DURGA PUJA 2020: Stay Safe & Socially Distanced in the Age of New Normal

durgapuja Travel Guide 2020
The Bag bazar Durga idol at centenary year!

About this blog: A guide to celebrate Durgapuja 2020 with essential tips of social distancing and safety protocols. That is if you are celebrating. If you are holding off the mass celebration for this year, and waiting for “Asche Bochor Abar Hobe” (next year, we will celebrate the festival of Durga Puja again), heartiest congratulations. You are saving lives. I have also attached several pictures of Durgapuja from previous year, a celebration which now faces a profound question mark on continuity.

Durgapuja 2020 Important Dates
Panchami (Fifth day)Oct 21
Shashti (Sixth day)Oct 22
Saptami (Seventh day)Oct 23
Ashtami (Eighth Day)Oct 24
Nabami (Ninth day)Oct 25
Dashami (Tenth day)Oct 26
Durgapuja schedule for 2020
The impeccable beauty!

Less than a week remains before Durgapuja 2020 commences. The eternal celebration of the month of Sharat that connects Bengalis around the globe beyond other identities. Some of them want to escape the unnerving madness which will transform the city into a thriving place of magic realism. They backpack and leave. Rest stay in. Durgapuja is homecoming for migrants like us. This is time to celebrate a festival that is seldom seen at any other part of the world. 

But the year 2020 is full of gloom. Lockdown, quarantine, hydroxychloride, face-shield, N95 masks, social distancing and a generic suspicion for the other person are the order of the day. Not just in Kolkata but for the rest of the world. Who knew jargons like these will be incumbent part of our daily life?

I thought Durgapuja would not take place this year. A celebration of that massive scale will endanger innumerable lives, not just that of medicos or those working in the essential service sector. The ones celebrating will not be spared either. A picture of Sreeleathers, packed to the brim with shopping enthusiasts, is circulating on social media. Since when have we become such hedonists, Kolkata?

I do not even bother to crosscheck. These pictures became the norm post the ravaging Amphan cyclone. It took a while and resurfaced as a reminder to the ticking bomb we are carrying in the backyard. 

Things to do in Durgapuja, Kolkata

Anyways, the benevolent government of West Bengal usually allows Durga Puja holidays for continuous ten days. It would have been the perfect time to relive the days of lockdown, comfortably numb in the company of immediate family. A pandemic is looming large outside. Is there a vaccine? We are at a loss. National media is mostly busy peddling fake news. 

Infection rate in India has shown no sign of intimidation. We are closing into a million count. Number of dead bodies rouses a tiring count. Winces strengthen for those in the authority.

Durga puja celebration amid all these? I understand those who perform the rituals and worship at home, mostly the bonedi bari Durgapujas, but what about those roughly 2000 pandals that stage the mind boggling grandeur of Barwari (community) pujas? 

Sindurkhela at Bagbazar Durgapuja
A group of Bengali girls celebrate Sindurkhela at Bagbazar Puja mandap

In my Para (neighbourhood), a Barwari Durgapuja takes place with the help of a few commoners. A few hundred people attend the Ashtami ceremony and perform “Pushpanjali”. I have heard from my mother, this year, Anjali will be restricted to a handful of people in every batch. Mask, sanitizers and other precautions will be accompanying flowers and Batasha. Dhunuchi naach is a far fetched idea. So are the Dhakis. Who knows if they will even make it this year from far off Murshidabad?

Things to do in Durgapuja 2020

But, Durgapuja was not promised like this for us. I recall my Dadu saying he never wants to go back to Bangladesh, simply for the reason he has to produce a passport. “Why do I need to produce a passport to go back home?” His eyes sparkle in a shy Abhimaan

I feel a similar urge in my heart. Why will I celebrate Durgapuja like this? I do not know this city of mine. I can not imagine this city of mine.

I think a hundred times and some more before booking a flight ticket to Kolkata. What is the point of going back to home? The city I love and long for is morose and forlorn. I let her recover from this insurmountable grief in time. In turn, I succumb to a painful melancholy of separation.

Kolkata Durgapuja 2020 safety protocols

I see many other Bengalis from Bangalore or Hyderabad asking for Puja celebration deeds in the respective cities on Fb groups. There is no definitive answer. If Kolkata is hesitant, how can others even think of stepping in?

The Durga Puja of Olden Days!

On a good year (and I mean a little exception of 1946 when the subcontinent was partitioned and soaked in bloodshed due to communal hatred), we pre-book tickets for Kolkata at least eight months prior. A long 10 days vacation is pre-scheduled. We buy ten sarees for ten days. Friends from other states, cities, countries fly down. We allocate each day for each group, Panchami for school, Shashthi for high school, Saptami night for college friends, Ashtami for Gulu mama’s family. You get the drift.

Borisha Moth Durgapuja, Kolkata
Borisha Moth Durgapuja, Behala, Kolkata

On the day of Mahalaya, the Para resonates with Birendra Kishore Bhadra’s Mahishashur Mardini. Radio, we are very specific not to use the mic at that wee hours of the day. We hop on to Kumartuli, where Durga idols are made. The elaborate idols have been painted with beautiful vibrant colors. They adorn beautifully illustrated Daker saaj and Shola Mukut. The Kumartuli idols traverse the long road to the other hemisphere of the world. She makes her way to the rural parts of Bengal on a  boat. The journey is quite a sight!

Borisha Moth Durgapuja, Kolkata
Stunning interior decoration of a Durgapuja Mondop at Behala

The potter’s quarter at Kumartuli is teeming with life and photography enthusiasts till the eve of Shashti, when Puja actually starts! Shashti (the sixth day), Saptami (the seventh day), Ashami (the eighth day), Nabami (ninth day) are the four prime days of Durgapuja celebration. On Dashami, large processions bring the idol for Bhashan, immersion in Ganga or the pond backyard. A Carnival takes place soon after on the Red road, where large decorated trucks carry the best idols of the city. 

The Barowari Clubs of Kolkata celebrate Durga Puja with unprecedented pomp. Millions and millions are spent to procure the best theme, the finest of art work. Artists toil for an entire year to conceptualize and create. Among other things, Durgapuja is truly the pinnacle of a street celebration, the likes of which I am yet to find anywhere else.

Durgapuja decoration of Kolkata

Themes of the Durga Puja Pandals are often kept secret till the day of inauguration, when a heavyweight politician, movie star or Sourav Ganguly dada will arrive first! Themes are based on trending social issues ranging from female feticides to refugee crisis in Syria. Bonedi barir Puja in the north of the city, in stark contrast, keep the celebration humble at the profound Thakurdalan, remnant of the heydays of the erstwhile zamindar families.

We decide each day for one part of the city. If Shashti is for North, South will be explored on Saptami. The next day will be all about exploring the idols in Behala. A day of Durgapuja will be reserved for the Kolkata suburbs. If we are tired, we might just resort to an elaborate dinner at Chinatown. I do not like Arsalan’s Kolkata Biryani during Puja days.

We, at the China town!

We stay up for 72 days at a stretch, roughly! The whole city does. People flood into paldal-hop from far off places of the city, as well suburban Kolkata. At 3 am at night, I have seen countless human mechanisms beelining in front of College square to get a glimpse of the idol! To brave the queues, you need to learn how to walk with thousands in a row in between relentless jostling and quips. A thin line between a stampede, I have often thought in my mind! 

Most beautiful Durga idols of Kolkata
Most beautiful Durga idols of Kolkata

Before we know, Dashami arrives. The day puja ends. The ubiquitous destination for Dashami is to reach Bagbazar mandap for Sindur Khela, when women, dressed in their best,  play with vermillion. The idol at Bagbazar is overwhelmingly humongous. I stood patiently a year back to see how they actually performed “Vashan” to it. The height of the idol can easily cross half of Ganga’s width. 

The picture I painted above is the pretty picture. Once regular, now utopic. Many of these rituals have ceased to exist, at least for the year 2020.

Most beautiful Durga idols of Kolkata

More than merriment, this year, it is your responsibility to fear the invisible tiny virus which is deadlier than words can define! Seven months and counting, the entire country has borne the brunt of the pandemic. Eid celebrations were almost invisible. Onam and Ganesh Chathurthi took place, with a sharp rise in Covid cases in respective states soon after. 

I advocate for a Durgapuja celebrated behind the closed doors. Read that book. Binge that series. Paint. Cook. Just do not risk your life. Because, “Asche Bochor Abar Hobe!” I hear a lot of potters are drafting Asura’s face after the CoronaVirus. With frisky hair and a parrot green body. Next year it could be Covidiots!

Most beautiful Durga idols of Kolkata

The new Normal of Durgapuja 2020

Life has to find a way amid the hardest of times (I was prompted to write shit show, but really whom can we blame?)

The dwindling economy will suffer irrecoverable loss if Durga puja is stalled. Many people beyond the identity of caste and religion depend on these ten days to earn the lion’s share of annual wage. Newer mandates are coming up everyday to ensure Durga Puja celebrations are done with as much caution as possible. Needless to say, doctors are opining against it, predicting an acute shortage of healthcare professionals and bed at government hospitals. 

It is up to you, dear reader, to behave in a responsible manner. Another catastrophic surge of infection should not hit Bengal after Dashami. It could be lethal for many.

Durgapuja pandal decoration in Kolkata

Following are the Government Mandates that Community Pujas has to follow in 2020

  • No mask, no entry to the pandals.
  • Stress on constructing an open air pandal.
  • Social distancing must be practiced with a minimum of 6 feet distance between two people. 
  • At any given point of time, no more than 25 people are allowed inside the pandals. 
  • Masks and sanitisers are to be distributed in the pandal premises. 
  • Many rituals like Pushpanjali, sindoor khela and prasad distribution may take place for location specific populations only. You hailing from Bag Bazar can not ask to participate in Ashtami taking place at Santosh Palli in south. I think that is just. 
  • Pandal will open from Tritiya (19th October) and be open for three more days after Dashami. So hold your horses and do not rush. 
  • Cultural programs met with a strict negative for this year. The grand Carnival (immersion procession) will not take place either.
Jhar Lonthon, Durgapuja elaborate details
A chandelier used for decorating a Durgapuja Mondop

Things you can do to Observe a safe Durgapuja 2020!

Besides all these, to prevent forming of a long queue, many Puja Committees (Santoshpur Lake Pally for example) have announced open air idols, where you may stand at a distance and still not miss seeing anything. 

Khilat Ghosher Dalanbari at Pathuriaghata
Khilat Ghosher Dalanbari at Pathuriaghata
Khilat Ghosher Dalanbari at Pathuriaghata: Binedi barir Durgapuja, Kolkata

I would suggest trying to visit the pandal at 5 am. It is when the night crawlers are tired and head for home. You will have a window of two hours when pandals are reserved for a handful of onlookers. At 5 in the morning, the Purohit has not started day’s worship yet. Last year, I could see most of the major pandals of Gariahat area starting at 5 am. 

Maintaining social distancing can never be a second option, under the current circumstances. Avoid crowded places like a plague. Do not be a part of the crowd, even unknowingly. There will be footmarking on the road indicating where the next person should stand. Follow and ensure others are following the same. This is the time good civic sense prevails! 

Many of the small street side food vendors are not permitted to run their business this year. Be mindful of the fact and eat at home, in the comfort of familiar surroundings. If you must eat outside, use a sanitizer to cleanse. 

Crowd in front of College Square, North Kolkata
Crowd in front of College Square, North Kolkata

Face masks can save the entire community from a mild sneeze of a cough. Remember before you remove. Besides, you will not be allowed inside the marquees without a mask! If you plan to wear a new one, please do not discard the used one on the road. Waste management is another critical issue during Durgapuja which is taking a backseat due to the ongoing pandemic. 

Think twice before you touch a surface. If you must, please carry gloves too. A gloves, a face shield, a face mask and every other form of “covering up” are proven ways to contain the spread. 

Avoiding crowds, finding the best time to venture out (in order to avoid crowds), using your own vehicle with protective gears like face-masks and gloves, and not eating outside will save you this Durga Puja to a large extent. 

Kolkata durgapuja celebrations and safety norms

However, I would still suggest not to venture out this Puja unless absolutely necessary. Most of the prominent Puja Pandals (think Jodhpur Park, Badamtala, Sribhumi, Tridhara) will bring Puja to your home in a virtual manner. There will be live streaming of each ritual and amplified presence in social media. DD Bangla and other channels will telecast a Puja Parikrama, like they have been doing since millenia! You will not really miss anything!

Things to Do During Durga Puja if You Do not Feel Safe to Go Out!

First of all, congratulations. You are a doing a great favor not just to youself but to the entire society!

Indulge in art in times of despair

In many ways, relishing Durgapuja is relishing the best of Kolkata. Locked up at home, you can rekindle your romance with the quintessential cultural capital of the country. Pick up the Kolkata Trilogy by Sunil Ganguly, Shei Somoy and Prothom Alo and Purbo Poshchim. Reading them will open a new world for you, where Kolkata was Calcutta and was in her formative years of a metropolital city! You can also watch Mrinal Sen’s Kolkata Trilogy to understand the pulse of this beautiful city, also known a Tilottama.

Close to 12 Bengali films will be released this month. If you are comfortable to visit movie theaters (they will be opened after 7 months), go watch and help the film industry survive! 

Kolkata durgapuja a photo blog

Explore Kolkata on a Double Decker bus!

Hop on to the newly introduced white and blue swank double decker buses which will hit the Kolkata roads on the occasion of Durga Puja 2020. Known as Kolkata connect, these exact replicas of London’s double decker buses will take you through the iconic route of Victoria Memorial, Fort William, St. John’s Church, GPO, Old Currency Building, Great Eastern Hotel, Eden Gardens. During Puja, these places are usually under-visited.

Kolkata Durgapuje photography

Order in delicious food by the emerging homechefs of Kolkata!

There is a new culinary diaspora emerging out of the dark of pandemic. It is the extremely talented home chefs who have finally managed to make the world taste their culinary extraordinaire! Trust Debjani’s Kitchen and Anindya’s Kosha Mangsho to transform a mundane day into a delectable gourmand experience. Atreyi Bhanja, a recent JU engineering grad, is creating artisanal chocolates and cakes at home. I ordered from each of them to celebrate Bhai’s birthday from a distance and my family loved all of it.

Opt for a regal staycation!

Trust the luxury properties of Kolkata to make your Durgapuja days a bespoke affair. Think Rajkutir Swwabhumi. Think the new wing if Taj Bengal! If you can drive down to the Itachuna Rajbari or the Belgadia palace of Mayurbhanj in Orissa, your Durgapuja will be nothing short of a royal affair!

A man selling handcrafted jewelry at the entrance of Tridhara
A man selling handcrafted jewelry at the entrance of Tridhara

Take a leisurely cruise on river Ganga

For a meagre INR 39, you can now cruise through Hoogly river by the banks of which Kolkata is housed. A new steamer service has started for the commoners. The hour long cruise ride will take you all the way from Bag Bazar to BBD Bag. Many hidden heritage of these gats will be unfolded with a guide on board.

Durgapuja Kolkata
Durgapuja Kolkata
Rani Rasmoni Barir Puja, Jaanbazar
Ballygunge Cultural, one of the best Durgapuja Mandap of South Kolkata
The Phuchkawala at Behala Unique park.
The Phuchkawala at Behala Unique park.
Shonkho Sondesh served at every Sweet Shop in Kolkata
The Beleghata Mondop that show cased harmony among various communities
Golden Joy, China Town: best place to eat Chinese in Kolkata!
A visit to China Town Kolkata is a mandate
Durgapuja bhashan in Kolkata
Durgapuja bhashan in Kolkata
Durgapuja bhashan in Kolkata
Street food in Kolkata during Durgapuja
Durgapuja bhashan (idol immersion) in Kolkata at Bag bazar
A Durgapuja pandal in North Kolkata which resembles Varanasi!

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