Barowari & Bonedi Barir Pujos – Two Beautiful Faces of One Beautiful Festival

The city of joy is at its joyful best during Durga Puja.

Durga Puja is Kolkata’s favourite festival, celebrated for ten days in the month of autumn to welcome and honour Goddess Durga. And mind you, it’s one of the grandest and most magnificent welcome you’ll ever witness.

I was witnessing Durga Puja for the first time. And, oh boy! I was overwhelmed with the whole experience.

A girl I met in a cab said, “We can sense the festivity coming closer. One fine day, we just wake up happy and announce – today I’m feeling the Puja vibe in the air. And that’s how the festivity begins.”

She was right.

The moment I set foot on this city’s ground, I felt a strong festive vibe all around. A sudden surge of positive energy rushed into me. Everything everywhere was echoing joy and merry.

Houses were freshly painted and decorated. Roads were ready to be lit for bright nights. Artistic pandals were standing tall and graceful. Last minute shoppers were scurrying on the high-streets. The cityscape changes altogether.

It was my great fortune that I got a chance to visit many beautiful barowari and bonedi baris of Kolkata. It is difficult to say which one is better from the other. But here is a list of my personal favourite pandals and baris. Check it out for yourself.

 

BAROWARI PUJOS:
Community pandals are where barowari pujas are held. Pandals from South Kolkata are more famous for their glam and glory, while the Northern part of the city is known for its traditional aesthetics.

A side-note from Akash Mondal:
The word barowari has come from the words ‘baro’ meaning 12 in Bengali and ‘yaari’ or friends. It is said that 12 friends got together to start such pujas. That’s how the word was coined.

 

Suruchi Sangha
Calcutta is said to be the biggest canvas of art and culture, and every year Suruchi Sangha proves to be its live example. This year’s pandal showcased a magnificent Bhutanese temple.

Beautiful Buddha statue in front of the pandal.
Beautiful Buddha statue in front of the pandal.
Isn't this flower arrangement pretty and divine at the same time?
Isn’t this flower arrangement pretty and divine at the same time?
These lamps just made the ambience surreal.
These lamps just made the ambience surreal.
Intricate wood carving. Wood, not POP.
Intricate wood carving. Wood, not POP.
This gold statue of Goddess Durga also resembles Bhutanese art of sculpture.
This gold statue of Goddess Durga also resembles Bhutanese art of sculpture.
The flags, the dragons, the golden leaves on the pillars; special attention is given to every little detail here.
The flags, the dragons, the golden leaves on the pillars; special attention is given to every little detail here.

Each milestone of the Himalayan kingdom was depicted across the structure. Monks were invited from the Himalayas. And yes, special mention to their brilliant organisation and crowd management skills!

 

Ekdalia Evergreen
Recognised for recreating famous temples around the country, Ekdalia Evergreen Durga Puja Pandal raised a beautiful replica of Meenakshi temple this year. Intricate carving was seen on both the exterior walls and interior.

Replica of Madurai's famous Meenakshi temple.
Replica of Madurai’s famous Meenakshi temple.
Even the interiors were a mirror image of the temple.
Even the interiors were a mirror image of the temple.
Don't miss the chandelier. Kolkata is obsessed with them! :)
Don’t miss the chandelier. The whole of Kolkata is obsessed with them! 🙂
Ma Durga and her four children.
Maa Durga and her four children.

Artisans are called from the remote villages of West Bengal to create such masterpieces. The work starts 5-6 months before the festival, and is admired throughout the 10 days of Pujo.

 

Tridhara Akalbodhan
This is the place where I got pulled in a sea of pandal-hoppers. Look at the grandeur of the pandal. No wonder people flock in huge numbers; huge enough to cause a fatal stampede. This year’s theme was tribal art and expressions.

Main entrance of the pandal.
Main entrance of the pandal.
Even the design of the idol was aligned to the theme.
Even the design of the idol was aligned to the theme.
imitation of bull heads, a common symbol of tribal art
Imitation of bull heads, a common symbol of tribal art
Tribal masks
Tribal masks

 

College Street

The beauty of this one is its idols. All the five idols, viz., Goddess Durga, and her four children – Lord Ganesha, Kartikeya, Goddess Saraswati and Goddess Lakshmi are carved meticulously. The modesty of Ganesha, pride if Kartikeya, Lakshmi’s affluence and Saraswati’s composure reflect through their eyes.

The beautiful ornaments stole my heart away.
College street Pandal, right across the swimming club.

The blue and silver ornamentation of these idols looked very unique, and stole the limelight from pandal art and chandeliers.

 

Jodhpur Park, Jadavpur
Words will fall short to describe the efforts put together in designing this pandal. I would say, this was not a pandal, but a piece of art. Unique theme, amazing colour combination and a great sense of aesthetics is what made this pandal one of a kind.

The pandal was depicted like a bullock cart.
The pandal was depicted like a bullock cart.
Clever use of rural art forms and elements.
Clever use of rural art forms and elements.
Such a refreshing change from those chandelier-heavy ceilings.
Such a refreshing change from those chandelier-heavy ceilings.
Aren't these cute?
Aren’t these cute?
Look at those lovely eyes.
Look at those lovely eyes.
I guess, this one was the most vibrant pandal I came across.
I guess, this one was the most vibrant pandal I came across.

 

 

BONEDI BARIR PUJOS:
I observed that most of the bonedi baaris pujas are held in North Kolkata; the reason being all the affluent families of yesteryears lived in this area. After independence, Zamindari system was abolished, and the financial condition of these stalwarts started declining. However, nothing of this affected the grandeur with which bari pujas are performed. Some of the pujas are over 200 years old, yet all the traditions and rituals are maintained till date.

These pujas are often overlooked by the pandal-hoppers. Hence, locating these houses were a big task for me. With a little information available online, persistent pestering calls to friends and friends of friends, and a little bit of good luck, I managed to attend these pujas and witness some highlights.

 

Mitra Bari
On the 3rd day of Puja, while I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline at wee hours, I stumbled upon a friend’s post. ‘Our family Pujo got covered.’, it read. It was 5 o’clock in the morning, but I shamelessly sent him a long message about how I’m interested in visiting his house. But Pradosh, sweet fellow that he is, messaged me all the details of his over 210 years old family puja, right away.

Morning breakfast for Goddess Durga.
Morning breakfast for Goddess Durga.
The quiet and quaint Mitra Bari.
The quiet and quaint Mitra Bari.
This is where Durga resides.
This is where Durga resides.
Women of the Mitra family, preparing bunches of sacred grass, Durva.
Women of the Mitra family, preparing bunches of sacred grass, Durva.
Puja preparations.
Puja preparations.
And all that is for Maa Durga. A brunch of sorts. I forgot what it's called. If someone knows, please share in the comments section.
And all that is for Maa Durga. A brunch of sorts. I forgot what it’s called. If someone knows, please share in the comments section. (Later on, Akash explained that this thaal is called Naibidya. Thank you for your contribution, Akash.)

I visited Mitra Bari in Darjeepara to attend Kumari Pujo. It is performed on Ashtami Puja day, where young girls are worshipped. Girls between the age group of one to sixteen are said to be a symbol of the virgin form of Goddess. This purest form of divine power (Aadi Shakti) is the root of all creations.

The Kumari is worshipped by the whole family. The pandit chants mantras, feed her the Noibiddo and water. Once the puja is done, he bows down and touches her little feet as if he’s praying to the Goddess herself.

Worshipping Kumari
Worshipping Kumari
He made sure, she eats the whole laddoo.
He made sure, she eats the whole laddoo.
A sip of water.
A sip of water.
He was feeding her like he would actually feed Maa Durga, with unconditional love and affection.
He was feeding her like he would actually feed Maa Durga, with unconditional love and affection.

 

The women in the family, then, adorn her feet with aalta (red dye), give her presents and seek blessings from the little devi.

Alta is a red dye used by women to decorate their feet and hands. It is also called as Rose Bengal.

After Kumari pujo, it was time for Pushpanjali – offering of flowers to the idol.

Pushpanjali preps!
Pushpanjali preps!
Everyone rushes to get their share of flowers to offer to Goddess Durga.
Everyone rushes to get their share of flowers to offer to Goddess Durga.
Holy water, distributed after Pushpanjali.
Holy water, distributed after Pushpanjali.

The idol was also very different from the barowari pujas. In fact, the elements were also very unlike others. For instance, while all the Durga idols are always riding lion, this one was on Devsingha. Devsingha is essentially a combination of a horse and a lion. It symbolizes the speed of a stallion and strength of a lion.

Right from the arch to the face structure to the vaahana of Maa Durga, everything is special about this idol.

 

Chhatu Babu Latu Babu’s Thakurbati.
Ramdulal Nibas, fondly known as Chhatu Babu Latu Babu’s Thakurbati is just a few lanes away from Darjeepara.

Main entrance of Ramdulal Nibaas.
Main entrance of Ramdulal Nibaas.
The bari.
The bari.
Sindoor Khela is played on the immersion day. But strangely, females in this bari were busy having fun colouring each other. Probably they knew I was supposed to leave the city a day before Sindoor Khela. :)
Sindoor Khela is played on the immersion day. But strangely, females in this bari were busy having fun colouring each other. Probably they knew I was supposed to leave the city a day before Sindoor Khela. 🙂

This more than 200 years old Puja was initiated by Ramdulal Dey, a man who was a pioneer of Indo-American trade, when USA was at the dawn of its independence. After Ramdulal, his sons Ashutosh Deb (Chhatu Babu) and Pramatha Nath Deb (Latu Babu) continued the tradition.

In order to carry forward this legacy, a trust was formed in the year 1919. Since then, all the ceremonies and functions are organized by the trust.

 

Sovabazaar Rajbati
Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur started this Durga Puja in the Thakur Dalan of his palace Sovabazaar Rajbati. During the colonial regime, Raja Nabakrishna Deb played a pivotal role in dethroning Siraj ud-Daulah. Impressed by his service, British started rewarding him with immeasurable wealth, and soon Sovabazaar literally started flaunting its Sova (affluence).

The majestic Sovabazar.
The majestic Sovabazar.
Of all the fancy, flittery chandeliers, this one made me fall an inch deeper in love with it. See how it flaunts its old world charm.
Of all the fancy, glittery chandeliers, this one made me fall an inch deeper in love with it. See how it flaunts its old world charm.
A modest idol of Sovabazar.
A modest idol of Sovabazar.

Another folklore says that during those times, heaps of grains were kept in the Thakur Dalan as a part of the offerings to Maa Durga. These giant heaps of golden grains used to look magnificent in the courtyard, making the baari look even more beautiful and affluent. Hence, the name Sovabazaar.

I also found some really really old clay paintings in some corners. Someone should take care of these gems.
I also found some really really old clay paintings in some corners. Someone should take care of these gems.
This corner is a window to its prosperous times.
This corner is a window to its prosperous times.
While the rest of the Sovabazar is glittering in gold, some passages are still lurking in darkness.
While the rest of the Sovabazar is glittering in gold, some passages are still lurking in darkness.
I don't know whether they talked aboutMaharaja's real lions or these statues on the two pillars at the gate, but Sovabazar was also fondly called as Baag ola Bari (House with the lions).
I don’t know whether they talked aboutMaharaja’s real lions or these statues on the two pillars at the gate, but Sovabazar was also fondly called as Baag ola Bari (House with the lions).

 

Its historic Thakur Dalan was also blessed by the presence of remarkable personalities like Swami Vivekananda, Sadhak Ramprosad Sen, Thakur Sri Sri Ramkrishna Paramhansa Deb, etc.

I reckon, this is not just the richest, but the most historic bonedi baari in the whole of Kolkata.

 

Choto Sovabazar Rajbati
This rajbati is just across the lane, and is built by Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb Bahadur’s son, Radhakant Deb. Compared to the original one, this bari is slightly low key with respect to its glam and grandeur. It is much smaller in space, but reflects the same architectural sensibilities.

Once upon a time this was a regal window. Now a perfect place for clothes line.
Once upon a time this was a regal window. Now a perfect place for clothes line.
Such intricate carving.
Such intricate carving.
They're one. Yet they're different.
They’re one. Yet they’re different.
The idol.
The idol.
It suddenly started raining, and I got an opportunity to click a perfect shot without any human intervention.
It suddenly started raining, and I got an opportunity to click a perfect shot without any human intervention.
And while it was raining, this Dhaki player kept me company.
And while it was raining, this Dhaki player kept me company.

The definite distinction between the rest of the house and the temple area is seen in both the baris. However, I felt that this one was much quieter and more pleasant than the first.

 

Mukherjee Bari
Last but not the least! My visit to Mukherjee Bari in Ariadah is the most special one. I met this kind gentleman, Mr. Soumick Mukherjee during one of the field trips in Kolkata. When I got to know about his bari puja, I jumped on the opportunity, and paid a visit on a lazy Ashtami afternoon.

Mukherjee Bari pujo.
Mukherjee Bari pujo.

As I reached the entrance, I was bowled over by a long queue of people, holding big bowls and containers, waiting for their turn. The family was distributing food (Prasad) to the locals, as their small service towards God.

Kitchen scenes.
Kitchen scenes.

Mr. Mukherjee and his sweet family literally forced me to finish a plateful of sweets, followed by the bhog food. Bhog is the meal given to the Goddess. This meal is supposed to be eaten by only the family members. I was honoured to be a part of such a private affair; and not to mention, glad to taste a yummy fare!

The illustrious bhog.The illustrious bhog.

After a lip-smacking, mouth-watering, tummy-filling, sleep-inducing meal, I decided to stay back till Sandhi Pujo. Later on, I thanked myself hundred times for taking that decision.

Sandhi Pujo preparations.Sandhi Pujo preparations.

Sandhi Pujo is as beautiful a concept as its rituals. Sandhi means unification or merger. It celebrates the merger of the 8th and the 9th day of Puja. Sandhi Pujo begins from the last 24 minutes of Ashtami and the first 24 minutes of Navami. The puja has to happen during those 48 minutes precisely.

Beautiful lamps lighting the pathway.
Beautiful lamps lighting the pathway.
108 lamps lit for Maa Durga.
108 lamps lit for Maa Durga.

Durga is celebrated in her Chamunda form. It is said that she killed the demons Chando and Mundo at this very juncture. 108 earthen lamps were lit in front of the idol. It was a beautiful sight, as the floor turned golden.

As another ritual, 108 lotus flowers are offered to the Goddess. At Mukherjee bari, this ritual was done with beautiful garlands of lotus, bel leaves (wood-apple leaves), aparajita (butterfly pea) and rajnigandha (tuberoses) flowers.

Butterfly pea flowers, better known as Aparajitas, were always my favourite. Now they are one reason more.Butterfly pea flowers, better known as Aparajitas, were always my favourite. Now they are one reason more favourite.

All this was performed amidst the echoes of dhaak, sounds of conch shells and bells, and spellbinding, rhythmic chanting of mantras.

It was followed by the ritual of Bali sacrifice. But instead of an animal, a vegetable was sacrificed. Thus, understanding the sentiments of sacrifice, without propagating any fallacy. I liked how an important ritual underwent a slight change with the changes in the society.

Sacrificing a vegetable instead of animals - a good step towards celebrating the festival responsibly.
Sacrificing a vegetable instead of animals – a good step towards celebrating the festival responsibly.

The day ended with heart-warming goodbyes as I left the Mukherjee house. Overwhelmed with the glory of puja, and the hospitality of the family, I promised myself to revisit this abode of happiness soon, very soon.

Mr. Soumick Mukherjee, one of the most kindhearted people I've met till date.Mr. Soumick Mukherjee, one of the most kindhearted people I’ve met till date.

 

Which Barowari or Bonedi Bari Puja is your favourite? Did I miss a noteworthy puja during my stay in Kolkata? Share your thoughts with me in the comments section.

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Bow Barracks: The Melting Pot of Kolkata

If you have ever been to Kolkata, I’m sure you would have been introduced to its favourite street treat – jhalmuri.

I kept hearing a lot about this delight from my Bong friends. I have seen them swearing by it when they debate about how jhalmuri is thousand times better than Mumbai’s bhelpuri.

But during my visit to Kolkata, I discovered why the city is in love with this snack – because the city of Kolkata in itself is like jhalmuri.

A handful of puffed rice, powdered spices, a dash of raw mustard oil (dearly called as kaacha shorsher tel), a splash of tamarind water and a generous squeeze of lime. Roughly that’s what goes inside a well-made bag of jhalmuri.

The muri-wallah mixes these ingredients deftly. The process is no less than a theatrical performance. However, every bite of this perfectly blended potion outperforms the muri-wallah’s skills. Every bite surprises you. Every bite introduces you to a new flavour. Even though the dish is mixed well, not a single ingredient loses its original distinct taste.

Kolkata is just like a cone of jhalmuri.

During the pre-independence era, many people from different cultures, different countries, and different ethnicities have come to this the-then capital of British India, and made it their home.

From World War I onwards, this land has seen cultures confluence and religions coexist. Indians, Anglo-Indians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Muslims; all stay happily together while the rest of the country, or even the world for that matter, struggles to learn the art of coexistence.

And a beautiful testimony to this theory is a quaint corner called Bow Barracks.

Streets of Bow Bazaar
I visited the Bow Barracks one early morning.

Take a stroll around the Bow Barracks, and you will discover for yourself how communities are defying intolerance and living in harmony.

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A hand-pulled rickshaw parked in the quadrangle of Bow Barracks.
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The most common phenomenon of Kolkata: men and women reading morning newspaper. Here, an Anglo-Indian man is enjoying his morning tea with fresh news.

Bow Barracks is a small, red-bricked residential area, built during the World War I for soldiers. Post wartime, some soldiers handed over the keys to the Anglo-Indians, while some decided to stay put with their families. Today their descendants call it their home.

Another old man reading news.
Another old man reading news. It’s cute how he’s made that little piece of balcony his cozy corner. Residents of Bow Barracks are happy with their lives irrespective of the space crunch they have to deal with every day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you enter this tiny community of around 150 households, you will be greeted by a Roman Catholic grotto.

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A Roman Catholic Grotto right at the entrance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the quadrangle, you will spot Anglo-Indian boys playing street hockey with their Parsi friends. Early in the morning, a cycle-wallah will be delivering loaves of bread baked in a Jewish bakery.

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Oven fresh stock from a nearby Jewish bakery.

A Chinese lady will be hurrying towards the Tirretti Market to set up her momo stall, while a Muslim old man will be busy selling marigolds to a Hindu on his way to the nearest temple.

Work is the only religion here. Muslim men selling flowers to Hindu devotees is a pure sight of harmony.
Work is the only religion here. Muslim men selling flowers to Hindu devotees is a pure sight of harmony.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where there are people from different religions, there is a variety in places of worship too. An agyari, a Chinese temple, a mosque, a mandir, a catholic grotto, a Jewish church; all of these live in peace at a few metres distance from each other.

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I must say, early morning reading is a ritual here. A caretaker of a Chinese temple chose to cover his face with a book when we pointed our cameras at him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We must understand that this assimilation is not something that has happened for a day or two under patriotic drives that scream slogans like ‘unity in diversity’ or ‘hum sab ek hain’. This convergence is decades old, and has now become a part of Kolkata’s life, without losing its soul.

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I assume these old post boxes are hardly in use today. Akash pointed out that there were three boxes. Can you see the traces of an uprooted box on the top? I hope they won’t take these two off!

This cultural concoction lives in harmony. The people here respect each other, and literally live the saying ‘unity in diversity’.

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Over these many years, various cultures from Bow Barracks have finely blended with this city, but their flavours are still fresh and distinct… just like a spicy serving of jhalmuri.

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