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The festivals of Kolkata

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Most of Kolkata’s Hindu festivals are devoted to forms of the mother goddess, Shakti. Kolkata’s own deity, the black goddess Kali, is an emanation of Durga, the consort of Shiva. Kali is most commonly depicted with four arms, standing on the prostrate Shiva after killing the demon Raktviya, her tongue protruding in horror; other forms include the terrifying Chinemasta (torn head), where Kali holds her own severed head and drinks her own blood. The two-week Durga Puja (Sept/Oct) is Kolkata’s most lavish festival. A symbol of victory, Durga is shown with ten arms slaying the demon Mahisasura, who assumed the shape of a buffalo and threatened the gods. Durga sits on, or is accompanied by, a lion.

In preparation for the festivals, artisans in the Kumartuli area sculpt voluptuous women from straw, papier-mâché, clay and pith (banana-tree marrow). Clothed and decorated, these lavish images of the goddesses are then carried in noisy procession to elaborate marquees called pandals. Supported by donations from businesses and local residents, with popular music blaring through loudspeakers, pandals block off small streets for days. After the puja, the images are taken to the river for immersion, a colourful scene that’s best viewed via one of the boat cruises offered by the West Bengal tourist office (see The Metro); they also offer bus tours that take in the pandals.

The major festivals

Jaidev Mela

(early Jan) Commemorating Joydeb, the revered author of the Gita Govinda, and held in the village of Kendubilwa, also known as Kenduli, near Shantiniketan; the place to hear Baul minstrels in their element.

Ganga Sagar Mela

(mid-Jan) During the winter solstice of Makar Sankranti, hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims and sadhus travel through Kolkata from all over India for a three-day festival at Sagardwip, 150km south where the Ganges meets the sea.

Dover Lane Music Festival

(Jan/Feb) A week-long festival in south Kolkata, attracting many of the country’s best musicians.

Saraswati Puja

(Jan/Feb) Popular and important festival to the goddess of learning staged throughout Bengal.

Chinese New Year

(Jan/Feb) Celebrated with a week-long festival of dragon dances, firecrackers and fine food, concentrated around Chinatown and the suburb of Tangra.

Muharram

(dates determined by the lunar calendar; see whttp://www.when-is.com) Shi’ite Muslims mark the anniversary of the martyrdom of Hussein by severe penance including processions during which they flagellate themselves.

Durga Puja

(Sept/Oct) At the onset of winter, Durga Puja (known elsewhere as Dussehra) is the Bengali equivalent of Christmas. It climaxes on Mahadashami, the tenth day, when images are immersed in the river.

Lakshmi Puja

(Oct/Nov) Held five days after Mahadashami on the full moon, to honour the goddess of wealth.

Id ul Fitr

(dates determined by the lunar calendar; see whttp://www.when-is.com) Celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and heralded by the new moon, the festival is a time of joyousness when people don new clothes and sample wonderful food at the restaurants and stalls around Park Circus.

Diwali and Kali Puja

(Oct/Nov) Two weeks after Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja is held on a moonless night when goats are sacrificed, and coincides with Diwali, the festival of light.

Christmas

(Dec 25) Park Street and New Market are adorned with fairy lights and the odd Christmas tree. Plum pudding is sold, and Midnight Mass is well attended.

Poush Mela

(late Dec) Held in Shantiniketan around Christmas, the mela attracts Bauls, the wandering minstrels who attract large audiences.

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