Desi Diaries: Durga Puja by the bay

Shreya Dasgupta describes a boat ride on the Ganges that gives you a glimpse of Durga Puja and the rustic character of Kolkata.


Shreya Dasgupta describes a boat ride on the Ganges that gives you a glimpse of Durga Puja and the rustic character of Kolkata.

Eden Garden Railway Station

We waited at the level crossing as the train slowly ambled away, revealing ‘Eden Garden’ engraved on a yellow board on the railway platform. Purohits in white dhotis walked past the platform onto Babu Ghat by the Ganges, followed by devotees wanting a dip in the holy river. Crossing the railway line, we were welcomed by the distinctive sound of Durga Puja, Dhaks emanating from two launch boats tethered to each other and the shore. This was to be our ride for the next three hours.

Purohit in front of Durga

In an attempt to see the immensely festive side of Kolkata, we had pre-booked West Bengal Tourism’s new Durga Puja package, one that promised good Bengali music, food, rituals and a look at the hustle-bustle of a festal Kolkata from a boat on the Ganges.

It was Saptami, the second day of Puja. Kolkata city was by now completely submerged in sweets, gorgeous saris, Khichuri, and romance, and our boat brought alive almost every sound, sight and smell characteristic of Durga puja. The lower deck of the first boat resounded with the drums of the Dhakis dancing away to their hypnotizing beats. Cutting through the rhythm was the Purohit chanting away to a beautifully adorned goddess Durga with her four children – daughters Saraswati and Lakshmi, and sons Kartik and Ganesh.

The launch boats

In the adjoining boat, wary guests climbed up a rather precipitous staircase, reaching the upper deck which was now set up with chairs and a small stage equipped with a powerful sound system. A half-hour past the scheduled departure time, the boat engine started. As the shore slowly moved away, the iconic Howrah Bridge with its thousands of cars, buses and people, grew bigger in front of us. And so did the large floating islands of garbage with bags of flowers, leaves, plates – only a customary and rather humble beginning to the puja season.

Howrah bridge

The boat crossed several Ghats by the Ganges, each swamped with hordes of people, many dipping into the cold water in a bid to rinse off their sins. Also lining the shore were several small and large industrial factories. While smoke from some chimneys filled the horizon, others seemed to be lying in years of abandonment and neglect, instead fostering plant life within them. Filling up the remaining expanse of the river water, several derelict boats lay still, half-sunken in the water and half-alive with bird life.

Garbage clumps in the Ganges

Amid the clumps of garbage and occasional fishing boats on the river, I scanned the water through my binoculars. As the Baul singers on our boat sang to a rather mis-tuned violin, I kept a look out for any movement in the river. After almost two hours of stillness, I saw the first jump of the rather elusive Gangetic dolphin, followed by ten more. Swimming across stealthily, the dolphins gave me a few teasing jumps before the water returned to its calm self again.

Industries, fishing boats, abandoned chimneys on the banks of the Ganges

While the ninety guests on the boat remained oblivious to the endangered dolphin which was slowly disappearing from our view, they got their cameras ready for the famous and greatly revered Belur Math that was now coming into sight. Sprawling and beautifully constructed, and a headquarter of the Ramakrishna Mission, hundreds of devotees and tourists thronged the Ghats in front of the Math, few pointing and staring at our boat, and some indifferent.

Belur Math and devotees

This was the point where our boat was to turn around, only a few hundred meters away from the equally famous Dakshineshwar temple. All cameras clicked ferociously, trying to grab every visible space of the Belur Math into permanence. The sound of the Dhaks now grew stronger, layering upon the soft voice of a second singer who had by now managed to enthral a rather distracted audience.

Devotees at the Ghat in front of Belur Math

As we neared the shore, our ride ended post a session of bland Bhog (food offering made to Durga) and sweets. The boat slowed down, and people started jostling to get out of the tiny door, even before the boat had completely stopped.

With the food, music and rituals over, the atmosphere changed – devotion waned, and impatience grew.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shreya is a freelance science writer with a special love for conservation and environmental news. Follow her on twitter @shreyadasgupta more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shreya is a freelance science writer with a special love for conservation and environmental news. Follow her on twitter @shreyadasgupta more

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