Home Miscellaneous Glimpses Into Bay Area Durga Puja: India’s most famous Autumnal Festival

Glimpses Into Bay Area Durga Puja: India’s most famous Autumnal Festival

written by ParoChak October 18, 2015
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The season of falling leaves and a nip in the air is known to the western hemisphere as “Fall” with the eastern hemisphere sticking to the good old English word “Autumn” and gearing up what signals as some major festivities that come along with it. My birth state of West Bengal (India) gets into the thick of things as preparations start for the eagerly awaited and yearned festival of Durga Puja (or Pujo as we Bengalis say) celebrating the Goddess Durga returning to her parents abode, aka Earth from her celestial residence. The five days, which mark the return of the Goddess with her entourage (aka her children) is celebrated with great fan fare, pomp and show which rivals a billion glitzy carnivals combined. People don their very best and throng “pandals” (i.e. makeshift structures hosting the idols of the Goddess and her children), offer their prayers, eat and make merry. Millions of people take to the streets of Kolkata (the capital of West Bengal and my birth city) during this time (think of Times Square, NYC frenzy times a thousand) and go pandal hopping. The pandals themselves are intricate works of art and often compete for creativity in local competitions. On the 5th day, the idol is immersed in the waters of the Ganges, as her devotees look forward to one more year till she returns.

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As pithy as this introduction to one of the biggest Hindu festivals in the world sounds, truth be told, there is nothing religious about it. Durga Puja, specially for those who grew up in Kolkata, is essentially a social festival participated by all, irrespective of religious, caste or creed. Its a fun social gathering, an escape from the daily grind and a time to make merry. Perhaps because of this, my ties to this ritual have still not gone south unlike my rabid dislike for organized religion and traditions. Being a part of my childhood with no religious sanctions imposed or rules to follow, the kid in me feels the compelling need to visit the  nearest venue in North America and get a glimpse of the idol while going through the motions of things that would transport me to my childhood. Kolkata has long ceased to be home, but these five days somehow always remain tinged with pensiveness and I guess will always be wherever I live or whichever place I choose to call home.

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Every Durga Puja, unfailingly tosses several choices of venues where Bengalis congregate in the Bay area to celebrate this festival. San Francisco is not one of those venues (unfortunately) and so one has to go to either the east or the south bay where the south asian diaspora live. Bay area Durga Pujos tend to be  massive in scale and equally impersonal, and one feel easily detached and isolated in a sea of people jostling to get a bite of the “prasad” or snatches of flower petals for the “anjali” (i.e. prayers offered to the Goddess). This year we had better luck at a smaller venue which did not seem to be overwhelmed by a huge crowd. Once I fathomed out how to drape my Sari (Indian ethnic wear for women), off we went to San Mateo where I managed to offer my prayers, get a few rounds of “prasad” (plates of fruits and sweets) for the hungry other half and also got someone to get one decent photo of us! Overall, mission accomplished! For some time at least, I was transported to a slice of my childhood being surrounded by men, women and children in their ethnic finery, the resplendent statue of the Goddess, the beauty of the Sanskrit shlokas being chanted over the microphone by a very enthusiastic grandpa and the smell of incense mixed with that of flowers strewn everywhere. At the end of the day, the realization that these makeshift Pujos will never be able to substitute for the real thing, is very much there and tugs gently at the heartstrings, but this like many other things is a byproduct of the choices that I made, for a life in a different land. So for better or for worse, these Pujos in a tiny school room, with a small idol and improvised traditions will do fine. For as long as I wear my mothers sari (in the most grotesque way) show up at the nearest Pujo venue and try to remember snatches of the mantras while trying my best to aim the flowers at the Goddess feet (how else will I get her to fulfill my demands otherwise?), I will always carry a Durga Pujo in the heart. And that is what is important to me, that is all that matters.

For a list of Bay area Bengali communities celebrating Durga Puja, see here, here and here. Read my other post here where I list unique online Indian retailers to shop for some Indian kitsch.

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India culture festival religion Hindu durga puja Bay area california bengali

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