Durga Puja In Kolkata Essay Contest

[ID:361] Building Street Dreamscapes: The Durga Puja Pandal at Kolkata


A familiar Kolkata transforms. Neighbourhoods introduce themselves in unforeseen ways. The ‘Durga Puja Pandal’ announces its arrival.

“Come-hither every year!” – people sing in chorus.

In a world where increasing disconnection of people from urban spaces is paralyzing modern urban neighbourhoods, the story of the ‘Community Durga Puja Pandal’ in the city of Kolkata, the Indian metropolis in the state of West Bengal, holds special importance and ought to be narrated. It is an example of an Indian community’s search for identity in the midst of diversity, the search embodied by the very act of building.

‘Durga Puja’ is the annual autumnal celebration of Goddess Durga during September-October over five days and nights. This celebration is characterized by the act of building the community ‘Pandal’ – a temporary shelter or a marquee that houses the idol of the Goddess during the festival. The Pandal skillfully combines craftsmanship, symbolism and various cultural, political and artistic intents. The introduction of this dynamic, yet structured concept of ‘community-building’ into the city not only makes it the fulcrum for a robust and vibrant public life but also connects various cycles of the city and its environment.


The imagery of Kolkata brings forth images such as banks of the river Ganga, greens of Maidan, Howrah Bridge, Victoria Memorial, colonial buildings of Parkstreet, mansions of North Kolkata and narrow congested streets with back-to-back houses, amongst many others.

Though difficult to consider, as people of Kolkata say, much of Kolkata can be understood through ‘Durga Puja Pandals’. Community-Pandal-making is a two-century-old concept of people’s desire to explore their collective right to the city. At the base of the festival structure is the ‘Neighbourhood’. Every neighbourhood builds it’s own Pandal. The neighbourhood’s identity is articulated in the symbolism of the Pandal. The temporary space of the festival provides in the lives of people continuously engaged in their daily fight for survival, a momentary phase for dreaming and imagining. The process is a discovery of thoughts, ideas and community solidarity. As thousands of neighbourhoods engage in building their Pandals, the entire city, gripped in the frenzy of the festival, transforms into a surreal world. When one traverses through Pandals of various neighbourhoods, a distinctive landscape of the city emerges. A landscape, that unravels the dynamics of the various neighbourhoods, the interactions arising within and amongst them, their ethos, dreams and aspirations. Such an insight forms a raw yet deep-rooted understanding of the city.

What is it that makes the act of building the Pandal such an important link to the neighbourhood’s life? The answer to this lies in the Pandal’s underlying function, that of acting as a medium to stage, shape and transform public opinion by stimulating dialogue, debate and confirmation. People of the neighbourhood, irrespective of age, gender, occupation, economic class, caste and religion gather to dream and debate.

“What will our neighbourhood transform into this year? How do we design the Pandal in the limited space available? What experience do we portray to the world through the Pandal? Will it have a theme? How much do our means permit? Do we need external resources? Do we need professional assistance to design the Pandal? Who could we approach for sponsorships?” Closely followed by, “Do you think our Pandal has been aesthetically made this year? What do you have to say about the message that our neighbouring Pandal is trying to convey?”

Some neighbourhoods build Pandals that replicate imagery of traditional temples while some explicitly replicate well-known monuments for the sheer joy of seeing these monuments magically land in their neighbourhood! (Image 1) Some conceive the Pandal either as an artistic installation in space or aim to deliver a message, either tell a story or recreate a way of life. Such Pandals in contemporary times are popularly known as theme-based Pandals.

Increasing number and proximity of neighbourhoods celebrating Durga Puja has led to people visiting various neighbourhoods to witness, experience and speculate about experimentations in Goddess images and Pandals. Comparisons and competition are natural consequences. The concept of competition has raised such a stir that it has been institutionalized. Various corporate bodies distribute awards to Pandals for their aesthetic appeal and quality of craftsmanship. Competition acts as a catalyst for design experimentations.

The focus of design experimentations has shifted from the Goddess image to illumination effects and finally to Pandals. In their earliest forms, Pandals were skeletal-frames of bamboo draped in cloth and tarpaulin but gradually experimentations began. Mid-nineties onwards there began an intense effort to integrate all aspects of the Puja, image of the Goddess, lighting, Pandal and ambience, into a harmonious whole.

The roots of Community Puja in and around Kolkata can be traced to the early twentieth century, when Puja moved from elite households to open streets, patronage of elite families to community sponsorship. This brought the Goddess amongst the masses. Like any other public sphere, it adapted to dominant needs and trends of the times. The contemporary Indian public sphere has gained momentum by factors such as emergence of a nationalist popular domain, the colossal task of nation-building post independence, emergence of the mass media and various consumerist drives. In Kolkata, the Durga Puja Pandal served as the stage where these got projected and shaped. So, while the image of the Goddess took the form of ‘Bharatmata’ (Mother India) as a result of patriotic fervour pre and post Indian independence, the Community Pandal provided the traditional support system of community life and a sense of belonging to thousands of people who migrated into Kolkata as a result of the partition of Bengal.

In the contemporary Pandal, one would be intrigued, even surprised, to witness the paradox in a devotee offering tribute to the Goddess in a temporary street-corner-shrine that replicates a ship or is a comment on the latest political issue gripping the nation or is an installation persuading people to save trees! But this is exactly what the charisma of the Pandal is. It has skillfully interwoven worship with mass celebration. Most interestingly, the physical spaces of the festival are not specialized public spaces but ordinary urban spaces such as streets, common plots, and parks. These spaces assume the character of an extravagant public space only during the festival.


The celebration of Durga Puja is associated with an ancient myth. Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon was granted a boon by Lord Brahma, the father of Creation that he would die only at the hands of woman. When the demon waged a war against the world, no one could harness him. Durga, the Goddess who ends all miseries, following a prolonged battle pierced a trident in his chest. The demon was slain. Victory of good over evil was reinstated. This myth is re-actualized during the festival wherein Pandal-making is looked at as the sacred act of re-construction of the mythical world.

What sets the festival time of Durga Puja and the space of the Pandals apart from ordinary course of life is the intense theatricality. The city becomes a stage for multitudes of enactments spurred by Pandal-making. The theatricality of the whole process is set within a mythical frame of reference that lifts it from the realm of ordinary life, endows it with an aura of enlarged importance and embeds it in memory. On the last day of the festival, the Goddess idol is immersed into flowing water. The festival concludes, the Pandal is dismantled and the space reverts to routine life. The cyclic sense of time of the festival keeps traditions alive in memory, through the annual rituals of constructing, debating, participating and viewing.

The ritual of construction of Pandals has nurtured a range of craftsmen enriching the crafting tradition of the region. The festival has become the means of livelihood for innumerable local craftsmen. For example, an entire neighbourhood, ‘Kumartuli’ has nurtured craftsmen who are knowledge-bearers of the regional sculpting method of straw-bamboo armatures and clay, characteristically used for sculpting Durga idols.

Pandal-making prescribes an extremely tactile method of building wherein there is an intimate connection between materials and the craftsman’s method of working. The specific manners of working with bamboo or mud in Pandals derive from techniques and craftsmanship evolved in this region over centuries. As soil in this region is suitable for bamboo to grow in abundance and for wattle and daub construction, most houses in villages of Bengal are built in this technique. Other materials such as straw, jute, rice-husk, paper and timber used in Pandals are also sourced locally. It is the most natural and ecological use of materials in construction. Temporality of the festival ensures that most materials used can easily be dismantled and reused. A basic bamboo-framework attains form with elaborately crafted elements and finishes. Steel is also used, though sparingly, in some large Pandals to make a basic framework. In recent times, some Pandals also make use of disposed or waste products for construction. (Image 2) Though rooted in tradition, the craftsmen constantly engage in innovative ways to combine regional craft with new tools and technology.

The experience of this temporary yet intricately crafted space of the Pandal and the process leading up to it is a dramatic sensory experience. The best way to evoke such an experience is to recreate the imagery of the neighbourhood whose act of Pandal-making I have observed the closest.


An overcrowded street with people, taxis and rickshaws in hustled transit leads to a twenty-feet lane. Back-to-back well-built and rusted-tin-roofed houses characterize the lane. Sky for inmates is the three-by-four-feet windows, through which they chat across streets. Signboards in the lane and paint on compound walls have partially washed out. People are continuously engaged in their daily fight for survival. This is a neighbourhood at Hatibagan, a locality in North Kolkata.

In the fast-paced life of the neighbourhood, there comes a pause, a momentary phase for imagining what the neighbourhood could be. Two months prior to Durga Puja, as the neighbourhood prepares to build its Pandal, the atmosphere reverberates with energy, discussions and joyful anticipation of the unseen world that it is about to transform into.

Bamboo, timber-posts, clay, plaster and hay get collected at the street corner. Sanatan Dinda, an artist with his team of craftsmen, in conversation with people, sets out to design and build the Pandal. The streetscape transforms into his studio, rejuvenated with neighbourhood children kneading clay, sounds of tools and discussions of curious passers-by. Tools mould materials; dreams become reality; the Pandal emerges gradually. (Image 3, 4)

The festival finally arrives. The neighbourhood transforms beyond recognition. Time and history indiscriminately collapse and an entirely new space-time is born. The Pandal is now in public domain, open to being experienced, discussed and interpreted. It is no longer a single viewpoint or experience but the merging of collective experiences of people and the sensations that it evokes.

A towering form at the far end of the Pandal, magnificently rising from earths crust into sky, magnetically draws the viewers towards it. As one moves in relation to it, one crosses the threshold of a large symbolic gateway, underneath a trellis of creeper-like sculptural forms and enters sacred precinct. An enclosure of intricately crafted, undulating mud-bamboo walls on either sides of a ramp holds the sacred space. The dramatic journey of ascent conditions the mind to a heightened state of rapture. One’s roles are in constant reversal, from a viewer to a performer and back and forth. The gradual discovery of materials, colours, textures and shadows of moving bodies of people in relation to shadows of walls and soaring bamboo-posts, responds to ones child-like instinct of play. Every detail, curvature and texture suggests the specific dialogues of craftsmen with the materials. The play of light, shadow and reverberating ritual-sounds against textured surfaces progressively reveal the hidden experiences of the Pandal.

One reaches the towering form only to discover that it is the threshold to the deepest layers within the Pandal. As ones heart pounds in anticipation of what might be beyond, one enters a delicately crafted space of a massive volume. The intimate scale of the sanctum in Hindu temples has been altered into a massive scale. It has been opened up for the masses, not individual but community worship. Beyond all this is the image of Mahishasuramardini (the demon-slaying-warrior-goddess). Momentarily, for the devotee, world evaporates and an intimate connection with the Goddess is established. As the demon is slain, life regenerates. The world gradually materializes and one begins to grasp the details of the space. The unified experience of the mystical ambience, presence of the community and regional crafts presented in an unforeseen manner lifts the devotee to an altogether different plane of elation and fulfillment. The Pandal undeniably is an evocative artistic expression in space.

Finally as one is compressed out into the world of the neighbourhood, one returns to the warmth of the community. The entire neighbourhood is on the street, celebrating. The overwhelming presence of people of the city in their Pandal is an encouragement for their effort. Their Pandal is their pride. In earth, bamboo, plaster and hay, the Pandal is a symbol of their inimitable spirit. The festival ends. The street dreamscape reverts to the neighbourhood of everyday-life. What remains is people’s renewed zest for life ahead. Next festival season, imaginations are new and the same street transforms into a completely different dreamscape.

A fragile-structure generating such a robust public space is fascinating. This is not an exceptional pictorial landscape of the neighbourhood at Hatibagan but that of thousands of neighbourhoods of Kolkata.


The entire act of Pandal-making might be a momentary phase of the city when it dares to dream but is it really a dream or is it a reality for Kolkata to thrive?

In contemporary times as we strive to make "sustainable environments", the stance adopted by the Pandal in its approach to a sustainable social system and design is not only bold but also a novel way to keep tradition alive and popular. In social systems, unlike in the use of natural resources, sustainability cannot be defined in terms of equilibrium and permanence. For a social system to thrive, it is extremely important that it is not inert. It has to be inclusive, open to interaction and exchange of ideas. The special importance of “dissent, debate, and dialogue” recognized in the act of Pandal-making makes it an act of unique public significance. Its essence of continually being appropriated is the most important lesson to be learnt in contemporary times when we are constantly trying to make our built environments rigid and resistant to change. The Community Durga Puja Pandal truly is a testimony, in an earthy manner of expression, of what Richard Sennet insists,

“Public Realm is a process, not an end product.”

Works Cited:

1. Banerjee, Sudeshna. Durga Puja, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. New Delhi: Rupa and Co. 2004.

2. Lannoy, Richard. The Speaking Tree: A study of Indian culture and society. Kuala Lumpur, London: Oxford University Press. 1971.

3. Sennett, Richard. The Public Realm. Web. 10 January 2012.

Img1: Pandal replicating Louvre Museum in a public park against an illuminated neighbourhood skyline

Img2: A Neighbourhood Pandal encouraging reuse of waste built entirely with disposed plastic bottles

Img3: Neighbourhood, People and the emerging Pandal at Hatibagan

Img4: Crafting the interior space of the Pandal at Hatibagan

If you would like to contact this author, please send a request to info@berkeleyprize.org.

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Honoring the Warrior Goddess

India’s Durga Puja Celebration

By Volker Poelzl

A priest performing a ceremony during Durga Puja. @Volker Poelzl.

India is a land of holy places, holy rivers, and large religious festivals. Almost every aspect of life is infused with religious gestures, rites, and meaning. The importance of Hinduism as India’s most dominant religion extends far beyond the private sphere into the public realm. Every year hundreds of religious festivals and pilgrimages are celebrated all across this vast and diverse country, and being able to witness or participate in one or several of them is a great cultural or even spiritual experience for foreign visitors.  Among India’s most colorful and lively festivals is Navratri (Festival of Nine Nights), and Durga Puja is one of the most popular versions of this festival celebrated in Eastern India, especially in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta) in the state of West Bengal. For five days each year, the city takes on a festive atmosphere and comes to a complete standstill, when temporary temples spring up all over the city to honor the Hindu goddess Durga. Hundreds of thousands of worshippers from Kolkata and all over India visit these temples to pay their tribute.

The Story Behind Durga Puja

Navratri is a celebration of the victory of good over evil ,with several variations of the tradition all over India. Durga Puja specifically celebrates the victory of the goddess Durga over the bull demon Mahishasura. According to legend, Durga was summoned by the gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, to defeat the demon, who had set out to conquer the world. To help her win the battle, each of the major Hindu gods gave Durga weapons and other objects to assist her. Durga went into battle mounted on a lion and on the tenth day of the battle, she finally killed the demon. Navratri commemorates the nine days and nights of the battle between good and evil,  but Durga Puja is celebrated only on the last five days, when according to legend, Durga leaves her heavenly abode to visit earth each year. Durga Puja attracts many visitors from all over India as well as foreign tourists, but the festival is especially popular among the people of West Bengal. The festival is a special occasion for Bengali families to come together from all over the country and celebrate with their relatives and communities.

The Pandals

At the center of the Durga Puja celebration is the "pandal," a temporary pavilion and place of worship, where ceremonies and rituals take place. The city issues over a thousand permits for pandals in public spaces each year, and during they spring up in every neighborhood across Kolkata. Pandals are usually built with bamboo slats and papier-mâché and are richly painted and decorated. Artisans work for months to build them and make beautiful clay idols of the goddess and her family. The creation of clay idols is an especially sought-after craft, and only the most expert artisans are hired to do so. Each pandal has an altar, where the idols of Durga and other gods are displayed. Durga is usually depicted with eight or ten arms, sitting on a lion, with the defeated demon beneath her. She is usually accompanied by the idols of her sons Ganesh and Kartik, and her daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati. These clay sculptures are richly dressed and decorated with flower garlands and jewelry.

Some of the pandals are small and simple, funded by communities and neighborhood associations through neighborhood fund-raising, but a growing number are very ostentatious and expensive, often sponsored by large businesses and corporations. Each pandal usually has a dedicated theme that varies from year to year and are often replicas of famous Indian temples. They may also have an ethnic theme or represent famous landmarks around the world. There is an ongoing competition between the different puja committees to come up with creative and unexpected themes each year to attract the most visitors, and some pandals of past Durga Puja celebrations have gained notoriety for daring and untraditional designs, sometimes provoking criticism from purists.

Pandal-hopping is a favorite night-time activity during the festival. @Volker Poelzl.

A Time of Devotion and Merriment

For Hindus "Puja" is a form of worship of a god through prayers, rituals, and songs. Even though Durga Puja is a merry feast and social event with many secular elements, it is inherently a religious celebration to honor the goddess Durga. During the five-day event people pay tribute to the goddess, people make offerings and honor her in ceremonies, prayers, and songs. Each of the five days of the festival has different ceremonies and rituals associated with it which are performed by a priest at each pandal before large crowds of worshippers. Most people attend their own community pandal for daily ceremonies, music, dances, and food, but they also visit other pandals. This so-called "pandal -hopping" is a well-established tradition. Families dress up in their best clothes as they visit pandals all over the city and offer their prayers before the idol of Durga. There is live music and dancing, and the streets are crowded with  pandal-hoppers and street vendors offering crafts, knickknacks, and snacks, as well as henna hand paintings loved by the local ladies. Durga Puja is a time for family members to come together from all over the country and to invite guests into their homes to enjoy special seasonal dishes. It is also a time when people go shopping and buy new clothes, jewelry, and household items as well as gifts.

The Conclusion of Durga Puja: The Immersion

A group of men lower a clay idol of the goddess Durga into the river. @Volker Poelzl.

On the fifth day of Durga Puja, communities gather for a last religious ceremony before the idols of Durga are paraded through the streets and then transported to the Hooghly River for immersion. This symbolizes the end of Durga’s five-day sojourn on earth, after which she returns to her heavenly abode. Traffic to the riverbank comes to a standstill that night, as hundreds of hired trucks transport the idols of the displays to the river, together with dozens of revelers. As the crowd watches on, often accompanied by musicians, the clay idols of Durga and the other gods are carefully unloaded and carried down to the river, where they are gently lowered into the water. Then the idols are picked up by the current and slowly swept downstream. Over the next few days all the pandals in the city are dismantled, only to be reborn in a new shape and with a new glamour the following year.

For More Information

When to Go

Durga Puja is celebrated in late September/early October each year. October is a good time to visit India, since foreign tourists do not yet crowd India’s main attractions, the weather is mostly dry, and the heat is beginning to subside. Still, late monsoon rains can hit Kolkata during Durga Puja, leading to extensive flooding and traffic jams.

It is best to arrive a few days before the beginning of Durga Puja, so you can get your bearings before the city shuts down for the festival. This should give you enough time to find out which restaurants, shops, and cafés are open, and how to get around town during the festival. During the festivities government offices and banks are closed, commerce has irregular opening hours, and restaurants have long lines. Plan ahead.

How to Get to Kolkata

You can fly to Kolkata from Delhi, but if you have time, take the train and visit several great destinations on the way, such as the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the holy city of Varanasi. Durga Puja is a popular time for family reunions and also attracts tourists from all over India. Train and airline tickets may sell out quickly, and hotels may be booked more heavily than usual. It is a good idea to make advance reservations to make sure you have a pleasant place to stay.

Getting around Kolkata

If you are staying near the city center, traveling by cab is the best way to get around Kolkata. If you travel in a group, you might want to consider hiring a vehicle and driver for a few days to visit several pandals all over the city. There are several English-language newspapers in Kolkata, and during Durga Puja you will find articles about the most spectacular pandals and cultural events:

The Telegraph, www.telegraph.in
The Statesman, www.thestatesman.net
Calcutta Post, www.calcuttapost.com

For more information about Durga Puja, visit these websites:

DurgaPuja.org, www.durga-puja.org
IloveIndia.com, festivals.iloveindia.com/durga-puja/

Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com.

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