The festival of Durga Puja, referred to as Durgotsav in Bengal, has now stretched far beyond religion and is the common man’s time of festivity and break for five special days. People visit different Pujas conducted by clubs and associations. The themes of pandal and idols of these pujas change every year. Pandals compete for different awards for themes, decorations, idols and a host of other smaller things, and this competition enables us to see newer and grander creations every year.
Generally overlooked by the pandal-hoppers are the Durga Pujas held privately by several families, many of whom were affluent zamindar families and are still loyalists to the old school ways of celebrating the festival. Although many of these families are no longer as affluent owing to the abolition of the zamindari system after independence, they still perform Durga Puja with dedication, maintaining all the rituals. These are known as ‘bonedi barir pujo’ in Bengali, or ‘Pujas of aristocratic homes.’ Some date back to more than four hundred years. Everyone in the families gather to celebrate Durga Puja with pomp and show as an annual get-together.
Skip a few of the regular ones and make time for some of the famous ‘bonedi barir’ Pujas. The aftertaste will linger for a long time.
Chhatubabu-Latubabur Durga Puja – At his Beadon Street residence, Ishwar Ram Dulal Deb (Sarkar) started organising Durga Puja from 1770. This later became popular as Chhatubabu-Latubabur Durga Puja. The ten-day puja begins with pratipad, Till Sasthi, the sixth day, the puja is performed on the ghot, without the idol. On Saptami, after the 'Kolabou' ritual, idol worship begins with a wooden framework of the goddess Durga's idol. Famously, two neelkontho birds are set free at the time of the immersion: it is said that one flies to Mt Kailash to inform about the departure of Devi Durga and her entourage for home, while the other, which is set free in the middle of Ganga, comes back to inform the family members of the safe departure of the goddess.
Chhatubabu-Latubabur Bari at Beadon Street
Bhawanipore Mitra Family Durga Puja – Located on Paddapukur Road in south Kolkata at the Mitra residency, this Puja dates back to 1757. The idol appears to be dwiabhuja, or two-handed, at first sight but it actually has ten hands, the same as the others; just that two are natural hands and the rest, short and on the shoulders. Eight of the hands being so short, after the idol is dressed up, you cannot see them, and hence the misconception. You can see the thakurdalan from the road itself.
Bhawanipore Mitra Bari Durga Puja
Jorasanko Daw Bari – Situated in north Kolkata, this aristocratic family of Bengal since time immemorial has been paying its tribute to the goddess with this traditional Puja. It proves that Durga Puja is not just about themes and winning prizes. It is as much, if not more, about deep-rooted traditions, rituals and culture. Jorasanko Daw Bari ranks as one of the finest ‘bonedi barir pujo’ of the city.
Jorasanko Daw Bari
Ghosh Bari Durga Puja of Pathuriaghata – The Ghosh family came to Pathuriaghata at the time of governor-general Warren Hastings of Bengal. It is said that Hastings and his wife visited the Ghosh family. The family has made substantial contributions in music and in charity. The mansion, filled with marble sculptures, paintings, crystal chandeliers and other art objects, is also the home to the goddess Durga during the ten-day festival.
Durga Puja at Ghosh Bari of Pathuriaghata
Chorbagan Seal Bari – Kshetramoni Debi, wife of a successful businessman and exporter, took the initiative to start Durga Puja in the Seal family, about a century-and-a-half ago. There is a plaque at the house to this effect. The Seal family follows Vaishnavism and is strictly vegetarian.
Chorbagan Seal Bari’s Durga Puja
Laha Bari Durga Puja – It is said that the Laha Bari Durga Puja, one of the famous ones of Kolkata, started some 170 years ago. Spiritually inclined Rajiblochan Law was said to have been visited in his dreams by his family goddess, who asked him to perform Durga Puja. The descendants have continued to perform the Puja to this day. You will not find the common form of the goddess gracing the mandap. Here Durga is seen in the arms of Lord Shiva and her eyes are closed shut; the reason being that Ma Durga bestowed a lot of wealth on the Law family. This unique form of the goddess is the speciality of the Laha Bari Durgotsav
Bakulia House, Khidderpore – Passing through the bustling Watgaunge Road, one reaches Bakulia House. It once belonged to an illustrious Bengali, Bisweshwar Mookerjee, who built up a business empire from a very humble state. He started Durga Puja on his premises more than 150 years ago. From the day of Panchami, the Vien (a system of preparing a variety of sweets) starts functioning at home and Ma Durga is draped in sari and ornaments.
Durga Puja at Bakulia House, Khidderpore
Sovabazar Rajbari Durga Puja – Started in 1757, Durga Puja celebration takes places in the two palaces of the Sovabazar royal family of Raja Nabakrishna Deb, founder of the Sovabazar Rajbari. It is said that Goddess Durga comes here to listen to music.
At the Sovabazar Rajbari Durgotsav
Mitra Bari of Dorjipara – In 1807, Radha Kisen Mitra, one of the famous trade merchants of the time, who had business connections with USA, performed the first Puja in his Darjipara residence. The Mitra family of Darjipara (presently known as Nilmoni Mitra Street) is one of the few families of Kolkata that has celebrated traditional Durga Puja for the past 200 years and more.
Prasad of Dorjipara Mitra Bari Durga Puja
Nilmani Dey Thakurbari Durga Puja – The 116-year-old Durga Puja at Nilmani Dey Thakurbari in central Kolkata has an interesting history. Nilmoni Dey was an ordinary clerk who stayed at his maternal uncle’s house after his father’s death. Later on, he left his job and started his own business. After being well-settled and raising up a family, it is said that one day he was instructed by divine intervention through a dream to build a Lakshmi Jagannath Temple. There was a wood storage shed just adjacent to his house. He bought the land and built a Lakshmi Narayan temple in 1896. Later he created a kashthipathar idol of Durga and worshipped it. At present, a trust manages the expenses of the temple. The worship of Devi Durga is done in the Vaishnavaite style. Many other pujas are also held here.
Nilmani Dey Thakurbari Durga Puja
Cooch Behar Debi Bari Durgotsav – The Debi Bari Durga Puja is now a part of folklore, especially in the district of Cooch Behar, where it has been held for more than 500 years. It is organised by the erstwhile royal family, and it always has its gates open for the general people. The image of Durga is completely different from what we are accustomed to. Here she has emerged with a dreary look, red in colour. The right hand is bit by a ferocious lion and left hand by a tiger. The height of the image is 11 foot. Laxmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh have been replaced with Jaya and Bijaya.
The unusual idol of Durga
Sen Bari Durga Puja, Berhampore – In 1896, a sub-judge of undivided Bengal, Radhakrishna Sen started Durga Puja at his Sen Bari in Khagra, Berhampore. Before Durga Puja started, the members of Sen Bari used to organise Jaggadhatri Puja. In 1896, the family shifted to Durga Puja with the help of Radhakrishna Sen and his daughter Bindubasini Devi. The tradition has continued ever since.
Rituals at the the Sen Bari Puja
An old picture of Durga Puja celebrations at Sen Bari