Travel India

Pujo in Calcutta? Imagine Rio Carnival in bengali!

Pujo in Calcutta? Imagine Rio Carnival in bengali!

Ok. I may have got a little carried away here.
So it might not be as choreographed or organized or as commercial as the headline comparison. But it is a carnival for sure. And much more than just a religious festival.  It is a time when the whole city decides to have fun. Together. Unlike Diwali, where people move indoors post the crackers, to celebrate with friends and family in little get-togethers, Durga Puja sees a mass movement out-of-home. People are outdoors. Dressed in their finery. Making friends. Loaded with a zest only this season or football can bring out in this city. Walking on the streets, from one pandal to another. All day. All night. And then some.

This carnival has art. It hasn’t found it’s way to displaying this art in a mega float on the opening day,  but it has the craft to make international headlines.  Or pull out many a long drawn whistles. Every locality and every tiny lane has a pujo of its own. And the preparations begin almost 6 months in advance. From deciding on the design of the pandal, to ordering the ‘protima’ [ the goddess/deity’s statue], to chandeliers, art and craft, community lunch,  raising money- there are committees who do this for a good portion of their lives. And when the time comes, it shows. The city transforms into a walking gallery. A hop and walk across some of the famous pandals of the city will reveal the most imaginative and the most meticulously done themes. I have come across pandals and deities from simple yet resplendent village themes, haunted houses to the much more bold skulls & bones, Star Wars or even Harry Potter themes. Social issues, current news, disaster awareness- all are reborn and brought to forefront in their creative avatars through these themes.

This carnival has music.  From free for all open air concerts. To blaring loudspeakers from every corner of every lane. You cannot escape it even if you want to. All one needs to know is which part of the city to flock to. And you can find some of the most popular bands lighting fire amongst an already charged up lot. But the signature tune of this festival is the sound of the famous ‘dhak‘. The reverb of these drums fill up the air, almost summoning people into its frenzy.

This carnival has food. And that is an understatement. This carnival has feast. And my favorite remains the street food. That grows to mega proportions of a beast with a hunger this time of the year. Chowmein, phuchka, fish fry, rolls, fried chicken, biryani,  bhel puri, mutton chole…the list is as endless and as creative as the pandals. And as satiating. And it seems like no one is eating at home. The queue in front of the restaurants, specially around Park Street, is snaking and chattery. And then there is the ‘bhog’. The prasad dished out in communal lunches, where friends and strangers sit and eat together. Catching up on everything.

This carnival has lovers. Walking hand in hand. From one pandal to another. Taking a cooing break or a boat ride on the ganga. There are pandals unanimously marked out for young lovers to hang out. Or for wannabe lovers to sit and ‘bird watch’ and hopefully make acquaintances with young women out in their best threads. A much louder and colorful version, but this piece of the pujo seems to be picked right out of a Jane Austen novel. With  the many debuts that young women make into the eye of the love storm.

And for the devout, this carnival is still the pujo to quench the parched soul. Where the goddess is anointed in all her splendor and offered prayers for 5 days. From waking up early, to staying up late, from the many aarti to the famous ‘dhunuchi naach’ [ the dance with the coal fire], the worshipper does not go dissatisfied.

And when it is finally time to say goodbye to the goddess, different parts of the city bid their own deity a loud colorful goodbye in unison. Where women in their white saris with vermilion border take to dancing on the streets. Where the dhaks build up the  grand finale of a 5 day teaser, and where the crowd chants out “asche bochor abar hobe” with full faith and fervor. It crudely translates to ” will do this again soon this coming year”, but doesn’t capture the desire one bit.

For people like me who left this city a decade and a half back, this is one time that pulls me back with a big tug. Many a children of this city living in different parts of the country and the world feel the pinch every day when they do not make their way back in, if just for these five days.

I have often wondered the drug called Durga Pujo. If only a scientist could figure how to tap in and collect this energy in the air, ISRO can fuel another mission soon. At least half way.

Footnotes : For people who do not belong to this city, it is very easy to still come and be a part of this celebration. People here are inquisitive enough to get involved with you or pull you into their lot. Stay in the thick of things, read up on the newspaper which is shouting out the top 10 places to visit/eat/hang out in. Visit the open air concerts. And do some shopping towards the top part of puja. The whole city is on discounts. The biggest deal will still be the charge you feel, pick up and take back with you.

The Benaras charm this time of the year

The Benaras charm this time of the year

The Benaras charm_01

The weather is getting better. You will not swoon in the heat, and walking around can be a little humid, but mostly pleasant. Dushera is in the air. Diwali is just round the corner. And it is still not pinching tourist season yet. Try Benaras in this limbo. It can be surprisingly rewarding.
And it is eclectic. For people who live there it is their daily life. But for people who are coming in for a small taste of that life, leaving power points powerplay and many other play behind, it has the power to completely suck you in. Just remember to allow yourself to drown. Completely.

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Asi Ghat



Walk. Walk a lot. It’s charm lies in its ancient alleys, the people who live in those age old lanes, and the fun in navigating around.  I stayed in the farthest ghat from the main ones, Asi Ghat- charming, less crowded, but with its own motley collection. It is around 45minutes walk across a bustling city and some by-lanes to the main ghats,  and it’s thoroughly charming. If one wants to live right on the ghat, Hotel Ganges view is delightfully vintage, has some concerts as well, and is a great place to stay, eat, sit on the terrace and stare at the ganga. A little steep for the budget traveller though

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Dashashwamedh ghat



Sit. Spend time at the ghats. It is a wonderful place to people watch. And goat and cow and dog watch. And how all living beings mix with each other. The Dashashwamedh ghat- one of the main ghats is a riot of people, prayers, colour, and pandits. The much hyped ganga aarti is now quite the tourist trap, perfectly choreographed for the thousands of camera pointing at them. Anything that overtly commercial, posturing as spiritual, tends to lack soul. But the place in and around these ghats still feel ancient and honest. [On a separate note, if you want a spiritual aarti, then head to the ISCON headquarters at Mayapur, stay a night and wake up at 4 am to experience one of the most stirring chants ever].

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Early morning boat ride

Shoot. Early morning boat ride is a must. Watching the day break on the ganges. Looking at the ghats come alive. With people offering  their morning prayers. You will feel your last joblist slipping away from your head. If just for the morning. I find this blankness highly nurturing.

Feel. Even if you are an atheist, try at least one temple. I would recommend the main one. The Kashi Vishwanath temple. Ancient, dedicated to Lord Shiva, and with a long queue. But the most delightful discovery was that it shares a wall with another ancient prayer of worship- the Gyanvapi mosque, built by Aurangzeb, after he destroyed much of the temple.

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Friends from the by-lanes

Eat. And drink. Drink the famous special lassi. Laced with Lord Shiva’s favorite- Bhang. You will get it in the main market square itself, near the Dashashwamedh ghat. Eat a hot piping kachori and jalebi breakfast after the morning ganges ride, or on way back from the temple. Try the much delicious french onion soup on the terrace of the Ganpati Guest house, just around the main ghat. A place where it seems  half of new age Woodstock and a lot of ISCON moved in. A great place to stay by the way, and very easy on the pocket. But very difficult to find bookings. So plan early if you prefer something kitsch and not a factory line hotel.

And  yes, ignore. Ignore the dirt lying around in many places. Ignore the sometimes overbearing noise. Ignore the heat a little. There are so many stories lying around to be discovered.
Before I wrap this piece up, here is one of my fondest discovery. I discovered a hermit who lives on the ghat, with a monkey. The monkey sits on his head while he steps into the ganges for his bath. He playfully ducks her in at times, and she scampers back on top, all wet and looking sheepish. He perches her on his cycle rod when he is moving around. And yes, he calls her Julie. Very desirable. Coy. And a one man woman.

I spent 3 days there. Discovering, eating, walking, feeling…being. And I must say, I was charmed. And it is one of those charms that grows on you, even more so once you have left the land and come back to your own din.

Footnotes: Varanasi for the rest of the world, Benaras is apparently known to be established by Lord Shiva, and its earliest inhabitation record goes back to 11th-12th century BC. It does claim to be one of the oldest inhabited city in the world. While at Varanasi, try and do the in and around as well- cross the bridge and go to Ramnagar, and visit the fort. During Dushera, they have a colorful costume heavy procession, along with the famous Ram Lila play. The current king residing in the fort also comes out to grace the play. Walk through the famous Benaras Hindu University. And less than an hour’s auto ride away is the the hot seat of Buddha’s teachings- Sarnath.
The Benaras charm_06
Varanasi. Benaras. Kashi.

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