By Dominick A. Merle.
I’ve just returned from a near-perfect destination. A touch of Camelot, a side of Shangri-La, or perhaps simply a return to the 70s and TV’s “Happy Days.”
No fears, no anger, no envy, no greed, no prejudices, and the cherry on top---no politics!
But before you start packing, it’s closed for renovations, and it’s open only 10 days a year in the unlikeliest place on earth, Calcutta, often described (unfairly) as the “Hellhole of India.”
Each fall this teeming city of about 25-million lifts up its sari, sweeps all of its troubles under the nearest rug shop, brushes itself off and morphs into Camelot on the Ganges.
The spectacular transformation takes place during an event known as Durga Puja, relatively unknown in North America but rapidly growing in size and popularity each year throughout Asia.
“Durga Puja is waiting to be discovered,” said Jaydeep Mukherjee, a Calcutta travel and tour operator who has been a one-man cheerleading squad selling the event around the globe for the past 10 years. “It is a phenomenon that deserves world attention.”
Just what is this unique happening? Durga Puja is actually a Hindu festival that dates back to the 16th Century. It is celebrated throughout India and most of Asia, but only in Calcutta has it emerged into the most inclusive festival on earth.
From the lowliest slum dweller to the wealthiest businessman, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, even cops and robbers set aside their differences and celebrate as one. The city practically shuts down while Durga Puja takes over and weaves a tranquilizing spell over the celebrants.
An estimated 40-million people attend the 10-day spectacle, lining up day and night to visit the more than 3,000 “pandals” (pavilions) spread across the city to honor the Goddess Durga. The pandals range from simple shrines in poor neighborhoods to huge productions costing in excess of $300,000.
And at the end of the 10th day, all are dismantled and immersed into the Ganges.
The crowds themselves are a sight to behold---serene, smiling, patient, mannerly, joyful, thankful, proud…nary a frown or a cross word.
Rickshaw pullers, of which there are still thousands in Calcutta, save pennies throughout the year to buy a new piece of clothing and enjoy a fancy restaurant meal during Durga Puja. Seated at the next table might be the wealthy businessman whose company manufactured his rickshaw.
The legend or legends of the birth of Durga Puja is fascinating in itself. After many male gods tried and failed to rid the earth of a monster/creature/demon, someone finally asked, “Why not send a woman?”
Enter the 10-armed Goddess Durga. But the deal was, she had to kill the monster without shedding a single drop of blood because it was feared a new demon would emerge from each drop.
Festival Promoter Jaydeep Mukherjee finished the tale: “Goddess Durga took a pitchfork, killed the demon. Another Goddess helped her drink the blood without spilling a drop.”
Just how inclusive is Durga Puja? Calcutta has a huge red-light district known as Sonagachi, containing more than 250,000 sex workers. Although no official pandals are allowed within Sonagachi, all of the mud and clay used in making the Goddess Durgas comes from the red-light district (something about it being the best quality mud.)
Taking it a step further, the sex workers set up their own unauthorized pandals, including one sponsored by its hermaphrodite community featuring the Goddess Durga statues as both male and female.
And in another strange twist, all of the hair on the goddesses and demons during this Hindu festival is made in the all-Muslim village of Uboberia about a 90-minute drive south of Calcutta. “Village” is an understatement as there are about 300,000 residents and the sole economy is hairpieces for mostly Hindu ceremonies.
“We also do wigs for humans,” Anton, the manager, said as he gave my head the once-over.
It is fitting that Durga Puja has evolved into such a phenomenon in Calcutta, that most maligned of cities. The event takes place throughout India, but put them all together and they would not amount to half the size of Calcutta’s big show.
The city has had a bad rap since the 1950s when missionaries described it as poverty-filled and unsanitary. It was true, but there was a flip side that never saw the light of day.
Against this backdrop of slums and hunger, there were smiles and good manners that defied these conditions. You won’t see these happy faces in New Delhi or Bombay (Mumbai).
I first began visiting Calcutta (now Kolkata) back in the 80s and don’t recall ever seeing a “Greeting from Calcutta” postcard. It probably would have been considered a bad joke.
But then, why does the cream of India’s creative talent---writers, poets, performers---continue to flock and prosper here. And name me another city that has produced four Nobel Prize winners---in English.
Before leaving Calcutta, I stopped by the original Hospice for the Dying and Desitute set up by Mother Teresa in 1952. I had first visited the hospice in 1984. It looked quite the same and I came away with the same mixed feelings of heartwarming joy of watching the volunteers tend to the dying, and sorrow for those being tended.
But both the volunteers and patients had serene, peaceful faces. As I was leaving, I noticed a small wooden table in one corner of the room. Atop it was a 10-armed Mother Durga wearing a saintly smile.
The tiny statue probably came from a neighborhood souvenir shop, but to me, in that setting of both hopelessness and happiness, it looked like the most beautiful pandal in all of Asia, and I’m sure Mother Teresa was smiling as well.
(Dominick A. Merle is co-founder of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn.
and is based in Montreal. Email email@example.com)
For more information on Durga Puja, contact Jaydeep Mukherjee (firstname.lastname@example.org).
For Calcutta, try the website wbtourismgov.in
We stayed at the ITC Sonar, a spacious luxury hotel in center Calcutta (itchotels.in).
We flew British Airways from Montreal via London to India.
Pack light casual clothing, drink only bottled water.
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