‘Let’s visit Durga puja pandal this visit!‘, said my husband, during our trip to West Bengal in 2019.
‘Pandal? What’s that?’ I thought, having never been to West Bengal before in Navratri time. But that autumn in West Bengal showed me such an amazing aspect of India that I was dismayed I had not known about it before.
For Durga puja pandal are unique. Not only are they a celebration of Navratri and Durga Puja, but also of West Bengal’s ethos, culture, food and craft. They are an ode to the Bengali way of life and their love for their culture, tradition and art. Perhaps that is why, come Durga puja, the mere mention of the words ‘pandal hopping’ makes anyone who has been part of the Bengali way of life feel nostalgic and reminiscent about the feverish energy of this festive season. For once you have seen the love and dedication that goes into making a Durga puja pandal, or the excitement of seeing one for the first time, you can never, ever forget it.
A pandal is a temporary or permanent structure used for social gatherings and cultural performances. Given below is one of the magnificent Durga puja pandal of West Bengal.
Themes and Elements
One of the most interesting aspects of Durga puja pandal is that each one of them is based on a theme. The theme could be evident from the very entrance of the pandal, or it could be evident once you enter it.
And an even more bewildering aspect is that majority of the pandal would be made out of a single element or building block. That element could be something as simple as grass, bamboo and wood to something as surprising as bells! Here is a brilliant pandal that we got to visit in 2019 which is made primarily of grass and bamboo.
Speaking of natural materials like grass and bamboo, take a look at this amazing pandal made of wood and bamboo. When we entered the pandal, I just couldn’t believe the amazing theme- Sanskrit shlokas carved out with bamboo!
While talking about things you just cannot believe, here’s the first pandal I went to. A gloriously carved structure which shone in different colors as we approached it through a crowd of people.
Guess what it is made of? You won’t believe it… it’s thermocol!
Here’s another one, made of paper! What stood out for me the most in this relatively simpler Durga Puja Pandal is the serenity of the face of the pandal, as well as the beautiful decoration of the Goddess Durga idol.
A Celebration of Ethos and Culture
Which brings me to the fact that Durga puja pandal are not only a celebration of Durga puja, but also the ethos and culture of Bengal. The region has always had a rich tradition of volunteerism, social clubs and love and respect for their art and culture. All of this is heavily evident in the pandals.
When I first heard this, I found it unbelievable that each pandal is financed by voluntary contribution from the local community. This involves contribution of both money and time! That means it is the community which finances the cost of construction of the entire pandal, often running into lakhs (and even crores in bigger cities like Kolkata). It is also the community members that painstakingly work with designers and local artisans to create pandals as beautiful and intricate as the one you see below.
The work that you see in this pandal is so intricate and delicate, that it is unbelievable that this is only a temporary structure which was built over the course of a few months, and would be dismantled after the festive season.
The sheer amount of work put in by community members is mind-boggling. Look at the amount of work involved to construct the Durga puja pandal below which is made of bells and bamboo only.
Pandal hopping is the activity of visiting the pandals in one’s area and enjoying the beauty of the structures and art created by one’s own fellow citizens. This is made even more fun because almost every big pandal also has a mela or fair around it, where one can ride on jhoole like the dragon boat, ferris wheel, boat rides, etc. There are also local dishes being served, out of which the most notable ones for me are vegetable, chicken and mutton chops, and a special lemon tea which contains both sugar and salt in an extremely well-balanced manner. Take a look at these delicious dishes below.
Boost of Local Economy
Taking all of this into cognizance, Durga Puja pandals obviously do a lot to boost local economy. As per a recent report by British Council of India , the festivities contribute around 3% to West Bengal’s GDP. The total economic worth of the activities is around Rs. 32377 crore and boosts economic activities of craftsmen, traditional food caterers, decorators and even local transportation industry!
Along with direct benefits, the pandals also bring into limelight and awareness local traditional artforms and regional cuisine. Here is a beautiful Durga Puja pandal, which pays ode to the mask-making tradition of Bengal. My guess is that these are the masks of Kushmandi, but correct me if I am wrong in the comments below. PS: this pandal- believe it or not- is made entirely of vehicle tyres!
And with that last beautiful Durga puja pandal, I end my article on pandal and pandal hopping. My single visit to West Bengal opened my eyes to how different cultures celebrate the same festival in their own special ways. If you would like to share your region’s special way to celebrate this season, do connect with me through the comments below!
- Primary research based on field visit
- Mapping the creative economy around Durga Puja, British Council of India