A Newbie's Guide To Durga Puja In Kolkata

In Kolkata for the first time during Durga Puja? Don't let the apparent chaos stump you. Here are a few quick points that will let you enjoy the carnival spirit that envelops the city
Pandal hopping is a popular activity during Durga Puja
Pandal hopping is a popular activity during Durga PujaSankarshansen/WikiCommons

Anyone arriving in Kolkata for the first time during Durga Puja can be overwhelmed. Artistic marquees (or pandals as they are called locally) every few yards, banners, and festoons everywhere, either urging you to buy everything under the sun or warning you of health hazards if you are not careful, loud music from speakers, shrill announcements calling people to offer their pushpanjali (floral offering to the goddess) or informing them of the time of the evening aarti, gaily dressed people on the streets round the clock, traffic jam, dazzling illuminations, food stalls on the pavements, it seems you have arrived at a planet unto itself.

But you will soon be surprised to find a rhythm in this madness, an overarching camaraderie beyond religion. So, just immerse yourself in the flow and enjoy Kolkata's unique spirit during Durga Puja, which is from October 20 to 24, 2023.

Grab The App

First, get oriented with the city's layout. Remember the Hooghly River lies to the west of Kolkata the Netaji Subhas Airport lies to the east. There are plenty of apps telling you which are the best Durga Pujas in Kolkata and how to get there, and these are your best bet if you want to be on your own. The Sharadotsav app (on Google Play) by West Bengal Tourism is very useful. Apart from maps, it has a zone-wise puja section, which is very handy.

Besides, the app also gives a list of organisations and telephone numbers to be contacted in emergencies. Also, for crowd control, major pandals require you to enter the marquees in queues, with separate lines for men and women. Moreover, the entry and exit points may be at different ends of the marquee. So, if you are a mixed group, then decide on a point where to meet after exiting. If you have children in tow, ensure they are with you at all times.

Take A Bus/Walking Tour

Sign up for a walk to discover the city
Sign up for a walk to discover the cityImmersive Trails

The crowds at pandals can be challenging to navigate. Hence, for a newbie in Kolkata, it is best to join a group tour to see the major Pujas. You can sign up for one of the several tour packages that are organised by the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC). These cover important puja pandals, boat cruises, and bus trips to destinations around Kolkata. If you want to explore the city with an expert, join a city walk tour with Calcutta Walks, Immersive Trails, Kolkata Explorers, etc. But remember, these tours fill up fast.

Timing Is Key

There is no fixed time when people will be outdoors. Usually, younger people and families with small kids prefer to go pandal-hopping by day.  Others prefer to do this from the evening till the wee morning hours, depending on their stamina to walk. So, if you do not want to face a sea of people, the morning hours are best. One of the biggest draws in the evening is the illuminations. To get an idea, you may take a walk around the place where you are staying if you are on your own. The Metro Rail is a convenient way to travel around the length of the city. To bear the snaking queues at the ticket counter, avail the Smart Card facility.

Which Pujos To See

There are several old aristocratic families in Kolkata who have been holding Durga Puja at home for centuries. If you want to see a traditional puja, visiting these households, mostly located in north and central Kolkata, is a must. Of the paara (neighbourhood) pujos, you can keep half a full day each for north, south, southwest, and east (including Salt Lake). Local newspapers, as well as apps, give details of the pandals that are popular in terms of the theme, the decor, the idols, or the illuminations. Some of the most noteworthy pujas are: Ahiritola Sarbojanin Durgotsab, Bagbazar, Mohammad Ali Park, and College Square in North Kolkata. In South Kolkata, the puja pandals at Hindustan Park, Ballygunge Cultural Association, Deshapriya Park, Maddox Square, and Suruchi Sangha are quite popular.

Where To Eat

The variety of food available on the streets can be mindboggling
The variety of food available on the streets can be mindbogglingTapas Kumar Halder/WikiCommons

Giving close competition to pandal-hopping during Durga Puja is eating out. The variety of food available on the streets can be mindboggling, from jhaalmuri, phuchka, egg and chicken rolls, chaats and samosa, cutlets, biryani, noodles, dumplings, lassi, and more. Food kiosks spring up all over the city. But remember, not all maintain high standards of hygiene. At some popular para pujos, home chefs and women staying nearby sell home-cooked Bengali food, especially sweets. Restaurants usually have special menus during the duration of the festival. Most do not accept prior reservations, and seating is first-come-first-served. Which means the waiting time to be seated can be long. For Bengali puja platters, head out to Kasturi, Bhojohori Manna, or 6 Ballygunge Place (all have several outlets in Kolkata. For Kolkata biryani and kebabs, the popular places are Zeeshan and Royal in Park Circus. For Kolkata-style Chinese, hit up Golden Dragon or Tung Fong on Park Street, or the restaurants in Tangra (the old Chinatown).

Go Shopping

For shops and businesses, Durga Puja is the time of the year when people do not mind loosening their purse strings. They offer discounts, gifts, and lucky draws on almost everything to attract patrons. Bengal is famous for its cotton and silk textiles and gold jewellery. So if you are keen to buy sarees and dress material, drop in at the local shops in Hatibagan in the north, College Street and New Market in the central and Gariahat in the south. Most of the shops remain open until Astami (day eight) morning.

Don't Miss The Immersion

Durga Puja visarjan
Durga Puja visarjan

On the tenth day (Vijaya Dashami), the idols are taken out in a procession and immersed in the Hooghly. People queue up along the routes taken by these processions to bid goodbye to the goddess. At the river bank, the idols are put on a boat and taken mid-river for the immersion.

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