When tourists visit India, it’s easy for them to feel overwhelmed by how much there is to see and then end up with a superficial experience focusing on big-ticket numbers like the Taj Mahal. While seeing the country’s most majestic monuments is important, you will get a greater understanding of the culture by seeing the artistry and creativity of everyday Indians. Attending religious festivals is one way to do this, but finding them can be a real challenge for the casual traveler.
Calcutta native Partha Banerjee recommends the four-day Hindu festival Durga Puja that takes place every fall all over eastern region of India. Puja is a Sanskrit word for worship and Durga is a goddess who vanquishes the demon Asura with her 10 arms. According to the Bengali Hindu traditions, Mother Goddess Durga comes down from her Himalayan abode on to the plains for those four autumn days, and brings along her children Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik, who each symbolizes a special force.
“The combination of Durga’s warrior image and image of a mother yearly-visiting her parents is purely Bengali, and has little to do with more stringent versions of Hinduism,” says Partha, a NYC-based writer/activist who recently shared his photos of the Indian slums with Travelogged. “Liberal, progressive Bengal is proud to have departed from fundamentalist dogmas, once and for all.”
If you’re concerned that you would feel uncomfortable attending Durga Puja because it’s not your religion, don’t worry, Partha says.
“In West Bengal and Bangladesh (now two different countries partitioned by an arbitrarily-created political border), it’s really more about expressing incredible folk artistry and music rather than the religion itself. That’s the unique, secular perspective of Bengali Hinduism. Appreciative Western minds would love it,” he says.
The colorful decorations will dazzle you, but don’t get too attached. “All the deities and makeshift houses of worship would come down and dissolve after those four happy, festive days,” he says. “That’s the tragedy!”
Partha is working to get a group together to travel at the end of September to see the festivities in Calcutta, Dhaka, West Bengal and Bangladesh. If you’re interested in the trip, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To get an idea of what you’d be seeing, check out his photos below of the 2006 Durga Pura festivities in Calcutta and nearby towns.