Tag Archives: Durga Puja

The Goddess of Knowledge

Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music and art, and is the daughter of Lord Shiva and Ma Durga.   In West Bengal, Saraswati is revered by schools and universities, because of the belief that she endows the worshipper with speech, wisdom and learning.

Saraswati Puja takes place this year in later January, so preparations of clay images at Kumartuli began in late December.   The energy at Kumartuli is much quieter than the frenzied activity of Durga Puja preparations, but there were a group of artisans in the neighborhood who were making some spectacular images!

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This image is 10-12 feet tall.
This image is about 14 feet tall.


Saraswati is either accompanied by or seated on a swan, and is dressed in white for purity.  In the images made at Kumartuli, she is mostly depicted with two hands that play a stringed instrument called the veena.  In the images where she has four hands, the other two hands will hold a rosary and a book.

Tiny Saraswati images.
Pair of life sized Saraswati figures placed as if conversing.



Saraswati is also a prominent figure in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Manjushri.   Her early history is as a river goddess, and I saw a number of figures adorned with flowing, watery imagery.


Dilip Pal and his assistants were working on eleven commissioned Saraswati images during this time, ranging from two to four feet tall. The floor of Dilipda’s studio at the Shovabazar Rajbari was blanketed with straw, as assistant Netal Pal bent and wrapped and compressed the straw into voluptuous female forms.

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Small Saraswati pandal in the Kumartuli neighborhood.


A Dentist to Lions

Dilipda is preparing no less than five images for Jagadhatri  Puja, which is celebrated throughout West Bengal and parts of Odissa about one week after Kali Puja (late October to early November) and exactly one month after Durga Puja.

The courtyard outside of Dilip Pal’s Kumartuli studio, where he prepares images for Jagadhatri Puja.

Jagadhatri is considered to be a calm incarnation of Durga.  She is known as the “Holder of the World,” and it is believed that if Jagadhatri is not there,  the world will fall down!   The origins of Jagadhatri Puja are unclear.  One account is that the puja was founded by Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna.  Jagadhatri celebrations are observed today with great joy in Ramakrishna missions around the world.

Dilip Pal working on a Jagadhatri image at his Kumartuli studio, Kolkata

Today, Dilipda is amusing himself by repeatedly telling me that he is “The Dentist To Lions,”  as he finely sculpts each feline’s memorable dentition.  In researching Jagadhatri’s history and observing the images of many Kumartuli workshops,  I saw reference to both lions and tigers.



Priest performing rites at Jagadhatri Puja
Jagadhatri  image



In addition to being accompanied by a lion/tiger, the three-eyed Jagadhatri is described as being the color of the morning sun.  She holds a conch and a bow in her two left hands and a chakra and a five-headed arrow in her two right hands.




Kumartuli artisan at work on Jagadhatri image

Some of the Jagadhatri images depict the lion stepping upon the elephant demon, Karindrasura, who represents human pride/power.  According to Sri Ramakrishna, “Jagadhatri arises in the heart of a person, who can control the frantic elephant called mind.”

Straw Jagadhatri images-in-process at nighttime, Kumartuli.

Immersions – Tradition and the Environment

Traditionally, Durga Puja ends with the immersion of the pandal images into a stream or river.  Once again, good has triumphed over evil, and Ma Durga and her children return to Mount Kailash and Durga’s consort, Lord Shiva.

Thousands and thousands of images are submerged each year!   There are serious environmental concerns in Kolkata regarding the dumping of so much debris (not to mention chemicals from today’s use of acrylic paints, etc.) into the Hooghly.  To alleviate these concerns, some communities or families now keep their clay images for several years before immersion.  Others have developed their own symbolic immersion of the goddess and do not submerge the pandal at all.   This year, a few media outlets reported that in some cities located along the banks of the Ganga river, all worshippers now submerge their images in man-made ponds instead of the river.

However, in Kolkata, many still chose to physically immerse their Durga pandal this year, and immersions began on October 3rd.  The following morning there was a massive reclamation and recycling effort.  The images in this post will show you some of the efforts being made at an area next to the Hooghly river that is called Babughat.

During the time set aside for immersions this year, convoys of trucks loaded with people and pandal images made their way to the river,  while musically accompanying their journey with drums and chanting.


DSC_0051The group of people packed into the truck above all work for the same corporation, and they had brought the company’s puja pandal.


DSC_0089Lots of dancing and music to honor Durga and her children before lifting the images out of the truck.



DSCN4408The company insisted that we join in the dance!  So here I am, happy to oblige, yet not exactly sure how to dance safely with my Nikon.


DSC_0191Notice the clay figures’ mouths – they had been fed some prasad, or religious offerings of food.  After being presented to the gods, prasad is then consumed by the worshippers.



The pandal is spun around several times, before its bearers carry the pandal into the water.

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The pandal is once again turned around several times, before Durga and her children are laid down gently into the water.

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The immersion is finished.

And, now for the reclamation —
In the morning we can see pandal parts floating down the river.

DSC_0264 DSC_0289The cleanup and recycling begins—








Television news teams on location at Babughat to report on the efforts to contain the pandal debris.


By 4pm, Babughat is completely free of debris and prepared for this evening’s immersions.


Just a few more pandals…..

This post is a gallery of Durga Puja pandal image highlights from our explorations of Kolkata pandals throughout the following three days of the holiday.   We admired some pandals for the beauty and creativity of their designs, and others for the mindbogglingly extensive craftsmanship that was required for their creation!

A South Kolkata pandal decorated entirely using braided jute.





A Central Kolkata gilded beauty –




With images that are highly realistic — this pandal is also non-traditional in the sense that it includes many other figures besides  the traditional scene of Durga, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik, Mahisasura, and the Lion.  Gods such as Brahma are also present, in addition to several human and animal onlookers.

DSC_0449Durga’s lion atop Mahisharsura, the Buffalo Demon


Amazing chandelier!


In South Kolkata, a hybrid pandal of  peacock, boat, and stone temple



the “boat’s” interior decorations


DSC_0139A priest performs the traditional rites at the foot of this pandal’s Durga image.


Waiting in line to go inside this monumental pandal near College Street, the famous central Kolkata street of booksellers.

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The Durga pandal, surrounded by the stony-textured interior


The figures of this pandal also include a few image-makers, who are now forever putting the final touches on the pandal.


And out the exit we go!  In the larger pandals, it is often very difficult to stay for a long time and enjoy the Durga pandal images, due to the numbers of people visiting, and the often very tight crowd controls.  In a couple of the larger pandals that we visited, we spent over an hour reaching the inside of the pandal, only to have about ten seconds to look, before traffic volunteers directed us to the exit.   However, in many of the community pandals, we were welcome to sit and spend as much time as we wanted.


Enjoying the camaraderie and hospitality of a community pandal.





DSCN4043Stan and I enjoyed a delicious lunch and great conversation with the community members sponsoring this pandal near Park Circus.



Durga pandal of a central Kolkata home, where Stan and I were invited in to share a bounty of homemade traditional sweets.

Soon the end of this holiday will come, and Durga will return home, after the pandals are physically and/or ritually immersed in flowing water.

Durga Puja

This first day of Durga Puja is also known as Maha Shasthi, and during this day a series of rituals are performed to symbolically awaken Durga.  For more information on the rituals of Durga Puja and their timings, check out

http://www.bangalinet.com/pujacalendar.htm or http://www.durga-pujas.com/shashti.shtml.

For today’s pandal-hopping, Stan and I decided to return to Kumartuli, particularly to view the final installation of Dilip-da’s Durga pandal at the Shovabazar Rajbari.

DSC_0005Waiting outside the Rajbari for the pandal viewing to begin later that evening.

DSC_0018First glimpse of Durga

DSC_0319The Durga pandal with all of the clothing, headdresses, jewelry and other props, except – Durga’s hands are yet to be holding their ten weapons.



Here’s the Ganesha, side by side with his earlier photo!

DSC_0115A short distance from the Shovabazar Rajbari was this mountain-themed pandal, studded with giant heads.  A few close-ups follow:




Inside, a contemporary rendition of the Durga scene using near life-sized figures (sadly, some other pandal hoppers’ heads are blocking my view of Kartik and Ganesha).

At the foot of this installation is a tiny traditional Durga pandal.



Around Kumartuli and pretty much everywhere in Kolkata, you will find advertisements using Durga to sell products and services.  These photos show ads selling underwear, health care, and food.




Another lotus-themed pandal!


This Durga has a cartoon-character quality.


DSC_0251   Fabulous chandelier


On our way back to the metro, we stopped to check out one more traditional community pandal, tucked into a lane.  It was full of energetic and exuberant children!   Their Durga is below.





When we peeked into some of the Kumartuli workshops, some image-makers were already hard at work on gigantic pandals for Kali Puja, which takes place in a few weeks’ time.





Beauty and Chaos

“Beauty and Chaos”  – one way to describe that which is Durga Puja!

We heard this phrase first from photographer Dev Nayak,  when Stan and I met him while undergoing some serious “pandal-hopping” with Partha Dey in South Kolkata.  Dev’s actually comment was, “Beauty and chaos, in India you can’t have one without the other!”

It’s Monday evening, the day before Durga Puja celebrations are in full force for the next five days.  Even so, as the evening progresses, the streets began to swell with people eager to preview this year’s creations.  Pandals (the name for the structures that are build to house the Durga Puja sculptures) are everywhere, in the numerous parks, jutting out into the street, tucked into every possible nook and cranny.


This most spectacular of spectacles could be likened to a combination of Disney World, Las Vegas, and Burning Man (sans nudity).  We saw everything from the grandest commercial extravaganzas to tiny, lovingly heartfelt private family shrines (the truth: these are my faves).  The estimate that I’d heard several times was upwards of 15000 Durga images in Kolkata alone!  Most pandals are sponsored by clubs and other local community organizations, with some sponsorship from local businesses.


The biggest, most elaborate pandals usually have snagged big corporate sponsorships, are themed, and often have renowned artists and designers at their organizational helms.  The planning for next year’s big-budget pandals begins almost immediately after the prior year’s celebrations!  There are also many sponsored pandal contests, with celebrities and other prominent personages as their judges.  At the heart of each pandal, somewhere within, often underneath a plethora of clothing, hair, props, and other decorations, are the clay, straw, and bamboo figures that brought me to Kolkata.

Enough chatter for the moment, yes?  Time to show you some pics!


Enter into a giant lotus with whirling imagery




Durga looms above it all

DSC_0248Insanely crafted, metal leaf-covered Buddhist temple-inspired pandal



A glimpse of a golden Durga inside


 Below is a pandal dedicated to late Bollywood actress Suchitra Sen, who died earlier this year.DSC_0065_01






A smaller, but charming pandal with figurative columns



I’ve been enjoying the chandeliers of each pandal – they are often over the top!


 Community-sponsored pandal



Walkway towards family puja pandal of a very sweet and welcoming retired doctor.


His Durga pandal is below.


And below is an example of some of the fabulously creative decorated walkways intended to entice viewers towards a pandal


More Durga Puja tomorrow……


The countdown to Durga Puja is well underway by Mahalaya,  which is observed seven days before (September 23rd for 2014).  It’s on Mahalaya that preparations for Durga Puja reach their final stages, and it’s believed that on this day Durga, the goddess of supreme power, descends to earth.  One older custom still observed by some is the painting of Durga’s eyes on this day, as a symbol of her invocation and impending presence.

On Mahalaya, my husband Stan and I paid an early morning visit  to the Shovabazar Rajbari.  Dilipda’s Durga sculptural tableauxl had been painted and dressed, but final details, such as hair and weapons or instruments that the gods and goddess hold in their hands, have not yet been added.  While we were there, we encountered Sri Krishna Deb, the community organizer for the Shovabazar’s pandal presentation.  Sri Deb graciously invited us to attend the community’s Mahalaya celebrations that evening!

When we returned in the evening, the celebration was getting underway with a beautiful ceremony in which many small oil-filled clay dishes were lit.



After the lamps were lit, Sri Deb rang the puja bell.  Far in the distance (center of the  photograph) you can see a priest sitting on the ground and performing the evening’s rites.







Then began a lovely musical program including members throughout the Shovabazar community, beginning with the youngest members, and progressing to the most accomplished dancers and musicians.




IMG_2218Invoking Durga through dance!

Vishwakarma, the Divine Architect

It’s September 17th as well as my fourth visit to the Shovabazar — now Durga Puja is less than two weeks away!  Dilipda’s sculpture has fully dried, been painted with a white undercoat, and now the application of color on the figures, as well as additional painted imagery, has begun.


Heading out to other workshops of Kumartuli, I again saw images in every stage of creation, from straw and bamboo beginnings to the the finishing stages of paint, clothing, jewels, and other accessories.

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Today  is also Vishwakarma Day.  Vishwakarma is the god of engineering and tools,  He’s also called the divine architect or divine carpenter, and his day of reverence is observed in a number of Indian states, including West Bengal, by engineers, architects, mechanics, artisans, craftspeople, factory workers, etc.   His devotees pray for success, increased productivity and for the smooth workings of their machinery/technical processes; many also worship the tools of their respective crafts.

The Mahabharata, one of the two great Sanskrit epic poems of ancient India, describes Vishwakarma as wearing a crown and loads of gold jewelry, and holding a water-pot, a book, a noose and craftsman’s tools in his four hands.

As I moved through Kumartuli today, I saw many shrines with statues and pictures of Vishwakarma.  A few examples follow.




I also enjoyed seeing the shrine below, which was created by the engineers and mechanics working at the United States Consulate.




Kumartuli – the second and third visits

With great excitement, I returned to Kolkata at the end of the first week of September, specifically to observe Dilipda and his assistants in the next stages of work on their Durga Puja sculptures at the Shovabazar Rajbari.


In the above photo, Dilipda’s assistant,  Netal Pal, is adding the second layer of smooth clay to this roughed-out form of Ganesha. You might remember from an earlier post that this Durga Puja tableaux of images had been started about a month ago, and had been given several weeks to slowly dry.

Below, Dilipda’s other assistant, Bishonal Pal, works on adding the second clay layer to the Durga form that is central to the entire tableaux, or .


When I returned the next afternoon, Netal Pal was sitting on the floor with a chunk of clay from which he was modeling the hands and feet for all of the figures.

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Then — Netal and Bishonal began to add the hands and feet to each figure, ending with Durga’s ten hands — and for me a magical energy filled the Rajbari.  I felt an intense need to stay and observe until Durga’s final hand was attached and secured to her tenth wrist.

IMG_0732Ganesha (above), now fully detailed and needing just one more hand!

IMG_2072Bishonal Pal works on Lakshmi and Netal Pal works on Kartik.

IMG_2078 Netal Pal works on Durga’s hands


In the above photo, Dilipda is working on refining the details of the images.  His images are structured in what several people have referred to as the “traditional” style.  However, regardless of the style in which the figures are rendered, most Durga Puja sculpture groupings have the following images (I’m listing them in bold from left to right):  Ganesha; Lakshmi; Durga; below Durga is her Lion, who along with Durga, is attacking Mahishasura, the Buffalo Demon; Saraswati, and Kartik.  Often Mahishasura will be emerging from a buffalo form (he is after all, half man and half buffalo).  Below is a photo of another Kumartuli work-in-process where the buffalo imagery is more apparent (under Mahishasura but not painted white).


Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik also have puja celebrations specifically dedicated to them at some point during the year. The timings for when the festivals take place are based on the positioning of the sun and moon, and not on a specific calendar date.  Timings are available for past, present and future years from websites such as http://www.drikpanchang.com/ .

Often referred to as Durga’s children:
Ganesha is the god of beginnings, good fortune, and the removal of obstacles;
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, love and prosperity;
Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, and the creative arts;
Kartik is the god of war.

Kumartuli – the first visit

On the morning of my second day in India, I had the great fortune to make my first trip to Kumartuli, which is a neighborhood of image-makers that is located slightly north of the center of Kolkata. Leading the way was the delightful Partha Dey, a Kolkata native and visual artist who was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Iowa a few years ago.

Our first stop was at the Shovabazar Rajbari (raj=king, bari=house) to meet Dilipda, a friend of Partha’s and the well-known sculptor who was currently in the process of creating the Durga  sculptural tableaux for the annual Shovabazar Rajbari’s Durga Puja celebrations.   He had already created his figures through the first stage of rough clay and straw formation, so we made arrangements for me to come back when Dilipda would begin his next stage of work.

Next we wandered through the main area of Kumartuli, with narrow streets such as this one,

typical kumartuli street/alley
lined with the workshops of many image-makers. Some workshops are tiny spaces, some are so narrow that we marveled at how the sculptors can gain any sort of perspective on the figures as they work! Look at the size of some these sculptures!

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In the time before I left for India, I had been concerned that I was arriving so close to the date of the celebrations that all of the images being made for Durga Puja would be so far underway that I would miss the chance to witness the whole process. Happily, these concerns were unfounded! Images were in every state of progress.

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The foundation of each image is built using split bamboo as a support structure, to which basic forms of straw wrapped with jute are added to make the rough figure.  Then a first layer of clay mixed with straw for strength, is added to the straw figure.  Once this dries, a second layer of smooth clay (in Kumartuli, this clay is taken from the banks of the Hooghly river) is added to the image to allow for more  refinement and detailing.  The photo below depicts this difference between clay/straw and smooth clay layers in two Ganesha images.


Workshops are everywhere, in houses, shops, street side, and even right next to the train tracks.



So at this point, some may ask, ”Who is Durga?”  And, “Why is all of this work being done on her behalf?”  IMG_1555

As described by Nilima Chitgopekar in The Book of Durga, “Myths associated with her (Durga’s) origin name her as Shakti—the female manifestation of cosmic energy—created by the fusion of the fierce energies of all the male gods and stronger than their combined strength.  She is the scourge of demons, as she is protectress of the realms of gods and humans.  Her anger is terrifying, her lust for victory in war overwhelming, on the battlefield she is merciless, even savage.  Yet she may just as easily transform into the consort of Shiva, daughter of the mountains, sister of the gods, or mother of her four children and of all mankind.”

I’m excited to learn more in the coming weeks before Durga Puja.