October 06, 2014

Durga Puja, CR Park, Delhi

“Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Matri rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu Shakti rupena samsthita
Ya Devi sarva bhutesu Shanti rupena samsthita
Namestasyai Namestasyai Namestasyai Namoh Namah”

“The goddess who is omnipresent as the personification of universal mother
The goddess who is omnipresent as the embodiment of power
The goddess who is omnipresent as the symbol of peace
I bow to her, I bow to her, I bow to her”

Glitter, glitter! (CR Park Kali Bari Puja, 2014)

Come October and the streets of Chittaranjan Park locality (henceforth referred to as CR Park), adoringly christened “Delhi’s mini-Bengal”, delightfully transform into a whirlwind of colors, textures, aromas and culinary pleasures and the entire area comes alive with the sounds of children’s laughter, elderly gossips, trance-inducing religious hymns and gyrating beats of drums that refuse to die down even in the late hours of night – Durga Puja is here and it is that time of the year when the Bengali population gears up to adore and offer obeisance to Goddess Durga, the sophisticated Hindu feminine deity, and in this profound tradition they are joined by hundreds of thousands of residents of the city who turn up at CR Park for a taste of the enviable culture and delectable culinary delights that the Bengalis are renowned for. Though the whole place wears a festive look complete with lights, music and crowds that tend to spill out on the arterial roads and side lanes, the mainstay of the wonderful celebrations remain the numerous, brilliantly-lit grand “pandals” (makeshift temples composed of cloth and paper over a bamboo framework) which are erected in the larger community parks and temple arenas and house idols of the Goddess and her hallowed accomplices – it is around these pandals that it appears that a major fair is in progress where there are joyrides, restaurants, food stalls, shopping counters and souvenir stalls – in fact, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, each of these extravagant temporary structures, raised primarily through corporate sponsorship (with nominal religio-charitable donations to indicate collective social participation), are constructed at the cost of several million rupees after immense thought and enormous labor and bear a uniquely distinctive and often thematic appearance which eventually culminates into being a major draw for the visitors, spiritual-seekers and photographers for whom this entire festival of colors, lights and humanity is an offer to delve some more into the city’s inconceivably diverse culture and traditions. I have a confession to make before I start discussing the event and the legends behind it – though I spent the last 4 years in Calcutta, I never once witnessed Durga Puja (pronounced “Pujo”) there nor did any of my friends! We kept putting it off for final year and would rush back home in the month-long vacations in each of the three preceding years, but as it happened, I met with the terrible accident just before the celebrations last year while on the way to attend them and all my friends had to stay with me in the hospital for the fortnight that I was admitted and couldn’t enjoy themselves either. We really did want to see Calcutta’s famed theme-based pandals where Egyptian pyramids and several Disneyland jostle for space with palatial mansions and quirky pavilions! Sorry guys!

The Goddess and her children (CR Park B-Block Puja, 2014)

This happened to be my second time attending the festivities in CR Park – the first was in 2011 but I didn’t yet have a camera back then, so essentially this is the first time I have photographic memories of the entire event. Though the puja is held in several locations throughout the city and its numerous suburbs, the one at CR Park, which happens to be the largest pocket of Bengali population settled in Delhi, is definitely the grandest and consists of over half a dozen major pandals, all located in close vicinity to each other so the devotees could easily walk from one to another. Such massive crowds gather to attend the 4-day long celebrations that even the major streets become clogged and are shut down for vehicular entry from late-afternoon onwards. If the kilometers-long snaking, slithering lines of devotees queuing up to enter the pandals and view the Goddess seated with complete regalia and adornments in unique, thematic settings are any witness, the festival has become amazingly popular amongst Delhi’s populace and attracts people irrespective of any distinction of religion, gender or beliefs. Apart from the visual gratification at witnessing these temporary megaliths of light and color that prove to be wonderfully appealing, the other major draw is the huge numbers of beautiful girls who arrive at the pandals attired in dazzling traditional dresses and appearing fashion Goddesses themselves – it is no wonder that the entire locality teems with thousands of young boys rushing here and there following the girls and the entire event is jocularly termed as “Bengali matchmaking party”! Though the festivities begin from the sixth day (“Shashti”) of Navaratris and continue till the ninth following which the idols are immersed in the river Yamuna or a large pond in any part of the city on the tenth day (“Dashami”), the best time to visit is the evening of the eighth day when the event is at its peak, there are several hundred thousand visitors thronging the pandals and the streets are filled with queues of devotees rushing from one pandal to the next – it is in fact best to follow the queues as they would eventually lead one up to the next pandal and then the next and so on. The prayers and celebrations continue entire night and all this while there are thousands on the streets, but we, being students not allowed to stay out all night while at home (I miss the freedom that hostels afford!), generally go for pandal-hopping from 6-10 pm.

Framed (Janak Puri Kali Bari Puja, 2012)

Of the major areas in the locality where the pandals are hosted, the most prominent are the Kalibari Society which is associated and adjacent to the traditionally designed CR Park Kali Bari (Goddess Kali temple), the Cooperative Society and the K and B Blocks – most of the city-based pandals even have their own facebook pages where details and timings of the events are shared along with mindboggling photographs. The Kalibari Society pandal is possibly the largest in the area though the idols of the Goddess and her children they adorn the pandals with are nearly identical every year except for minor differences in the sartorial ornamentation – the pandal is literally massive and takes the form of a majestic, brilliantly-lit shamiana decorated with floral motifs and large chandeliers with the idols and the seating arrangements alongside placed on one side and the food stalls and sales counters outside the pandal on the grassy route leading to it. Sadly, being a major attraction, the pandal also tends to get unbelievably crowded and the same proves a major disadvantage if photography is the purpose, also since the area immediately opposite the idols is dedicated to seating arrangements for the managing committee members and locality residents who get tremendously agitated if disturbed! The B-Block Puja is another major draw every year – this time around, the pandal was constructed as an imitation of a vibrant red “kalash” (ceremonial sacred pot with a coconut placed in its mouth) decorated with colorful floral motifs and bell appendages along the arched entrance – the auspicious interiors were strikingly magnificent – the splendid lightning and the huge paper flowers gracing the roof along with bands of smaller flowers and line flourishes running the length of the entire arena proved spellbindingly gorgeous. The beautiful idols, thoroughly garlanded and lit up with brilliant incandescent bulbs, placed in the vibrant sanctum and peeping through the fragrant incense smoke presented a scene that would easily make one adoringly lapse into silent reminiscences of movie scenes that depict India as a land of religion and spirituality. If that’s not enough, Cooperative Society comes up with an unusual theme every year that would put to shame any visual designer – this time, the theme was “Aqua” and the entire pandal was done with a multitude of shades of blue with waves, flourishes and large spherical white lamps breaking the monotony; large displays of corals and sea life lined the colossal sanctuary at the end of which sat the distinctive idols flanked by vibrantly-colorful corals, sea horses and fishes – it prompted my friends to quip that the Bengalis are obsessed with their fishes (yes, we were served fish curry in hostel every single afternoon and often at night too!), but the pandal was so indescribably stunning that it literally proved to be an eye-opener for everyone who stepped within. Meenakshi Lekhi, Member of Parliament, was the chief guest at the Cooperative Society puja this year and we were able to listen to her short speech introducing the government’s recently launched “Swacch Bharat” (“Clean India”) initiative just before exiting.

Aqua! (Cooperative Society Puja, 2014)

Apart from these, there are numerous smaller pandals too (like Pocket-52) where one can easily sit down and gossip with friends without being disturbed by the humongous crowds or continuous whistles of guards prompting devotees to exit the arena once they are done with the viewing so others too could enter the confined space. The heartwarming prayers and rhythmic chanting of verses to the tunes of cymbals and bells is interspersed with dances where women (unfailingly dressed in fine red and white bordered sarees) and occasionally men too use earthen bowls with coal smoking-smoldering within as props to be held in hands and mouth; throughout the prayers, many women also produce heartrending shrieks which are said to be the battle cries of Goddess Durga and are regarded as conducive to feminine reproductive fertility; the ritualistic Dhaak players with their elongated, leather-encased, colorful feather-surmounted drums propped against their backs set the beats for the prayers/dances and one’s heart fervently goes dhak-dhak-thump with each cycle of beats. Apart from these, extravagant Durga Puja celebrations are also held in other parts of the city like Kashmere Gate, Minto Road, Janak Puri and Dwarka. The puja at Janak Puri Kali Bari is very traditional and does not boast of fancy pandals or quirky themes, as apparent from some of the photos shared in this article. The Kali Bari is located just a stone’s throw away from my maternal uncle’s residence and I have been attending the festivities there for the last 3-4 years – more than the magnificently ornamented idols sculpted in varied boon-conferring poses and armed with a plethora of weaponry, the attraction here are the food stalls set up by local Bengali residents who serve homemade traditional Bengali fare, continental dishes and quirky fusions of the two! But be it any part of the city, the pandals and the temples take the form of energetic miniature fairs which have everything for everyone – they are a shopper’s delight, a devotee’s dream, a retailer’s paradise and a child’s playground!

Lights! (Janak Puri Kali Bari Puja, 2012)

The traditions, like several others, have begun to involve modern commercial touches – with the idols and pandals getting bigger and more superbly ornamented every year, the overall cost of setting up the pandals has been skyrocketing thereby limiting the number of pujas in the city as well as their being restricted to affluent pockets with an ability to score corporate sponsorship through advertisements and sale stall bookings; the use of metallic paints, plastics and other toxic materials have begun to pose considerable economic threats, especially to the river and pond ecologies following idol immersion; finally, many of the artists and sculptors face increasingly difficult prospects despite the overall increase in puja budgeting and financing, prompting many of them to exit this hereditary traditional practice that is so intricately associated with the culture and religious existence of the population. Thankfully, some changes are noticeable, especially the initiative of many pandals to minimize or completely eliminate use of ecologically-harmful or non-perishable items and the efforts to incorporate more traditional rituals and organize the events in a manner as close to the original as possible. Also, the organizers have been introducing many events – sports competitions, music concerts, night outs for the elderly, talent shows etc – to make the event more inclusive and entertaining. The puja remains one of the greatest Bengali festivals that the city hosts and it really is worth being there to witness this extravagant parade of culture, celebrations, food and sculptural artwork. After all, it’s just once a year! Joy Maa!

Legends associated with Durga Puja – The Bengali festival, also referred to as “Sarada Utsova” (“autumnal worship”), is in continuation with Navaratri celebrations that are observed throughout the country in different forms. The first day of Navaratris is known as “Mahalaya” in Bengali culture and on this particular day the devotees reverentially invite the Goddess to descend to earth with her children; amidst much fanfare, the sculptors paint the all-seeing eyes of the idols (“Chakshu-daan”) and the general population heads to a temple or one of the sacred shrines at the banks of the holy river Ganga to pray for the souls of their ancestors and perform appeasing rituals. Married women devotees indulge in a colorful play where they smear each other with vermilion powder (“sindoor-kheli”) on the tenth day (“Dashami”) of the Puja; later the idols are carried in elaborate processions to be immersed in the river (as emblematic of her returning to her abode only to return next year). The tenth (last) day of Navaratris is also celebrated throughout the country as “Vijayadashmi” or the celebration of the victory of good over evil since this is also the day when the ancient king Rama, an ideal son-husband-warrior-statesman-emperor-scholar and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God of life and nourishment), defeated the mighty demon lord Ravana whose effigies are still set afire throughout the country as symbolic of defeating and incinerating evil practices from one’s mind as well as society. These aspects of the festival have been covered in detail in separate articles here –

"Kalash" - Ceremonial pot shaped pandal (CR Park B-Block Puja, 2014)

Mythological lore credits the unparalleled rage exhibited by the trinity of Hindu deity pantheon – Brahma (creator of universe), Vishnu (nourisher) and Shiva (destroyer) – as responsible for the emergence of the primordial, all-consuming universal energy that attained feminine appearance as Goddess Durga when they received information of the defeat of the Gods and their armies at the hands of the demon lord Mahishasura. Mahishasura is said to have been born from the copulation of a demon and a woman cursed to exist as a buffalo (Mahishi) and thus could easily transform to either appearance; moreover he possessed immense physical and meditative strength that was a result of extreme penances that he undertook to impress Gods into granting him boons, thus ensuring his near invincibility. In his arrogance, when he challenged and vanquished the Gods from heavens, the sacred trinity invoked Goddess Durga who was then equipped with battle gear and weapons by all the chief Gods and Goddesses so she could take the field against Mahishasura’s massive legions which she did with such inconceivable fury and armed with such terrible weaponry in each of her numerous arms that all three worlds shook with her rage and many demon chiefs dropped dead with fear. She and her fierce lion annihilated the entire demon army including mighty Mahishasura himself, but tradition holds that before his death the demon king worshipped the Goddess and impressed her into conferring the honor of having him present everywhere where she is prayed to – thus even today, every Durga idol is depicted in the “Mahishasuramardini” (“Mahishasura slayer”) form with the Goddess's lion straddling a prostrate/dead buffalo and her glittering trident piercing the demon’s muscular body. Apart from the Goddess, Durga Puja pandals also host idols of her children – Ganesha (the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of auspiciousness, beginnings and knowledge, considered to be the son of good-natured, charming Goddess Parvati, an incarnation of Durga), Kartikeya (another son of Parvati, the mighty warrior-commander of divine armies who flies throughout the universe on his peacock), Saraswati (the Goddess of learning, music and scriptures) and Laxmi (the Goddess of wealth and prosperity), thus representing in the five deities the complete manifestation of the divine energy as itself, the protector, the initiator, the knowledge source and the provider of means for the worship. The latter two are often regarded as incarnations as well as divine daughters of the Goddess herself. Mythological texts regard Lord Rama as the first person to worship the Goddess in this period and form when he seeked her guidance in the battle against Ravana which she amply provided leading to the former’s victory which is till date celebrated every year as Vijayadashmi/Dussehra.

Sculptural art! (CR Park Pocket-52 Puja, 2014)

Some suggestions for pandal hopping –
  1. The pandals come up around the sixth day of Navaratris and can be visited then to photograph the idols and the architecture. It is advisable to visit them on the eighth day evening to catch the puja in its truly wild frenzy.
  2. Since the pandals are located within walking distance of each other, wear good shoes since you might have to stay for several hours and walk several kilometers even if visiting only 4-5 pandals. Also be prepared to stand in enormously long queues (we generally find a way to cut in the middle with some excuse – try that, else you will end up in the queue at each pandal for at least half an hour!)
  3. It is best not to take your own vehicles and catch the bus/metro to CR Park/any other pandal destinations in the city, since the roads are generally so choked with people that driving a car/two-wheeler would be near impossible. 
  4. Follow the crowds from one pandal to another if not aware of their locations. It is nonetheless advisable to have a general idea about which ones one wants to visit since otherwise you might end up going in circles between two-three pandals! The best pujas in CR Park are Kali Bari Society, Cooperative Society, Mela Ground, K-Block, B-Block and Dakshin Pali Mela Ground.
  5. Carry as little stuff – handbags, laptops etc – with you as possible since the arenas get tremendously crowded and there is every chance of losing the items. Also take care of wallets and cameras and beware of pickpockets and thieves.
  6. Keep some extra cash if you are a shopaholic and might end up wishing to purchase clay idols and religious decorative items. Try the cuisine, especially the non-vegetarian options like kebabs and fish.

Silver! (Janak Puri Kali Bari Puja, 2014)

How to reach: Take an auto from Nehru Place metro station to CR Park, it would drop you the furthest it can and from here you can simply follow, from pandal to pandal, the crowds massing for the puja. The best time to visit is eighth day evening of Navaratris.
If also interested in attending the puja at Janak Puri Kali Bari: It is best to visit the temple on the sixth day evening of Navaratris. It is located at a walking distance from Tilak Nagar metro station. One can also avail an auto for Janak Puri Choti Sabzi Mandi (Vegetable market) and walk from there on.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: At least 30 minutes per pandal. Best earmark 3-4 hours for pandal hopping including dinner too. One can stay all night and traverse from one to the next if willing to, though the crowds begin thinning around midnight.
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Suggested reading - 

1 comment:

  1. Another wonderful piece. I have never been to a Durga Puja celebration but I have always been curious.

    Thank you.