Well the festival has been and gone and I am now at Varanasi at the Yogi Lodge listening to John Mclaughlin over the speakers in the empty restaurant area. The owner is called Ahmed with a love of western music and regularly Pink Floyd, Doors and other esoteric ( I imagine to most Indians ) tunes blast out. It is the same hotel that my son and I stayed in 8 months ago after our trip to the Kumbh Mela. Ahmed tells me he is going to Canada next March to work there full time; he wants to see something of the West.
The time in Kolkata was a trying time. It rained heavily most days and, with the extreme humidity, I often returned to my hotel soaked to the skin. The regions I frequented were invariably turned to mud or watery gangetic clay, and spending time at the flower market and the ghats was frustrating, often ankle deep in a variety of oozing and slimy substances. The fringes of these areas were also used frequently as latrines so it does not bear thinking about what I was often wading through. Kumartuli, the fascinating old region where statues of Durga were constructed from skeletons of straw and covered by clay, was less traumatic and always stimulating.
I had grossly underestimated the size and importance of Durga Puja festival in Kolkata. Upon arriving in the West Bengal city advertisements for the Festival were everywhere and the English speaking newspaper pushed under my hotel room door provided full explanations of all the major events, Pujas and Pandalls across the city and instructions as to get to them. The corporate nature of the Festival rapidly became evident too; with most advertisements bearing the name of corporate sponsors including telecommunication and financial services companies.
All around the city workers were pushing hand-carts with lengths of thick bamboo through the busy traffic, eventually depositing their loads at collection sites of bamboo poles. I was to discover these poles were for the making of the Pandals which are large temporary shrines created to house the idols of Durga, often in elaborate and spiritually rich designs. Although mostly traditional, more interpretative and modern designs of the Durga legend are becoming common and the newspaper compared Pandals, giving prominence to the new innovative and daring interpretations.
Despite the feverish excitement, unseasonable daily rain was causing worry that the Festival would be a washout, and meteorological predictions of a possible cyclone over the weekend of the festival dampened the mood further. Kolkata, a sprawling, unfeasibly congested city often constipated at its heart by interminable traffic jams, and breathing the collective breaths of hundreds of thousands of homeless people or those living in slums at the sides of major roads, was holding its breath for better weather.
The downpours were incessant and heavy. Flash flooding occurred at the heart of the city almost instantly and dissipated just as quickly as people, often barefoot in sandals, gingerly splashed through small rivers and seas of water which, although clean when it fell, had quickly co-agulated with the dirt and grime and uncollected refuse in the gutters to become sluices of filth and odious matter. Ankle deep in many places, it was virtually impossible to avoid paddling through the currents and passing cars created waves which undulated up and down peoples shins. Although extremely wet, Kolkata had avoided the third largest cyclone in history ( according to a newspaper I read ) which had hit some 400 miles away, killing some 30 people. The loss of life would have been far higher if not for the early warning of the storm and a huge evacuation which the Indian authorities co-ordinated. Only Katrina and the storm which hit Bengal some ten years, when 10,000 people died, have been greater in severity.
The legend of Durga Puja is very simple. The Hindu Gods created a woman to defeat a demon who had forced the Gods to leave their homeland. The Demon’s only weakness was a vulnerability to attack by a woman, and Durga, a synthesis of all the powerful Gods in a female form, was created specifically to exploit that weakness. The battle lasted for 10 days ( though in legends 1 day in the God’s chronology is equal to a thousand earth years ) before the demon was smited and the Gods could return to their home again. Durga, called the Divine mother, has been feted since.
I queried how best to approach my task of photographing the Festival. My knowledge was essentially basic, and although the newspaper provided practical hints and tips I didn’t really want to travel to and find far flung areas across Kolkata. I quickly learned that the Metro, although providing cheap transport, was often packed to the gills and was at best uncomfortable and at worst horrible. My task, as I had set myself, was to photograph the spiritual nature of Durga Puja and its relationship with the river Ganges. The Ganga is in itself a Goddess and a lodestone for thousands of devotees every day who swear to its purity, despite its murky appearance and ubiquitous scientific research which confirms its pollution with untreated sewage. People come every day to pray, bath, wash and clean their teeth in its waters despite other people, just yards away, urinating and defecating publicly on its banks. Also people elect to die on its riverbanks, be burnt in open funeral pyres and their remains be flushed into the flowing waters, a surefire way of achieving moksha, or Hindu heaven, and be freed from the travails of rebirth and a further bout of suffering another life.
My locus was to be the stretch of Ganges between the Adi Ganga ( the original Ganges which is now a narrow, festering and polluted stretch of river which still bears indications of its former glory in the form of Kalighat temple and several burning ghats ) and Shobobazar, a little north of Kurmantuli where the clay idols are made for this and every other major festival not just for Kolkata but elsewhere in India and idols are also shipped abroad. This is a distance of approximately five miles, but features riverside ghats, the large new Millenium park, the flower market, the Howrah bridge, burning ghats and Kurmantuli. These are all connected by frequent bus services and an old industrial railway line now used as an important part of the inner transport of the city, bisecting slums as it makes it way along the banks of the Ganges. Although I chose to often walk the riverside, when the rain was particularly heavy and my umbrella was temporarily overcome, the other options were welcome.
The Festival was divided up into different days, each of which has a specific spiritual significance and traditional rituals, some of which occurred publicly, but many happened in the privacy of people’s homes in the form of lifestyle changes for a day or two; either a specific meal or abstinence or puja/ritual families followed. Some rituals occurred at dawn, others in the evening or throughout the night. Many of the public celebrations at the ghats were accompanied by the rattling of drums, the blowing of conch shells, the filling of holy vessels with Ganga water, the lighting of candles, the burning of incense, the ringing of handbells and the mixing of ingredients, together with Ganga water, to create vermillion paste which was then smeared on the foreheads of devotees. Some of the rituals were reminiscent of those from the Kumbh Mela but others were different.
On one particular morning devotees often in family groups brought banana trees to be immersed in the waters of the Ganges, which were then carefully wrapped in beautifully coloured cloth, revered and prayed to, and I was told that this ceremony honoured the God Ganasha’s wife, who herself was a banana tree. The story I was told on the ghats early that morning was that Ganesha, the popular elephant God, was so ugly that no woman would marry him and only a banana tree would have him. This was contradicted in another version of the story I later read suggesting that a banana tree would not argue with either Ganesha or his mother, Durga, and would not usurp Durga in her relationship with Ganesha. This seems to be a reference to the universal issue regarding mother’s relationships with sons, and appears to be a Hindu variant of this.
The banana tree is held in much esteem in Bengal but it was strange to see men, always men, wade into the tepid waters of the Ganges clutching their tree, immersing themselves with it and then speaking with devotion and emotion to it before carefully wrapping it in cloth and returning to dry land where the ceremony would continue.
One particular family arrived with a colourful parasol to the great interest of the crowds gathered there. Someone whispered to me that the family were of the royal family of India and lived in the palace of Shobabazar, where a Puja was to held over the festival weekend. I decided to visit the Palace later that weekend, especially so as it is reputed that the whole Durga Puja activities in its present form were first enacted in that Palace to please Clive of India, and other officials of the Raj, in 1757 following the British success at the Battle of Plessey. Incredibly, the Palace even has a Facebook page detailing the Durga Puja events here.
My strategy for photographing the festival was then to spend almost my entire time on this stretch of the Ganges, documenting the inter-related activities and its peoples over the festival period. The other advantage of this was that I could easily transpose from one location to the next in minutes to take advantage of the weather, specific events or the height of the Ganges which is tidal even in Kolkata. A further decision I made was to focus my interest in the idols entirely around Kurmatuli, even though the immersion of idols might be more dramatic on other ghats. Kurmatuli was where the idols were produced from gangetic clay and where I would watch them being returned on the last day of the festival.
As the morning became drifted on I decided to walk back towards the flower market, but the rat tat of drums continued as more banana trees continued to brought to the Goddess Ganga; I was told this procession of offerings by many independent families would go on throughout the morning and even to the early afternoon.