Experiencing one of the most illustrious festival of India - Durga Puja, is something that every avid traveller looks forward to. And indeed! The craze has already set in motion for the 2018 version.

Durga Puja in Kolkata is a massive occasion for not just Bengalis. Increasingly and with ever growing velocity centring the Puja, this one-of-its-kind festival has left an indelible imprint in the heart and minds of the global community. No wonder, there will always be a sizeable number of foreign tourists descending in Kolkata just days ahead of this grand celebration of life. For Bengali folks, Durga Puja is the time to unite with friends and families. Puja time is time for camaraderie, solidarity and amity.

As the cultural capital of India, Kolkata during the Puja defies the onslaught of modernity and this is one period when the number of men and women dressed in traditional attires outnumbers people who dress in tune with contemporary designer themes. Kolkata explodes with joy de vivre and why not ? Close to a thousand pandals are erected and decorated with diverse themes - all depicting the infinite aura of goddess Durga . Millions of pandal-hoppers touchdown in Kolkata making it one of the largest festivals in the world.

Must-Visit Puja Pandals for 2018

Kumartuli Park
This is one of Kolkata’s most outstanding Durga Utsav pandals. Located in North Kolkata in close proximity to the Sovabazar Ferry, the Kumartuli Park Puja has been at the forefront when it comes to showcasing fusion art. This prestigious Puja Pandal will be celebrating its 23rd year. Make no mistake, Kumartulti Park might be young in Kolkata’s Puja landscape, but it does pack a punch. Year after year, Kumartuli has highlighted the very best of India’s architectural grandeur and in terms of crowd numbers, this is one pandal that draws the highest. The Kumartuli Park is set on the backdrop of Kolkata’s most cultured corridor, which has been the residence of renowned artisans for several centuries. As you walk your way across the dingy and narrow lanes, you will come across artisan’s colonies that for generations together have eked out a living by carving idols of Indian gods and goddesses.

Manicktala Chaltabagan Lohapatty Durga Puja
This unputdownable Puja pandal will step into its 73rd year and in the past has carved a niche for itself with its brand of innovations. No wonder, honours and recognitions have come its way - Best Puja in the year 1997, Best Artisan in the year 2002 to name just a few. Manicktala Chaltabagan Lohapatty Durga Puja owes its origin to its dynamic Founder Shri Lakhi Chand Jaiswal, who is all of 87 years now. Way back in the year 1943, this visionary merchant conceived of celebrating Durga Puja in his own backyard and over the past several decades, this Puja pandal has gone from strength to strength and has positioned itself as one of Kolkata’s most impressive pandals. The most talked about theme here is the Dhak contest, Dhunuchi Nach and Sindoor Khela.

Bagbazaar Sarbojonin Durgotsav
Bagbazaar happens to be Kolkata’s Spiritual hub, where Holy Mother Sarada Devi used to live and Ramkrishna Paramahansa the great spiritual avatar had also set foot here on many occasions, not to speak of Swami Vivekananda - India’s cyclonic monk. Bagbazaar Sarbojonin Durgotsav is easily one of Kolkata’s oldest Durga Puja pandals In the days of yore, this puja used to be celebrated in the outer precincts of the local zamindar’s residence. The puja pandal is now erected in close proximity to the Bagbazaar Launch Ferry Ghat. The distinctive feature that separates this puja pandal from the rest is its singular focus Bengal’s rich virile past. Exclusive dance events that reflect Bengal’s cultural past is the highpoint of this rather distinctive Puja pandal.

Ekdalia Evergreen Durga Puja Club
Ekdalia Evergreen, located strategically at Gariahat has been an out and out favourite with Puja aficionados, due largely to its patronage for Kolkata’s artistic heritage. Year after year, this vibrant Puja pandal has been showcasing India’s age old temple architecture. Ekdalia is synonymous with avant-garde lighting arrangement and elegantly designed interiors.

Sabarna Roy Chowdhury Durgotsav
When it comes to family patronised Durga Puja, the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury Durgotsav is easily one of the best managed. This is one of the oldest household pujas in Kolkata and ideally located in Behala, not too far from away from Saurav Ganguly’s magnificent mansion. This puja dates back to 1610 and owes its origin to Lakshmikanta Ray Mazumdar. An integral part of the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury’s Puja is its majestic rituals in honour of mother goddess Duga. The antique wooden scaffold of the Durga is carefully preserved as are the priceless “Chalchitras” that offers a truly majestic backdrop to the idols. Try to be there at the immersion event at Babu Ghat, which is every bit splendid.

College Square Sarbojanin Durgotsav
College Square Sarbojanin Durgotsav has been in existence for more than half a century. While the decor is inspiring, the lighting display is every bit innovative and has drawn rave reviews from lighting experts from some of the Western world’s brightest minds. However, it isn’t easy to enter the main puja premises due to the surging crowds. Often one has to wait for hours together to actually be inside the pandal premise. The pool, bang on the centre of College Square offers a truly surreal element with the light rays illuminated on the water body. Visiting Kolkata during the Puja is an assault on your senses and the 2018 edition will be just that. Already, plans are afoot to showcase Deepika Padukone’s “Padmaavat” and it should come as no surprise to you if you come across a perfect replica of the magnificent Chittorgarh Fort of Rajasthan while pandal hopping in Kolkata’s upmarket Salt Lake area. This is Kolkata’s inimitable way of paying tribute to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s celebrated “Padmavaat” thriller. Sreebhumi Sporting Club, which is celebrating its 46th year plans to recreate not just the majestic fort but also the costume and other paraphernalia that went into the making of one of India’s most epic box office hit. It must be reiterated that last year, Sreebhumi Sporting Club had showcased intriguing scenes from Bahubali thriller that drew record crowds. According to Manish Rao, a Committee member of the Club - "This time, our pandal will be based on Padmaavat. Around three to four lakh people visit our pandal daily, during the festival. We hope, this time, Padmaavat will do well. We are trying to attract more and more people."

This year’s Puja fervour will transcend to an altogether different level, with a perceptible Chineese essence. The Chinese Consulate Kolkata in collaboration with BJ Block Sarodtsav Committee is all set to highlight the customs and traditions of China’s Yunnan Province. According to Ma Zhanwu, Honourable Consul General of the People’s Republic of China in Kolkata - “It is a good opportunity to promote cultural exchange between the two nations”. The pandal in all likelihood will be designed in the form of a ‘hulu’ (Chinese bottle gourd) which is believed to promote happiness and prosperity as per Chineese beliefs. The very best of ancient China’s art, music, dance and food will be on display at the venue. The Consul General is absolutely upbeat about China’s involvement with this year’s Durga Puja in Kolkata, which is well reflected in his enthusiastic response to the media - “Durga is not unknown in Chinese culture. Many temples in China have pictures of her, popular as Nan Jin Mu, which means the formidable goddess who defeats enemies.” For a truly exclusive Chineese flavour during this year’s Durga Puja, artistes from China will be performing during all the four days of puja. Exciting musical performances inclusive of the ‘Hulusi’, or cucurbit flute to sumptuous Chinese culinary treats will be on offer for visitors to experience Chinese culture up close.

Puja Gastronomy
Kolkatans are die hard foodies and to set the culinary temperatures soaring in the City-of-Joy, Dashabhuja - one of Kolkata’s best known culinary brand is all set to open an exclusive Durga Puja themed restaurant at its strategically located eatery at, 3rd Floor, Old Court House Corner building. Dashabhuja is to Bengalis what McDonald is to Americans. This year this historical eatery will come out with all guns blazing - exclusively decorated overhead canopies, depiction of varied forms of the goddess, simulating a dining experience by the marquee and a carefully selected soundtrack consisting of dhak beats is all set to take Kolkata by storm. The menu will consist of traditional Bengali treats starting with Puja Bhog (Kichdi & Labra) and gradually expanding to the truly sumptuous spread of mutton curry, 'luchis', 'chanar paturi', rice, and 'payesh'.

The Bengali and his sweet is inseparable and Dashabhuja will offer Puja-specific main course consisting of a stupendous variety of melt-in-mouth "Pujor Misti" like - 'chandrapuli', 'narkelnaru', 'balushai', to name just a few. According to Sayak Raj, the owner, who conceived this innovative gastronomy platform -“In my new project, I thought of connecting the two - food & festivity. This is the first of its kind project that would let you soak in the carnival spirit of the puja in Bengal, throughout the year".The restaurant was ceremonially inaugurated by legendary Indian classical dancer Uday Shankar's daughter and actress Mamata Shankar a month back and already the reverberations have started gathering in intensity amongst Kolkata’s food connoisseurs.

Location: Dashabhuja, 3rd Floor, Old Court House Corner building
Timings: 12. p.m. to 10 p.m. (lunch), 7.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. (dinner)
Cost: Meal for two at Rs 800-1000 plus taxes

Kumartuli―Where the Goddess Comes Alive

Mother Goddess Durga is the epitome of beauty. As a traveller and a proud Bengali I have often wondered, how come the idols are so beautiful, so gorgeous, so angel-like! Who are behind such tremendously intricate art forms? Where do they live? What materials do they use to craft such divine works of art year after year? As a Travel Writer, these questions have always kept me guessing and intrigued, until I decided to take a walk down the alleyways of Kumartuli.

Yes, Kumartuli - Where Gods are crafted and given shape to be worshipped by millions. Not just in Kolkata, not just in Bengal...In fact way beyond the seven seas.... I still remember that mysterious walk to Kumartuli in the year 2012. Must have been in the month of September and the hot blazing afternoon sun didn’t make matters easy. As I entered through a nondescript by lane, I could see a cluster of colonies aka “Karigar Para” in Bengali parlance, which has evolved and been rechristened as Kumartuli Potters Town in recent years.

This Potters Town, I was told, has been in existence for 300 years now and close to 200 potters’ families are domiciled here and there only source of livelihood is idol-making. Sounds intriguing isn’t it? Idol-making to eke out a living? Eh! In today’s urbanised landscape? Indeed this is the fact of the matter. These sculptors or idol makers have defied the ravages of modernity and urbanization to hold on to their traditional art form tooth & nail for centuries together to offer humanity with idols to worship and garner some peace in an increasingly hostile universe.

What Makes Kumartuli So Damn “Kaptivating”
The karigars or artists of Kumartuli use raw clay as the primary ingredient to craft idols of gods and goddesses. They are a close knit community and take immense pride in their profession. Try to enter their workshop spaces and even better if you strike up a conversation. If you know Bengali, no problem. If language is a barrier, hire the services of a guide from the West Bengal Tourism Department. You will come across unending rows of idols stacked meticulously. The height varies, usually ranging between 18 feet to 20 feet. After the British East India Company left Kolkata for Delhi, this part of Kolkata witnessed the ugly spectre of urbanisation. In spite of the advent of modernity, the sculptors of Kumartuli, by dint of their superlative imagination, have kept pace with the demands of changing time.

Witnessing the process of idol making at Kumartuli is an introduction to ancient Indian artistic ethos with Karigars going into the sculpting mode after performing the holy “Garanlkathamo Puja” which incidentally coincides with the day of Rath Yatra. The thousand year old Indian Puja rituals blaze the modern inquisitive mind and the devotion that is inherent in the minds of the Karigars is truly a humble spiritual experience - worshipping the tools, special Puja of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi to name just a few. Even the dresses and accessories of the idols are consecrated to the almighty god.

Kumartuli is a unique place. Emancipating for the spirit and very elevating culturally. It is worth your while to venture into this mysterious cultural cauldron of Kolkata and if you can brave the narrow crowded lanes and bylanes, you can rest assured of having a date with divinity. This part of Kolkata is the bastion of “Karigars” / Sculptors who have diligently been crafting idols of gods and goddesses generations together using clay in its rawest form to eke out idols that are simply stupendous in terms of beauty, glamour and glitz. The city of London is blessed with Madame Tussauds’ and it took a visionary wax sculptor of the stature of Marie Tussaud to come up with one of the world’s most amazing wax sculptor gallery way back in the year 1835.

As a proud Bengali, I shall wait in anticipation for the day when Kolkata’s Kumartuli will find a patron to convert Potters Town into a veritable museum of Clay Sculptors who will sculpt, chisel and give divine shapes to the figures of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.

Getting There:
Hire a taxi. Pre-paid taxis are readily available in Kolkata, and the fare might hover around INR 140 to 200.

If you choose public transport, there are are buses and trains that connects Kumartuli. The nearest Metro station is Sovabazar. Sovabazar Ghat(Jetty) is located in close proximity to Kumartuli and you would do well to embark on a leisurely walk by the riverside and bask in the architectural glory of Kolkata’s Gothic and Victorian style mansions built by the British. A short boat ride will take you to Kolkata central..

Best Time To Visit Kumartuli:
Kumartuli is best visited during the months from June to January, which is when most Hindu festivals are celebrated. The mother of all festivals is undoubtedly the Durga Puja. However, bear in mind that the pre-Puja ambience here is rather frenzied, as sculptors are busy giving finishing touches to the idols.