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Beautiful Chaos at Kolkata's Durga Puja

Think of it as the world’s largest, most popular public art fair.
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Michael Snyder

KOLKATA, India -- There are two things about Kolkatans, my friend Santanu tells me. "We’re work-shirkers and we’re anarchists." I can’t speak to the local work ethic, but there is a strain of anarchic fervor in the celebrations surrounding Durga Puja, the City of Joy’s most important festival.

Over the course of two hot, humid months at the tail end of the monsoon season, 20,000 new structures come up around the city for the pujas, celebrated over five days in September or October, depending on the lunar Hindu calendar. Each structure houses an enormous image of the 10-armed goddess Durga riding her lion and slaying the demon Mahishasura, and flanked by her four divine children: Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik.

These temporary temples, called pandals, go up in every imaginable open space – and a fair number of unimaginable ones. They overtake intersections, fill traffic circles, choke narrow alleyways and transform neighborhood parks into raucous, trash-strewn fairgrounds. Visitors flood the city; 100,000 dhakis (drummers) alone arrive from neighboring villages to play at the pandals. One pandal organizer estimates that Kolkata’s population – already a staggering 14 million in the metro area – swells by another million during the pujas. "You could call it chaos," he says, "but there’s also an energy and vivacity."

Busy commercial thoroughfares empty of traffic while otherwise quiet parras – the name for Kolkata’s tight-knit residential communities, the organizing units of the city – are mobbed with surging crowds of families and friends out ‘pandal-hopping’ into the wee hours of the morning.