and decoration is usually done by art and architecture students based in the city.
Another major change in the festival has been its shift from day time hours to night revelry. On the five days of the festival, much of the crowds assemble to visit the various pandals late in the night or at least after sunset. This has led to a stunning display of lighting techniques in all pandals, and technicians from Chandannagore are particularly in demand for their innovative use of synchronized neon light images. This one depicts Hanuman finding Sita in Lanka and giving her Rama's ring, a famous scene from the epic Ramayana.
The actual worship of the Goddess Durga, as stipulated by the Hindu scriptures, fall in the month of Chaitra, which roughly overlaps with March or April and is called Basanti Durga Puja. This ceremony has become obsolete over the centuries and the festival now happens in the autumn of September or October. The most likely reason for this shift in seasons seem to be the first major British military victory in India! Raja Nabakrishna Deb of the Shobhabazar zamindari family organized the first puja in Calcutta in honour of Robert Clive in the year 1757, intended for Clive to pay thanks for his victory in the Battle of Plassey on 23rd June 1757. Nabakrishna was an important financier to the East India Company before and after the Battle.
The sculpture of the idol itself has also evolved over time. The panel always depicts Durga with her four children. In the olden days, all five idols would be depicted in a single frame, like in this one from the house of Rani Rasmoni in Janbazaar. Traditionally such arrangement of the idols is called ekchala, meaning one frame, and is observed by all the private pujas that happen in the aristocratic houses of the city. Since the 1980's however, the trend is to depict each idol separately, seen mostly in community pujas, which are open to all.
In the beginning of Calcutta as a city, the prominent pujas were conducted by the zamindars and jagirdars. The festivities became heavily centred around entertainment -music, wine and courtesans from Benaras- as well as lavish feasts that continued for the entire month. Many of these old pujas exist till now -minus the dance girls- like this one from the house of the legendary De family in Manicktola.
Ah, Bengali women need no excuse to bring out all their finest gold jewelry during the festivities. This lady from the house of Laha, a famous aristocratic family of North Calcutta, wears a traditional nose ring connected around her ears by a chain.
Early forms of Durga festivals were accompanied with the use of various musical instruments such as the mridanga, mandira, and sankha. In the current form, ritual drummers – dhakis, carrying large leather-strung dhak –– show off their skills during ritual dance worships called aarati. The dhakis come from villages in Bengal and are mostly farmers by profession, earning some extra bucks playing drums during festivals.
On the tenth day, goddess Durga returns to her husband Shiva, ritualised through her immersion into the waters – Bishorjon. The idol is taken for immersion in a procession amid loud chants and drumbeats to a river or other water body. Here the royal house of Shobhabazaar, the oldest Puja in Calcutta, ties the idol between two boats to be towed to the middle of the Ganges for immersion.
Durga Puja commemorates the annual visit of the Goddess with her children, leaving finally on the Dashami to be re-united with Shiva. This leaving ceremony is symbolised by the immersion of the idols, symbolic of the departure of the deity to her home. After this, in a tradition called Vijaya Dashami, families visit each other and sweetmeats are offered to visitors (Dashami is literally "tenth day" and Vijay is "victory").
Environmental hazards from the materials used to make and color the idols pollute local water sources, as the idols are brought directly into the river at the end of festivities. Commercialization of Durga Puja in the last quarter of the 20th century have become a major environmental concern as idols get bigger and brighter. Environmentalists say the idols are often made from hazardous materials like cement, plastic, plaster of Paris, and toxic paints.