Growing up in a region with a cosmopolitan nature gave me a chance to understand different cultures. The North-East is an area with a sizeable Bengali population. Thus, after Christmas, the major festival celebrated here is Durga Puja, popularly known as Sharadiya Utsav. The ethnic Assamese or Asomiya people also celebrate it. As the festive season approaches, my Bengali friends would say that they could easily smell the fragrance of puja in the air. It is an event to welcome goddess Durga into our homes from her husband Shiva’s abode.
Truly so, as it is a time when we would be preparing for the approaching two weeks long holiday. Usually, this holiday would be granted to help students prepare for the upcoming seasonal examination. This would not a spirit-dampener though, as pupils would start preparing in advance in anticipation of the event. The preparation would start with shopping for sarees as far as ladies are concerned. Most shops all across the region would start off with their discounts as well as new entries. It is therefore, not unusual to see people cutting across ethnic and religious lines shopping alike.
It is a perfect time to embark on a travelling spree with an intention to shop, pray and eat. Along with friends, I would take a ride from the cities to the country-sides in order to compare the differences of how city-dwellers go about it in relation to villagers. In fact, transport modes are jammed in the region as students and professionals alike rush back to their homes in order to be with family and friends.
Once the main event kicks off on Panchami or the fifth day, it is usual for friends to hang out and visit various pandals and mandaps across the town or city. Believers seek the mother deity’s blessings and then hang out on the premises for a chat. It is almost an undeclared rule that the attendees dress in the best attire available. Most prefer ethnic wear, though I prefer casuals. Kids and women-folk also engage in competitions related to singing, dancing and cookery respectively, giving it a decent carnival-like feel. For some, the prime source of attraction at these venues is the food.
Depending on the stalls put up, you can find a wide variety of food here. Specialities mostly include Bengali delicacies such as rice and fish curry (Hilsa, Rohu, Chinggri and other variations), egg chops, fish chops, poori, khichdi (not to be confused with the Hyderabadi breakfast dish). These days, Biryani dishes are also gaining popularity. No Bengali feast is complete without sweets. Make sure you grab your dessert share.
With the immersion of the idols in water bodies during the culmination of the event called Dashami (signifying a send-off to lord Shiva’s abode), comes the time of private invitations for friends and relatives. This is the occasion, when sweets such as the Rasogolla, Gulab Jaamun, Sandesh, Chom Chom, Rasmalai, Bundhiya and Laddoos are distributed. Many households also go for the Hilsa fish and Pantha Bhaath (rice soaked in water) in order to relate with the mother goddess’ immersion in water. This is where a network of regional friends set in place come into play in order to help you relish the sweets on time.
If you are planning a trip to the East any time soon, this is the right time to start. The Durga Puja hubs include the states of West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and parts of Bihar and Jharkhand. The neighbouring countries of Bangladesh and Nepal too celebrate it with much vigour and enthusiasm. Since it sometimes rains in the region this time of the year, make sure you carry an umbrella.