Durga Puja is the largest festival of Bengal. It is inherently a community celebration and people have fun together. Durga Puja in Kolkata during coronavirus, therefore, is tricky. Durga Puja and the threat of the spread of COVID 19 are worrying everybody. Then how to enjoy Durga Puja in Kolkata safely?
Durga Puja in Kolkata during COVID
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It is common knowledge that Durga Puja is the largest festival in West Bengal, if not India. People in the state wait with bated breath for these 5 to 6 days of festivities. The Bengali diaspora spread not only all over India, but all over the world, either come back home or attend the Durga Puja celebrations in the vicinity. While Durga Puja has a religious basis, the festivities gain precedence in Bengal. There are fairs and exhibitions, theatres and cultural programs, Durga Puja food on the street or at restaurants, get-togethers with friends and families. These activities are as inherent to Kolkata Durga Puja as are the rituals. The city does not sleep for 5 to 6 days with public buses, metro rail, yellow taxis and radio cabs plying throughout the night. In other words, one does not have to be a believer to enjoy the Durga Puja carnival. There is hardly any Bengali who is unaffected by Durga Puja. Tourists from various parts of India and the globe also choose this time to visit Kolkata and experience Durga Puja.
A point to note is that Navratri and Durga Puja are essentially the same festival about worshipping the Divine Mother or Shakti. However, in North India, Navratri is about fasting and observance while in the east, Durga Puja stands for feasting and celebrations. One of us is from Delhi and the other is from Kolkata. So we are always amused as to how we fast and feast during the autumnal Navratri. In fact, we have a dedicated post on the contrast of this festival talking about the difference between Durga Puja and Navratri.
Durga Puja and threat of spread of COVID 19
Like many Indian festivals, Durga Puja is a community festival. A common Puja would be organised in a neighbourhood, or a housing society or a local club. A minuscule number of Durga Pujas are held at home. Be it a community Puja or a home Puja, this festival would entail a huge assembly of people. Hence, the threat of coronavirus infection is very real during this year’s Durga Puja festival. On the other hand, Durga Puja is a huge industry in Eastern India. Not only artisans who make the Durga idols but lakhs of other people also heavily rely on Durga Puja for their livelihood. So doing away with Durga Puja for the year would create further havoc in the lives of many people already in economically backward sectors.
Given the grim situation, preparations for Durga Puja started very late this year, with some reluctance and loads of hesitation. Many organizing committees chose to have a symbolic ritual, perhaps shunning the idol, but only offering prayers to the holy urn or the ghot. Larger Puja organisers scaled-down arrangements. However, there are still pandals, idols and decorations and visitors are expected to come and see these Pujas. All public Puja organisers have taken suitable steps to have open marquees, keep entry and exit free, refuse entry if the visitor is not masked and avoid crowds. But the primary activities during the festival involve dressing up in new clothes and visit one Durga Puja from another, and in the interim flock at restaurants and innumerable street food stalls. In a densely populated city like Kolkata and greater Kolkata, it is naïve to believe that physical distancing can be maintained during this festival.
Brilliantly appropriate #covid19-themed Durga Puja creativity from Kolkata, with the goddess slaying the virus! Salutations to the unknown designer & sculptor #DurgaPuja2020 pic.twitter.com/Q8ZT8EtWfo
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) October 19, 2020
Needless to say, the fear of a surge in coronavirus infection, post Durga Puja, is of huge concern and the doctors in the state have been waving red flags for a while. They have been suggesting that this Durga Puja, people skip pandal- hopping and stay at home. But the jury is divided on this issue. One section of the population has decided to not step out and do some rituals at home. There is another section that is, however, all dressed up and has already hit the celebrations, albeit in smaller groups and mostly in masks.
Adding to the confusion is the recent Calcutta High Court order restricting entry to all Durga Puja pandals. As per the order, only a limited number of organisers would be allowed inside a pandal and visitors should view the celebrations from barricade 10 metres away. Many Durga Puja organisers are upset with the order. Their pandal design is such that if a visitor is not allowed inside the pandal, they will not be able to view the Pujo. They have applied for a review of this judgment and we wonder whether the Hon’ble High Court will side with safety or with public sentiments.
Our safe Durga Puja mantra
One of us has been camping in Kolkata for Durga Puja. In his experience, things are still very much within control. The pandal-hopping brigade is sparse and that too limited to very renowned Durga Puja clusters. The heavy crowd that we see on the road during other years is missing and the silence during Durga Puja times is, at times, eerie.
He thinks it is wise to restrain and stay safe. Yet, he has decided to follow the below rules if he does go to check-out the scene at a few pandals.
- Wear a mask at all times and carry 1 or 2 extra masks in case the first mask dampens with sweat or tears or is rendered incapable of use for some other reason.
- Carry abundant sanitizers and keep using that frequently since there are chances you would brush against people.
- Stick to short tours and be back within 1 or 2 hours and shower well immediately.
- Unlike other years, just choose 1 or 2 times during the Durga Puja period for going out. This way, you can feel the festival yet limit exposure.
- Avoid assemblies of people by all means. If a Durga Puja looks crowded, don’t visit that pandal.
- Be it a restaurant or a street food vendor, physical distancing could be an issue. It is best to avoid eating outside during this period. Carrying a bottle of drinking water may be helpful.
- Avoid public transport in this period. Cover whatever distance you can on foot and that too stay away from populated roads.
- This could be tricky. Try to go out at off-peak hours. Avoid afternoons and evenings. From experience we can say, early mornings are a good time. People who are doing a night-out are home and asleep by then and the day-crowd is yet to hit the roads.
- Stay away from group activities such as sindoor-khela and immersion or visarjan procession. Participate only if you are instrumental in the activity and can ensure that there is no crowding.
- If you live with children or older people who are more vulnerable to coronavirus, make the sacrifice and be at home. Just this year, you can view the Puja on television or social media or in the many festival number books that are printed in this period.
Last but not the least, use your judgment and prudence. If a festival zone seems risky in terms of corona exposure, and you are doing it merely for recreation, stay away. You owe that to yourself, your family and your peer group.
No matter how, have a safe festival season.