Kolkata's Durga Puja Inscribed by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage

Durga Puja in Kolkata is not merely a religious festival. It is a grand celebration, an exultation of spirit.
Durga idols being transported on boats on the Hooghly river
Durga idols being transported on boats on the Hooghly river

Not many festivals around the globe can match the unique appeal of Durga Puja, celebrated by Bengalis across the globe. Held annually every autumn, it is an expression of faith with the fervor of a carnival. The festival is best enjoyed in Kolkata (West Bengal, India) where it has long transcended its religious appeal to become an inclusive celebration.  

And recognising its distinct character, UNESCO has inscribed Durga Puja in Kolkata on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The announcement was made by the Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO&rsquos 2003 Convention on Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage during its 16th session at Paris, France.

Durga Puja is celebrated in Kolkata (and across the world) at the same time the rest of the country observes Navaratri. It shares the common theme of worshiping the Mother Goddess, Shakti.  The idol is based on the Mahishasurmardini concept &ndasha fully armed 10-handed goddess riding her lion mount and in her demon slaying pose. But for Bengalis, she is not only the conqueror of evil. She is a daughter who descends to her parental home from her abode in the Himalayas every autumn. Hence, she is accompanied by her four children &ndash sons Ganesha and Kartikeya and daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati (each accompanied by their respective mounts). Therefore she is also called Ma Durga (Mother Durga).

Although the main festival takes place during the final five days of Navratri, preparations begin months ahead. On the day of Rath Yatra of Jagannath, idol makers apply the mud scraped from the wheels of the chariot on a straw-covered frame to start building the idol. There are many rituals involved in the entire process, from making of idol to worshiping.

Did you know one such ritual includes that even mud collected from outside a brothel has to be mixed in the clay used to make the idol Craftspeople hailing from all castes and creeds are involved in the making of the ornaments and other decorations used to beautify the idols. Similarly, participation in the festivity is also not restricted to one community &ndash everyone is welcome, irrespective of their religion.

This is also the time when people buy and gift new clothes and indulge in community feasts. After being worshiped with fanfare, the idols are immersed in the Ganga (or any river) on the 10th day (Dussehra), symbolic of the goddess and her family&rsquos return to her mountain abode. The festival is concluded with everyone sharing greetings (youngsters touch the feet of the elders as a token of respect, people of the same age group hug each other) and a special set of sweets.

&nbspIf you are in Kolkata during Durga Puja, you cannot miss the cultural vibes. Apart from home&nbspworship, the Goddess and her family can be found residing in marquees (locally called a &lsquopandal&rsquo) erected across the city by&nbspneighborhood&nbspcommittees and clubs. But these are no ordinary marquees &ndash they are works of art, often built around a theme.

Even the decorations of the marquee, the idols, installation arts, and illuminations are built around the theme. Expect to travel from a village in Kerala to a Roman temple to a non-descript tribal village. Nothing is taboo &ndash be it Hogwarts Castle or the Pyramids of Egypt or an imaginary spaceship. In fact, as you go pandal-hopping (a&nbspfavorite&nbspactivity during this time), you will feel like walking through one long art gallery.

It is this blend of culture and camaraderie which has been appreciated by UNESCO. To quote UNESCO  &ndash &lsquoThe festival has also come to signify &lsquohome-coming&rsquo or a seasonal return to one&rsquos roots. Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers. During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations.&rsquo

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