Getting from Paris to Kolkata was fairly efficient and we arrived in the early hours of sunday in the city if joy. On our way into town we stopped at our first puja Pandal, the one of Shri Boomi sporting club. The Pandal’l are the street temples built for the occasion who house the puja deity during the festival. Each Pandal is decorated both outside and inside. These can be architectural, artistic, traditional, modern sometimes futuristic and even edgy. All the adjoining streets and buildings are decked out with decorative lighting. Advertisers and sponsors also take over and all the streets are aligned with posters and placards. The kolkata police are very present, managing the flow of people in and out of the pandals. In some places and instances the crowds are very big and dense, queues are formed as all wait to see and visit the Pandal. Pandal hoping is a big part of the Puja activity, its also a time for people to get together and hangout and have fun. Its a very big occasion for family and friend socialising. It could be compared to our Christmas celebration. The religious festival in itself lasts 10 days but the actual part taking place at the Pandal is for the last 5 days. The symbolic is to celebrate the 9 different faces of the godess Durga, the mother, protector, destroyer of evil and bearer of life. Grass is planted in homes and will grow very fast if the divine is present. Prayers are daily, fasting is also part of the ritual. Each day specific rituals are performed first only in the home and then also in the Pandal’s. At the end of the festival, the deities are taken to the rive and given to the holy waters of the Howgly, the name Ganga is given here in Kolkata as it finishes its route before flowing into the sea.
After this introduction to the festival, we pursued our route into town and to our hotel discovering the various aspects of the city in its festival colours, we passed many pandals and stoped at a few. Once settled into our room we headed straight to the river and the flower market as it was now past 8 am, morning market activity was coming to an end and wanted to meet my wrestler friends who usually finish their training at this time. I had to see them now as for the coming days our morning activity would be to roam through many of the city’s neighborhoods to see as many pandals as possible, I would then probably only return to see them at the end of after the puja was finished. Puja is also holiday, people are out and about most nights so wrestling training is probably also on slow motion. Morning is the best moment for me to go to see the pandals as its the quieter and cooler moment of the day, as its in the evening that the crowds and groups of families and friends attend the more vibrant rituals and do their ‘pandal hoping’. Also because Kolkata is quite a vast and dense city, it will take us most of the week to cover so we will not limit ourselves to the morning but also go back out on our stroll in the afternoon too. Some evenings I also plan that we will go and attend some rituals. This sunday evening is the actual official start of the Pandal rituals, most are now finsihed and ready for show, but a few are still beeing finished. After our visit to the market and ghat its time to head back to the hotel for our late breakfast and a nap as our yesterday and night were spent travelling and there is a jetlag to get over too. Mid afternoon we head out to meet the nephew of a fairy friend as i have some gift from his uncle to give to him, we meet in the kalighat neighbourhood and he takes us to a few of the bigger pandals. We then continue alone zizaging the streets tryimg to be efficient in our pandal hoping, we will walk nearly 20km today, we finish a little tired for a light and easy pasta dinner in the center of town. Back at the hotel, i fall asleep very easily and wake up a few hours later thanks to the jetlag. Its the perfect moment to get down and write these lines before, i hope, getting a few more hours sleep and starting day 2.
We continued to walk the streets of Calcutta day and night, and we discovered many neighborhoods and their pandals. Some offer the same type of design and decor but others are very spectacular and original. Some provide a militant and educational platform for women’s rights, against waste, to protect themselves from dengue fever. Every day new rituals are performed to honor the goddess. The crowd is also very impressive, especially for the biggest pandals that attract the crowds. On the last day, the goddess leaves the pandal and is transported to the river for her final immersion. The families travel with their idol, they are often colored with red powder. Women lead the group, drums give the rhythm, the atmosphere is very festive and happy, the immersion is the fulfillment of the ritual, its a liberation and is auspicious for the future.
Before leaving Kolkata for the freshness of the mountains, we visit the Ramakhrisna mission in Belurmath, an emblematic place of advaita vedanta and swami Vivekananda. We cross the river to see the Dakshineswar temple, but the crowd is too big and the queues to long to get inside. Last strolls along the river banks, some time spent with the wrestlers finish nicely this stay in the city. Tomorrow we will take the upward path towards the mountains, it will be a change of climate, scenery and atmosphere.