Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 12 – Importance of a story

The Victoria Memorial is a museum consisting of about 20 odd galleries with plenty of historical artefacts, and welcoming us was a statue of Robert Clive. The museum had a special focus on Bengal’s history from the European times on why they came in the 1500s attracted by the riches in the place (silk and spices), the Mughals permitting them to set up a settlement for trading and later constructing factories, etc.

There were weapons and ammunition from battles like the Battle of Plassey that happened in the 1750s, where the British East India Company under the leadership of Robert Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, who was supported by the French; they had on display artefacts like French guns that were captured by the victors.
The museum had a mix of photographs, drawings, and real artefacts, and in some cases, they tried to recreate scenes of life in Bengal (these did look pretty real and reminded me of the artisanship in pandals).

(the thumbnails may look a little blurry – click on them to see the original pic)

The 1900s is when the Victoria Memorial was constructed, and as the name suggests, it was dedicated to Queen Victoria. On the lawns of the Memorial, there is a statue of Queen Victoria where you’d find her holding 2 objects in her hands – one is the orb, which is supposed to signify the monarch’s power. The other one, I think, must be the sceptre. These are a part of the British monarchy, and the orb and sceptre were used even recently in the ceremony for Charles’ coronation.

I found the galleries that had a storyline far more interesting than the ones where you had just a bunch of artefacts on display with just a name tag – like in the weaponry section, there were dozens of swords and guns stacked one beside the other. You just tend to gloss over these.

It was bright and sunny today, which didn’t help that we had to keep walking inside and outside most of the time. We spent about 90 minutes in the Memorial and left at 12:30.

Our next stop, the Indian Museum, was about 2.5 kilometres away – a walkable distance, but considering the sun, we decided to get a lift. We hopped onto a bus. Many of these buses were run by private companies – the tickets were odd – they reprinted the ticket on what seemed like used sheets of paper. And the buses also look pretty old – I guess they stick to the saying “Why fix something if it ain’t broke”! The bus was pretty empty, and we were surprised to hear a few passengers raise their voices; an argument ensued between them and the conductor – we didn’t know Bengali but could guess that it was about the stops – I think they wanted the bus to stop somewhere, but the conductor said it won’t.

Deb met us at the Indian Museum, the same neighbourhood where we had been yesterday. We had to leave our bags on a counter before entering the museum.
Deb said, “This is India’s oldest and largest museum.”
They had multiple galleries spread over many floors.

We started in the mammal’s gallery, where we were welcomed by huge tusks. There were a ton of artefacts, but only a few artefacts had some descriptive information – most just had a name tag. I felt they could have set it up like a storyline – which would have made it more interesting to spend time looking and learning rather than people just breezing by. After a point, seeing so many small artefacts, one beside the other, makes the experience feel monotonous. There must have been so many untold stories related to these artefacts.

On the ground floor, we saw a board that said there was a mask gallery above – on each floor, it said that it was above; we had to climb many steps to finally get to the 4th floor to see it! It housed different types of masks used in Bengal and other parts of the country – some were colourful, some scary, some like the face of Gods and some with animal faces. This gallery had a nice ambience but, again, needed a story.

“The Egyptian gallery will be good. They got a real mummy there,” Deb said as he led us to it. I guess the lights were very dim here to prevent any damage from happening to the mummy, and photography was also not permitted. This gallery had more descriptions for the artefacts and was probably the better-presented gallery in the museum.
When we left the Indian museum, I wondered about content vs presentation/marketing/storytelling. In the corporate world, we often see cases where there is very little content, but the presentation of that is done in such a way that, for an outsider, it would seem very impressive. Over here, it was the reverse – tons of content but no presentation or packaging.

At 2 pm, we were in Haldiram’s Food City.
“Best place for veg food,” Deb said.
I had a mental impression that Haldiram would be a chaat shop, so I expected a small outlet. But the place was huge with a couple of floors and still crowded. We managed to find a free table. We ordered their thalis (sort of a set lunch with fixed dishes on each plate); they are famous for chaat dishes as well, and so we ordered a few of those too – dhoklas, raj kachori, dahi chaat, kesar lassi. This is a quick-service restaurant, and we spent less than an hour there. Pretty filling meal.

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 11 – A non-pandal day

There were 3 people on the stage in the park, in front of the idols, who performed the Aarti; it was done 9 times, and a different item was used each time. Usually, in aartis, it is typical to use lamps, but over here, in each round, a different item was used – single lamp, multiple lamps, broom, mirror, lotus, dhoti, etc. I didn’t know the significance of the items, but I’m sure there was some history behind this. 

After the Aarti, we went to Balaram Mullick – a famous sweet shop in the neighbourhood. We had the mishti doi and stuffed ourselves with a few more sweets before leaving. While walking around, we landed in another pandal at around 10:30pm; we didn’t spend much time but clicked a few snaps and headed back to our hotel.

Back in the hotel, we continued our research for rooms for tomorrow because our other booking was cancelled. Deb suggested some alternative places – one unique place was called Floatel (a hotel on a ship). But fortunately, at midnight, we discovered availability in our existing hotel itself! Made sense to stay put rather than shift just for a day. 
Deb messaged, “We missed Kumartuli. I heard the theme was intergalactic connections, and the mandap is space-themed.”
I reminded him, “Still not missed. We have two more days!”

By 12:30 am, we dozed off – you’ll definitely have a sound sleep after walking so much in the day!

Day 4 – Sunday (6th October)

Kshitij messaged that from the 7th to 10th days of the puja, the crowds will be crazy. So it’s good to start pandal hopping on day 6 (this was the day after we landed when we covered many pandals). After day 6, the best time to visit pandals is early morning. The peak time tends to be from the afternoon to late at night, as we discovered yesterday. Kshitij sent a few links with images and videos of what’s there in some of the major North Kolkata pandals – space theme in Kumartuli, Muhammad Ali Park had recreated a Murugan temple from South India, Ahiritola had recreated the Somnath temple in Gujarat, College Square had based it on Umaid Bhawan in Rajasthan, Santosh Mitra had an idol made using 50 kgs of gold.

Seeing the list, I definitely wanted to do the North Kolkata pandals that we missed due to the crowds yesterday; since it was already late when we woke up today (8:30 am), today was ruled out. And Aaron had got tired of seeing so many pandals as well!

We shifted to another room on a different floor in the morning and then headed to St. Paul’s Cathedral in an Uber. The place was beside the Birla Planetarium.

This is a really old church constructed in the 1800s. A beautiful, well-maintained, lush green lawn in front of the church welcomes you. Inside the church is a huge hall where sermons are delivered. There were rows of benches and cushioning at the bottom in front of each row so that people could kneel down to pray if they wanted to. A few people were praying when we entered the hall. We sat for a few minutes in silence. After being amongst huge crowds, we appreciated the calm and quiet over here with barely a dozen people inside the church. Aaron clicked a snap in the main hall, and within a couple of minutes, a security guard came running in, asking for Aaron’s phone. “Delete the photo, delete the photo,” he kept repeating. No photos are allowed inside. We spent about 30 minutes in the church premises before heading to the Victoria Memorial, which was at a walkable distance.

There were two counters for purchasing tickets to enter the Memorial’s grounds; one counter had 20 people while another one on the side, at an awkward diagonal angle, had just 5. Did seem strange that as people came to the place, they automatically went to the longer queue – it seemed like people thought the shorter one was for something else. We got the ticket within 5 minutes and walked inside. There was a pebble path and a vast lawn. One side of the Memorial was undergoing renovation, so we had to walk all the way around the Memorial to get to the backside. The building looked impressive from the outside, constructed using white marble similar to the Taj Mahal.

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 10 – A homely Durga puja

We roamed around Park Street for a while, stepped into The Park hotel to check out their pub and then took an Uber to head back to South Kolkata – our destination was the Ladies Park (which is near the Maddox park we visited earlier on the trip) to see the aarti.
Our Uber driver kept accelerating and decelerating abruptly all through the trip. He kept cursing and honking as we got closer to our destination. Uber was expensive compared to Chennai for the same distances – but maybe it’s because of the festive season since there is so much demand.

Deb’s dad was a trustee in the group organizing the Ladies Park pandal. Along with the pandal, they had arranged for aartis (ceremony with lights) to be performed daily during the festival. Every pandal is sponsored by a committee – in many cases, you know the sponsor is a club because it would say so in the name itself – like the Ekdalia Evergreen Club pandal. Some of these Kolkata clubs have existed for decades.

Deb said, “In some society pujas, food is also served – typically for members”.
The pandal here was simple; simple is the wrong word because even the simple ones are grand. However, after you’ve seen the big-budget pandals, these neighbourhood ones are relatively simpler and smaller in scale. But these are the ones that feel homely since you don’t have the large crowds around; you can sit peacefully, have a conversation and not worry about being asked to keep moving. The Goddess here in her ten hands held ten different items (the conch, an arrow, a sword, a trident, etc.) – you don’t see this everywhere; depending on the artist and the theme of the pandal, they customize what she holds – sometimes it’s all 10 hands on the trident, or sometimes each hand has a different mudras (hand gestures). There is meaning to each of the items she holds, and each mudra also has a meaning.

Deb introduced us to his family members, and we took seats to watch the aarti.
“It all starts with the Mahalaya – the first day of Durga Puja”, he said.
And apparently, on the first day, there is an early morning broadcast in West Bengal on All India Radio about the background of the puja – the narrator describes the battle between the Goddess and the demon Mahishashura. The program is called ‘Mahisasuramardini’ (slayer of Mahishasura).
“This is done every year, and everyone listens to it. Every year at 4 in the morning. It’s so popular that they even sold CDs of the program.”
(On a related note – there is a hymn dedicated to the Goddess Durga that you will find online when you search for Mahisasuramardini).

The story

Durga puja begins on Mahalaya (the day when the Goddess is supposed to have descended to Earth), which happened to be on 28th September this year. Celebrations start on the 6th day (Sasthi). The 5th day is called Panchami, and that was the night we landed in Kolkata.

The story goes that the demon Mahishasura underwent strict penance for years (they call it ‘tapasya’) in the hope of getting more strength – in devotion, he fasted and prayed continuously; his intensity was such that the creator Brahma felt he had to be rewarded for his effort, and so he asked him what he would like to have. Mahishasura asked for immortality, but that was not possible since Brahma said everyone born has to die. And so he asked for the boon indirectly – that no man can kill him. He probably thought that since he was a strong demon, there was no way a woman could kill him. Brahma granted him his wish.
And what ensued was that the demon challenged the gods and none of the gods could defeat him because of the boon. And since no woman was strong enough to challenge the demon, the gods got together to bring Goddess Durga into existence. Each of the gods gave her their unique strengths and weapons – the chakra (discus), the trident, etc. (these are what you see her holding in her 10 hands).
The battle is said to have lasted for 9 days before the Goddess severed his head on the 10th day (called Vijayadashami) – the victory of good over evil.

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 9 – Peter Cat

Day 3 continued in North Kolkata…

At 4 pm, we reached the Bagbazar pandal (about 500 meters from Kumartuli) – the organization creating pandals here has been doing it for decades – it is one of the oldest in the city. There was a carnival outside on the ground with plenty of stalls and a giant wheel – the setting seemed like a larger version of the Maddox park. The pandal over here wasn’t as grand as some of the others we had seen – it was a simpler traditional one, but I guess due to its history, it drew a lot of visitors.

At 4:30 pm, we entered the Sovabazar Rajbari (Shobhabazar Royal Palace) pandal, a walkable distance from Bagbazar. These pandals were packed, but you could still enter after waiting a few minutes, and the crowd kept moving constantly; so it wasn’t as bad as the Kumartuli one where the crowd tended to stagnate for a while. This pandal in North Kolkata also has a legacy – it is in an old palace built in the 1700s, which has celebrated Durga Puja for centuries. You land in an open courtyard in the centre with rooms around it.

The intensity of rain varied from time to time – we took shelter under buildings when the intensity picked up, and whenever there was a letup, we would continue walking since we didn’t bring umbrellas. Walking would take a lot of time in this weather and with this crowd, so we tried to hop into empty autos as they passed. One of the auto drivers agreed to let us hop in but said he would drop us off on the main road. He kept his word and dropped us near the metro station at 5:15 pm. We searched for Ubers but to no avail; we thought we’d check out the metro, but the station itself was overflowing – we could have waited inside, but our only exit option was via a cab. Since Ubers were ruled out, Deb said we could try the local taxi. But for that, we’d have to flag one down on the main road – a part of the road was barricaded to prevent pedestrians from creating traffic problems. But that also meant that to stop a taxi, we’d have to somehow catch the attention of the driver, who would be a lane away from us. We positioned ourselves at the station’s entrance, but because of the rain, many people took shelter inside, and it reached a point where we could barely keep our heads in the building!

Each time Deb saw an Ambassador taxi, he would step out near the barricade and frantically wave his hand, but most of the cabs were unfortunately already occupied. We learnt from him and tried the same. After many attempts, we finally managed to get one.

We reached Peter Cat restaurant at about 6 pm. You’d think that’s fairly early, but since it was the festival holidays, even at this hour, we had to wait for a few minutes to get a table! But it wasn’t bad since at night it is close to impossible to get a table here without a long wait. They have a fairly narrow entrance, but it was surprising to see the amount of real estate they had for such a small entrance – they had an upper floor as well; so there were a lot of tables, but all were occupied.

The lighting was dim with a red hue, just enough to see each other, but on each table, they did have a light on top – so you could clearly see what you were eating! Deb and Kshitij had recommended this place – their signature dish is the Chelo kebab, which we ordered along with a couple of sizzlers.
Deb said, “They are famous for this, and I always have sizzlers when I come here.”
The quick service certainly helps their business because they always have people waiting to get in. We were there for probably 45 minutes or so – and all the dishes were really good. Definitely worth the visit, and like Deb said, “After having the sizzlers here, you may not enjoy sizzlers in other places as much!”

I later learnt that Peter Cat is a forty-year-old restaurant, and they’ve maintained their reputation and standard of food across decades.

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 8 – The market

Deb took us through the side lanes in Esplanade, a classic market area you’d find in metro cities in India. And over here, we saw the New Empire Cinema – one of the early theatres in Kolkata, functioning even today. He led us to a shopping complex which was like an ancient mall – the Sir Stuart Hogg Market, also called the New Market. Seeing the red bricks and the name, you’d know that the place was built by the English – and this was constructed in the 1870s. There are literally thousands of shops in the complex – none of the glitz and glamour of regular shopping malls but a place where you could get good quality items at reasonable prices; there were a range of shops from bakery items to textiles. It was heartening to hear that people still came to this place for shopping. We had a pastry from a bakery before leaving the market. Just beside the Hogg market is an underground shopping mall, but we didn’t want to check out the usual shopping malls.

It was 12:45 pm when we decided to go to our next area in Kolkatta. Our hotel receptionist had said that the metro would run all day, but in the Esplanade metro station, a notice said the metro service starts only at 1 pm. Since there was still some time, Deb took us to KC Das, a famous sweet outlet. Loved the strawberry rosgollas here; the place, as expected, was crowded. In fact, all the market areas in Esplanade were crowded even though it was midday and drizzling as well. We did spot a tram, but since it was drizzling, we didn’t run to hop into it.

The metro station had an electronic display that said when the train would arrive; but repeatedly the time kept getting refreshed to a later time! Finally, the metro did come, and that’s when I remembered why Kshitij was surprised at how we managed the metro yesterday night. Yesterday night, the metro was full, but we could comfortably stand inside – today, this train was packed 3 or 4 times over. You could barely even put a foot on the train – people were literally overflowing. When the metro stops, people get out, and people get in – but here the train stopped, the doors opened, and it was like people exploding out onto the platform, and while that was happening, there was a surge of people storming into the train. If you were lucky, like Aaron was, you’d get sucked in with the storm into the train. If you weren’t, you’d get caught like me with most of your body inside the train while your backpack was still outside! I could have tried to muscle through a bit, but it was pretty suffocating – so Deb and I pulled out. But Aaron, who was sucked in by the storm, couldn’t get out! We signalled to him to stay put.

The crowd in the metro station had also swelled by then, and we decided it was pointless to try the metro. We took an Uber to Sovabazaar, which is in North Kolkata – cab fare was quite reasonable; for Rs. 120, we could have just done the Uber instead of attempting the metro – but then, it was quite an experience, so no regrets!

The place where we got off was filled with pedestrians – the police had barricaded the side of roads to ensure traffic could flow without pedestrian hindrance.
“Let’s do lunch and then check out the pandals,” Deb suggested.
He led us towards the Arsalan restaurant – they are famous for their non-veg dishes; especially the biryani and their reshmi kebab. The place was packed, and a long queue was waiting to get inside. On the way, we noticed that even lesser-known restaurants in the area were packed – so this wasn’t a surprise. We bought their chicken biryani from the takeaway counter and found space outside to stand and eat. Deb said, “This is not their best. During festival times, since there is so much demand, the standard won’t be as good as normal times.” But I did find that this also was quite tasty.

The pandal we wanted to visit was Kumartuli – a top performer in the pandal competitions in the past. As we headed towards the place, the crowds increased. We had been warned about crowds in pandals – this was indeed our first one. What we witnessed at midnight was nothing compared to this deluge. A sea of people flanked both sides of the pandal, and the pathway to the pandal also was packed. And this even though there was a mild drizzle – people didn’t seem to mind the rain either. It would take at least an hour or two by the looks of it since the crowd wasn’t moving quickly – didn’t seem worth the wait when you are on a short trip.

Click on the image and zoom in to see if you can spot the end of the line!

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 7 – Crowds at midnight

Midnight of day 2

Suruchi was the first pandal, where we experienced a large crowd – we had been warned that this was how the festival season would be – it took us about 30 minutes in the queue to reach the pandal; it was almost midnight. The setup was like that of a large single-storied house with clouds recreated on top – this was an outdoor pandal – some parts of the house were built out while many sections had just the scaffolding so you could see the entire structure.

Note: You can click on the images to view the full pic

They used a mix of materials for the building – cement, bricks, metal, bamboo and wood. The goddess was grand in a hue of yellow and red, wielding a spear directed at the demon down below.
As we exited the pandal, there was a massive crowd outside as well around the numerous stalls lined up for quite a distance. We didn’t spend time in the stalls, but let the crowd carry us out!

Our next stop was Behela 14 number bus stand from where Kshitij said we could get a bus; we hopped into one which was partially occupied but didn’t have a conductor! Kshitij messaged that we were in communist land, and perhaps travel today was free since the conductor himself had gone out for Durga puja! But after a couple of stops, the conductor hopped into the bus!

Tunnel of colours

We first landed in Nutan Sangha; a very colourful pathway welcomed us – a tunnel of colours with weird shapes. Kshitij said that there are typically some organizers around in each pandal who can be identified by badges or id cards on them and that they would be able to explain the theme of the pandal. But we only spotted police volunteers who were quite busy managing the crowd.

Next up was Behela Friends; the theme was writing – typewriters, letters, manuscripts, paper, files, and books. There were plenty of typed pages, but unfortunately, we couldn’t read Bengali, so we didn’t know what the content meant. 

Behela Debdaru Fatak had a cartoony theme with local Bengali comic strips and plenty of pots painted with Indian cartoony faces. It was past 1 am when we finished the Behela area. I kept sending snaps of the pandals to Kshitij, and he kept messaging us on the next one in the area to check out – he was our live virtual guide for the night! For some reason, my Google Maps wasn’t showing nearby pandals, but during the festival, this is an easy way for you to navigate from one pandal to the next.

With all the walking, we were exhausted and decided to Uber back to the hotel. The first cab we booked sped past us, and when he stopped and called, we couldn’t get him to understand that he had to turn around. The next time we booked a cab, we kept an eye on the map and blocked it as soon as we saw it from a distance – reached the hotel at 2:30 am.

Day 3 – Saturday – 5th October (Saptami)

I briefly woke up at 5:30 am but immediately dozed off, and the next time I saw the mobile, it was 8:30. Aaron slept soundly for another 45 minutes. Our friend Deb joined us at 11 at the hotel; it had been raining since morning – a constant drizzle with sudden bursts of heavy downpours.

We took an Uber to Esplanade (on the metro line, it is the stop following Park Street) and then walked past the Indian Museum and the Grand Oberoi 5-star hotel. Just outside the hotel compound were a row of proper air-conditioned shops. And outside these shops, many street-side vendors had put up makeshift stalls selling imitation goods. It was amusing, considering that they were just outside a 5-star hotel. But even more ironic was seeing a vendor selling fake Nike products in front of a real Nike shop selling genuine products!

Esplanade shops
Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 6 – Night in Park Street

We walked a few minutes to discover the Abasar pandal – this was the first pandal where we saw a separate entrance called ‘jury entrance’. The top pandals are announced every year, and this adds to the competitive spirit between the organizations. The regular queue for visitors had a few people in line, but it wasn’t too long; was just a short wait. And there were some uniquely decorated lamps outside the pandal that kept Aaron busy with his photo shots. This was the first one where we saw a moving contraption that was part of the decoration outside the pandal. The lighting and colours gave a different feel to this pandal as we stepped into a beautiful corridor. The backdrop of the Goddess was cottony (literally filled with cotton fluffs) while the Goddess looked serene – the photo definitely doesn’t do justice to what we actually saw. The fluffy cotton added to the serenity. The organizers had to keep asking folks to move along – similar to what happens in crowded temples.
Walking out of Abasar, we stumbled into another pandal where there was no queue, and so we just walked straight in to be welcomed by the Goddess here with a large head.

(click on the images to view a larger version)

Kshitij, in his list of places, had suggested checking out the Olypub in Park Street. Since it was 7:25 pm, we thought of getting something to eat over there – and Park Street had a metro station. Since we were close to another metro station, we decided to try this mode of transportation. The metro was a bit crowded, and the train was packed to an extent – we still had some breathing space while standing, and the AC was working really well – despite the crowd, it felt cool inside. Took us about 20 minutes to get to Park Street – a lively street. Instead of the pub, we decided to go to the Peter Cat restaurant. It had a small entrance on the side road, but there were many people crowded outside – 8 pm was definitely a bad time to be at a restaurant and that too during the festival time.

Thanks to Google Maps, we found a top-rated place for rolls – later, Kshitij also mentioned the same name – Kusum rolls. Had a couple of egg rolls – it’s not a restaurant; more like a roadside shop; you order, get the food and either have it outside on the road or take it home. I’d never seen a menu with so many rolls – from egg to chicken to mutton to different combos of them. It was tasty; would have been nice to have been able to sit and eat leisurely!

The next stop was Mohd Ali Park’s pandal because that was also further down the same metro line we took. But while in the metro, Deb suggested holding off on this one because he said we could do it with him another day. And so we didn’t even step out of the metro station and took the metro in the opposite direction to get back to Park Street, where we hoped to have dinner. Peter Cat was still ruled out due to the crowd, but there was a tempting cafe we had seen near Peter Cat, and that’s where we landed at 9:30 pm. A place called Flurry’s Bakery – no waiting queue outside!

We learnt from Deb that this was a high-level English tea shop. Many shops on Park Street existed in the pre-independence years, and Flurry’s was also one of them – a tearoom started in 1922. We ordered their tea, which came in a typical English teapot, and a chef’s special fusion dish – fish surrounded by pasta and cheese all over, topped with plenty of mustard and a bun as a side. Mustard was a common ingredient in a lot of Bengali dishes. The dish was good but a bit salty. Since they also had a bakery, we tried a couple of items there. This was probably one of the few restaurants during the Puja time which was not crowded – their items are on the pricier side, but the ambience was good – a nice place to catch up with friends.

We spent close to an hour in the cafe, and during the break, we were also planning our next stop based on Kshitij’s inputs. I did see that the metro line went to Kalighat, and there was a Kalighat Temple which seemed like a major landmark in the city. Kshitij said it wouldn’t be open at night, and the neighbouring areas are shady, which we would be better off avoiding. And so we decided to head to Suruchi Sangha Club – supposed to have grand pandals rated among Kolkata’s top pandals every year. But this didn’t have any metro station nearby and was about 20 km from Park Street.

We took the metro to the last stop and walked it out through the alleys of Kolkata – though you have Google assisting you, it does feel reassuring when you have a few other people also walking in the same direction! We reached a crowded area and then just followed the winding queue to get to the Suruchi pandal.

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata Part 5 – The Bengali meal

Swelling crowds

We walked through a few side lanes to get to the restaurant but found ourselves returning to the pandal area when we realized we were taking a wrong turn. The pandal area was swarmed by a large crowd now, and we could sense the increased pedestrian traffic even on other streets. We found our way to the Bhojohori Manna restaurant at 1 pm (the board said ‘Bengali home style cuisine’). Deb had said that it was likely we’d have to wait for 30 minutes at least but fortunately for us, there was not much of a waiting crowd – a table for two was readily available, and the waiter guided us to it.

Deb had given us recommendations on what to have – the thali (a set meal), at least one mutton dish, illish bhapa (fish), mutton kosha, daab chingri (prawn) which is cooked in coconut. And so we went with the thali along with the fish and prawn dishes. The Bengali thali had a cup of white rice, a cup of ghee rice with some nuts (a form of light pulao/pilau), dal, shukto (a mixed vegetable gravy which uses a little milk for the dish), a couple of vegetable dishes (one dry and one gravy based), a large begun bhaja (marinated brinjal/eggplant slice that is cooked in oil). I loved all the gravies; they were flavourful but not spicy hot – and tasted delicious with rice. The same was the case with the fish and prawn dishes too. And dessert in the thali consisted of the mishti doi and another sweet.

(You can click on the snaps to see the larger version)

When we left the restaurant, there was a huge queue waiting to enter; we were lucky that we came 30 minutes earlier. Per the itinerary, we were supposed to take a bus to Jodhpur Park for the pandal there. But having been out on the streets for about 5 hours on such a hot and humid day, we decided to head back to the hotel for a break. We waded through the crowds to make it to the main road; one challenge with Uber/Ola was that we found the fares were high for short rides – possibly because of the festive period. Finding the share-auto route took us a while, and we had to switch two to get back to the Circus Maidan.

Double booking

Another friend of mine, Kshitij, had warned that 5 pm to 2 am is the peak time zone in the city; we were curious to see what it would be like. At about 5 pm we searched for Ubers/Olas but couldn’t get anything. He had told us that the cabs won’t take us to the pandals, but the apps said there were no taxis available at this hour. Considering the distance of 3.5 km, we decided to walk it out to Maddox square park (this was on Kshitij’s list).

We avoided the main road because of the traffic and noise and stuck to the side lanes. By 5:40 pm, the sun was out, and it turned dark; there were stretches of road that we passed which were deserted and made us wonder if we were on the right path because we didn’t see the type of decoration we saw near the pandals. And we were surprised to suddenly see skyscrapers – some of which were still not occupied but up until this point, we had only seen buildings with 2 or 3 floors.

We finally did see a board indicating the direction to the park. Took us 45 minutes. Maddox Park seemed like a college hangout spot – many youngsters in small groups chatting and enjoying the food from the stalls in the park. We also bought some snacks and sat down for a bit of rest. The Maddox pandal was relatively simpler than the grander ones we saw in the afternoon.

Hostel entrance

By 6:10 pm, we were on our way to check our next accommodation spot – we couldn’t get continuous accommodation for all days in the same hotel and had to break it up – our 2nd place of stay was a backpacker’s hostel near Maddox Square. It was kind of hidden from view – the road was pretty dark as well, and it took a while for us to locate the road and then some time to find the shady back entrance; we took the steps up since there was nothing below – on each level there were a few rooms, and there was also a large dog loitering around the hostel which we had to evade. We finally found the hostel’s owner – he was a great host; he took us to the terrace, where we chatted and discovered to our shock, that we didn’t really have rooms! Apparently, the booking aggregator company had made a double booking in this place – fortunate for us that we visited the area early. The other folks with the overlapping booking had already confirmed checking in – their stay was longer than ours. There wasn’t much we could do for now – had to find another place to stay. As we departed, the host mentioned a couple of other places in the locality to check out while we explored Kolkata.

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata part 4 – Perception

Day 2 continued…

As per the plan, we were supposed to head for lunch to a restaurant nearby, but it was only 10:15 am; we had at least a couple of hours before they would open. We could return to the hotel but decided to explore the place instead of sitting in our hotel room. We searched Google maps for a place to beat the heat and while away some time. The ideal spot seemed to be a park with a lake, 1 km away. On the way, we bought a couple of water bottles to quench our thirst. The neighbourhood near the park was quiet; it took us a while to find the entrance amidst the fencing around the park – this was a pretty huge park within the city. There were plenty of trees and also benches near many of them. The lake, the Rabindra Sarovar Lake, was pretty large, and the park enclosed the lake. Aaron spent the time capturing scenic views.

(Note: you can click on any image in the blog to view the larger image)

There were only a handful of people at this hour – can imagine it being crowded in the morning because this was a perfect place for morning walks. We walked through the trails – most had complete tree cover shielding us from the sun. A board said there were free meditation classes every morning at 6 am; another board said the laughing club operated at 6:15 am, and everyone was welcome to join.

We headed back towards the Gariahat area to get to the restaurant Deb had recommended for lunch. But on the way, we noticed a decorated archway and opted to detour through this path to see what pandal it would lead us to. It was the BCA (Ballygunge cultural association) pandal. This one had a rundown setup – outside the pandal, up in the sky, there were plenty of clotheslines strung parallel to each other on which white clothes were hanging, as if for drying. The exterior of the pandal was made of wooden planks and rusted metallic sheets stuck together. Inside the pandal, it was a dark setting with rows and rows of metal bins stacked on the sides like walls of the house; the soft music running in the background made for a great experience.

The centre of attraction was where the light source was, around Goddess Durga, with her 10 arms, standing atop the slayed demon who lay on his back. I’m sure that to create such a low-key-looking setup would have been a painstaking task – the end result was really impressive. Seeing the clothes, the homely setting inside with items typically found in a home, clothes stacked on shelves behind the Goddess, the abundance of bins etc., we could guess that there was some theme though we didn’t know exactly what it was; but even without knowing, you’d find the artwork impressive.

When we exited the BCA pandal, we were in a street filled with bamboo artefacts and huge bamboo figures. I later found that the theme of this pandal was based on ‘jugalbandhi’ (meaning ‘entwined twins’) – they had used a mix of modern materials (like steel, iron etc.) and traditional materials (like bamboo). Every pandal had a story to tell!

It was 12:10 pm when we came out onto the main road. On the way to the restaurant, we noticed another archway – lunch was waiting, but we decided to check out this pandal as well – the Tridhara pandal. We had heard stories of how places would be packed in Durga puja times – but so far, the crowds we saw in the pandals were light, and this was the first day of Durga puja. Just near the entrance to this pandal, there was a lounge, but it was closed.

The Goddess in red

This pandal wasn’t in an enclosure; instead, it was on the road itself. The minute we entered, we were struck by the red hue, the contrasting colors of red on the stage, and umpteen white lotuses below. On the right side, in the background, were portraits of different women constructed of what seemed like small mirrors. At the centre was a red lotus, and in the middle of that was the Goddess holding a trident with all ten hands – the trident is what was used to slay the demon. Down below were sculptures of her four children, who were much smaller in size, but all of them were sculpted in a similar style to blend with the shape of the lotus. The 4 children were Lakshmi (the God of wealth), Saraswati (the God of knowledge), Ganesha (the elephant-faced God – remover of obstacles) and Kartikeya (the God of war). These are the 4 Gods we see in all other pandals as well – just that in each pandal, the design is different per the theme.

The top of the pandal glittered in the dangling red and white coloured artwork – it was hard to figure out how they created so much work on the top because there was no solid ceiling – in fact, you could even see the sky through the gaps.

Close up of the portrait

The Durga in the red lotus with the lighting effect inside the lotus was dazzling. The backdrop was such that from one side, you would see the faces of different women, but as you moved further down the road, you would see the face of the Goddess appearing in each spot where there was a woman’s face – it was like a dual portrait; perhaps to symbolize that the Goddess was present in everyone.

From different positions in the pandal, the lighting felt different due to the use of mirrors and glass strips. Below the Goddess, within the white lotuses, there were a few large bird cages.

The theme for this pandal was perception, and just like viewing art, different people would interpret the meaning of the various elements in this pandal differently – dedication to women, confinement by society, discovering the strength within, oneness, freedom etc.

The crowd had picked up while we were in the middle of the pandal; we were shoulder to shoulder with people and let the crowd nudge us along – if not for the crowd, we’d definitely have spent more time simply standing and admiring the work; such was the splendour.

Kolkata Travelogue

Kolkata part 3 – The grand pandal

Day 2 continued

We took a lane from the main road and landed up in a posh area of Gariahat; along the street heading to our destination, on either side, there were plenty of stalls (many were food stalls) – but most were closed. We really didn’t know what to expect at our destination – the Ekdalia evergreen club. “What would be there in a club? Is it just all these stalls together in a single place along with a pandal like the one we saw in the Circus Maidan park?”

The road with stalls led us to a smaller lane which had banners on all sides – they had constructed archways with hoardings. And in this tunnel of hoardings, there were lots of people – plenty of pedestrians and even in this, somehow, cars found space to motor along!

The lane led us to a large structure which resembled a temple but was a makeshift structure; it was very colourful and had plenty of intricate artwork – from the pillars to the dome, it looked grand.


We stepped inside the structure, and the first thing that caught our attention was the huge chandelier in the center that lit the place in an orange hue. It was grand, but what was grander were the 5 large sculptures on stage with goddess Durga in the center – all of them glittering in gold. In front of Durga was a lion engaged in battle with a demon that had a serpent around him.

There was a decent amount of crowd inside, but when you looked at the deity, you just forgot about the people around you. It was the same type of feeling that I used to have when seeing large Buddha statues in art museums or temples – a sort of meditative state of calmness – a quiet state of awe.

My initial skepticism about seeing pandals disappeared; I was now looking forward to seeing more of them!

I later leant that the Ekdalia club pandal was based on the Jatoli Shiv Temple in Himachal Pradesh – compare the photos of the actual temple vs the snap of the pandal, and you’ll realize how much attention to detail the artisans have paid.

(Click on the images below to view the full size)

Pandals – big and small

We exited the pandal through a side entrance, and the lane we landed in was also lined with plenty of stalls, including a Hershey’s stall, but all were closed. This lane was also decorated on the top, and as usual, there were plenty of banners around. We guessed that the set-up was such that all the streets leading to the main pandal were decorated with archways – so if you stepped into an archway, you knew it would lead you to a pandal.

There were smaller pandals in some side lanes as well, but these lanes had very little decoration than those leading to the main ones. We did step into a few of these smaller pandals – seemed like they were constructed by smaller housing associations in the neighbourhood. There were no crowds here, and you could even sit inside if you wanted to.

By 10 am, we exited the Ekdalia neighbourhood. We noticed some overhead decoration on the opposite side of the road and followed the decorated lane. Should lead us to a pandal was our guess. And it did – we landed in the Singhi Park Sarbojanin pandal, also a destination in Deb’s itinerary. This one had wooden sculptures for the Gods; the demon here was in agony under the foot of the goddess, and the lion sporting a ferocious look – it surely knew that it was close to vanquishing the demon.

Exiting the pandal, we landed on the Hindustan Road, which also had the overhead decoration, and we followed along to reach the Hindustan Club pandal – the last pandal on Deb’s list before lunch. The entrance to this pandal was unique – hundreds of painted inverted pots arranged in the shape of a large mushroom. It was very thoughtful of the organizers to have kept a fan at the entrance of the pandal, providing much needed relief on a bright sunny day.

The goddess Durga here was a picture of calmness sporting a faint smile; unlike the other pandals we had seen so far, the other 4 Gods here were much smaller. Durga was seated on a lion, and the lion itself was pretty much trampling a buffalo that was flat on the floor. Wondering why a buffalo? It’s because the demon was Mahishasura (a buffalo demon; asura is the word used for demons, and mahisha in Sanskrit means buffalo).
Aaron took many shots of the mushroom from various angles and distances with different camera settings.

We exited the pandal and headed further down Hindustan road; we noticed a poor couple sleeping on the footpath while their kid was playing near them, running around the parked vehicles. A little further down the lane was another couple huddled together on the footpath in front of a coal-fired stove boiling potatoes. Quite a contrast, considering the fact that just a few meters away was a large pandal which must have cost a lot to build.