“Pujo Aaschhey”- Cultural heritage explorations in Delhi’s ‘Mini Bengal’

Courtesy: Vaishali Ahuja

Guest Post and Text by Vaishali AhujaAdditional pictures with respective credits wherever applicable is given.

It was my 3rd walk with DelhiByFoot and indeed just as pleasant as the other ones. The previous walks I participated in were more of historical heritage events while this one was a experience of the rich cultural heritage of the melting pot that Delhi is.

The event notice mentioned we will be witnessing the age-old traditions of the Bengali community as they prepare for their grandest festival, Durga Pujo in Chittaranjan Park (popularly called CR Park), which is home to the largest concentration of Bengali residents in Delhi NCR. The opportunity to experience the stories and shoot pictures of artisans making the Durga Pratima (Durga Idols), eating traditional foods and unique shopping as activities in our 3-hr walk was what had piqued my interest. So 8am on a Sunday morning, I hauled myself and my husband off for a exploration ofMini Bengal,’ as most Delhizens refer to CR Park.

I must say that the preparations by DelhiByFoot (DBF) were no less than the preparations for the Durga Pujo celebrations. Although most of us, the participants were eager to go and check out the artistry of the ‘Kumhars’ (Idol Makers) right away, DBF began the morning with a small round of orientation of the locality and its history. A short walk later through the streets of CR Park where we saw many workmen busy in erecting mammoth ‘Pandals’ (Tents set up for the actual 5-day pujo) in big open grounds, we took a break. Here we were served with a scrumptious Bengali breakfast in smartly packed boxes which I really enjoyed and the timing was perfect since by now all the participants were feeling the strong pangs of hunger!

RadhaBallavi (Puri with filling of Urad Daal), Aloo Dum and Bengali Sweets, the quintessential Sondesh and Kheerkodom. Pure Vegetarian Bliss!

Over breakfast we were introduced to our ‘Story-teller’ of the day, Mrs. Indrani Gupta who herself is a Bengali and has lived in this area for many years and also has been part of one of Delhi’s oldest Bengali community Pujo celebrations at Kashmiri Gate. She carried with her intricate details about the festival, essentially the how, where, when and why of everything related to Durga Pujo. Having witnessed the preparations of this festival since her early childhood she was also able to share the deviations of how things have changed over time in the fast paced world, where people are hard pressed to take out time for all the rituals and traditions. She pointed out alterations that have now come about, be it the setting up of the pandals to the way the idols are created to how the 5 days celebrations are done inside the pandals.

After breakfast was over we headed towards the Shiv Mandir (a large temple complex in the area) where the idol makers or the ‘Kumhars’ temporarily live for 3-4 months as they prepare the clay idols. The moment we stepped in the artisan’s compound, the buzz of activity was palpable.

The workshop of the Artisans (Kumhars) Pic Credits: Suvendu Das

Indrani Didi, as we all addressed her, was truly engaging in her story telling technique and I thoroughly enjoyed her stories which were embellished with the different mythological and practical philosophies related to the origin of Durga Puja celebrations. One being of how Shri Ram prayed to Goddess Durga for her blessings before he began his attack against Ravana, which actually helped me figure out how closely the story of the legendary battle of Lord Rama and Ravana  ending on Dussehra, matches the culmination of Durga Pujo with ‘Visarjan’ (immersion) of the Durga Idol on the same day when rest of North Indians celebrate Dussehra. While the other one was that during this time of year, Goddess Durga killed the Mahishasur, the Buffalo Demon, who started to destroy the world after getting powers of invincibility from Lord Brahma. Hindus worship all forms of the Divine Goddess Shakti by observing fast during the 9 days of Navratra.

The idol makers do not use many tools while making these idols. Just the brush and the required glazing clays do enough over the base skeleton of bamboo and hay.
Vegetable dye-based, water-soluble colours are applied using brushes and then a bit of glazing is enough to create the masterpieces of clay!

The idol makers do not use any fancy tools while making these idols. Bare hands create a base skeleton of bamboo, hay, hemp and clay. Multiple layers of fine clay is used to sculpt the features and painstaking effort goes in making these clay idols in separate stages over many weeks. The most primitive philosophy of making these idols of clay is that they come from and go back to the Earth after ‘Visarjan’ (Immersion of idol in water)

A 3-pic collage shows the It was a great experience shooting them, knowing how the idols are made in stages, how they are beautified
A 3-pic collage by Ramit, co-founder of DelhiByFoot and my husband Mohit shows how the basic skeleton of the idol gets its multiple layers, and the idol’s finer features and expressions become easily visible as each stage progresses.
Sheer experience of many years of idol making gives the senior-most Kumhar, usually the Head Kumhar, the privilege the Head Kumhar creates the faces of the idols. of
Sheer experience of many years of idol making gives the senior-most Kumhar (Idol maker), usually the Head craftsman, the privilege of carving the idol’s faces and heads; and their devotion shows in the benevolent and beatific expression on the Divine Mother’s face!

Bengalis celebrate these 9 days as the arrival of Goddess Durga to visit her parental house from her heavenly abode of Kailash where Lord Shiva resides. She descends on Earth with her children, Goddess Saraswati and Lakshmi and the Gods Ganesh and Kartik to live amidst the people. Before these 9 days, devotees pray to her through songs that welcome her imminent arrival and on the 10th day, Dashami, they bid adieu to her with farewell prayers at the Visarjan ( idol is immersed in any water body).

I was amazed with the details of the features of the idol, that too done on base coat of simple ‘mitti’ (clay). After the remaining layer of polishing clay is smeared, followed by painting, enameling and ornamentation, it will be a lovely sight!
Vaishali_CR Park_DurgaPujan-2
Beheaded ‘Mahisha’ (literally Buffalo in Sanskrit) the form in which the mighty ‘Asura’ (Demon) changed into before he was finally killed by the Goddess. This I believe signifies the winning of battle by Good over Evil.

DelhiByFoot ended the walk at the local CR Park bazaars which sell all things Bengali- from daily groceries to special things which are considered necessary for the Puja, for example traditional clothing attire and cotton sarees. Me and my husband had been enjoying listening and clicking pictures so much that we hardly realised how soon the 3 hours had elapsed! Some of us bade adieu while others stayed for a luncheon of Bengali delicacies. I left the place wondering how beautiful this area would soon be, as in the second week of October, thousands will come to worship the beautiful idols inside aesthetically themed and designed Durga Pujo Pandals and the people will all be enjoying the festive fervor.

The Story-teller at the market. Pic Courtesy: Papiya Banerjee
DBF’s Story-teller explaining a finer point at the market. Pic Credits: Papiya Banerjee

I really like the concept of such walks where they have specialized people who can narrate you the stories with their experiences and references. I had a great experience, learning more about my countrymen of a different state and I will be back surely this year during the Durga Pujo to actually experience the festivities first hand!  Kudos to DelhiByFoot for organizing this wonderful walk and sharing such a rich aspect of Delhi with the lucky few!

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