Kali Puja: Diwali celebrations in Kolkata

The Puja Vacation is one of the fondest memories of my school days in Kolkata, India. As a child, every year looked forward to this month-long vacation that started with Durga Puja around late September or early October and continued until Diwali and Bhai Phota. This was a period of festivals, celebrations, meeting friends, mouth-watering food, new clothes, happiness and endless fun. Millions of people in India put aside the struggles and woes of their lives and came together to celebrate these days of the year. Festivities brought people from all walks of life very close to each other and created an amazing social and cultural mosaic that defied the boundaries of religion, caste, and creed.

In Bengal, Durga Puja (the worship of Goddess Durga) is celebrated from the sixth day (Shashthi) to the tenth day (Dashami) of the Hindu lunar calendar in the month of Ashwin (mid-September to Mid-October). As per the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, Lord Rama killed the demon king Ravana on the day of Dashami and rescued his wife, Sita, from Ravana’s captivity. This day, or Dussehra as called in other parts of India, symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. After defeating Ravana, Lord Rama returned to his kingdom Ayodhya with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshmana. It was a new moon day, so the people of Ayodhya lit thousands of earthen lamps or diyas to welcome their king. This day, which signifies the victory of light over darkness, is celebrated as Diwali all over India.

The name Diwali or Deepavali literally means a collection of lamps. In Bengal, Diwali is celebrated by worshipping the Goddess Kali, the goddess of power and destroyer of evil. Kali Puja, as we call this festival, always ignites my childhood memory of lighting our house with candles and earthen lamps. All houses in the neighbourhood would be brightened by the glittering lights from thousands of lamps – a spectacle that always brought enormous joy and cheer to my young mind. In most Bengali households, fourteen lamps were lit beneath the tulsi plant (holy basil) a day before the day of Diwali with the hope of happiness and prosperity to reside in the house forever. Over the years, electric lights and bulbs have slowly replaced the earthen lamps in many places, and Bengal has welcomed and adopted traditions like celebrating Dhanteras from other parts of India, but the spirit and essence of Diwali remain the same today.

The other attraction of Kali Puja during my childhood was bursting firecrackers with my cousins and my friends. Once my own stock of firecrackers like tarabaji (sparkles), kalipotka, dodoma, rong moshal, tubri, chorki, rockets and chocolate bomb was exhausted, all the cousins under the supervision of the adults gathered on the rooftop terrace of my uncle’s house just next to our place, and continued the firecracker show till midnight. It was my mother’s responsibility every year to prepare late-night tea for everyone that was served with sweets.

A couple of houses in our neighbourhood had Kali puja performed at their homes. They played beautiful devotional songs on Goddess Kali called Shyamasangeet on loudspeaker, which, over the years, have become an integral part of Kali Puja and Bengali culture. The priest worshipped the goddess in the form of an idol, which used to start late in the evening and continued past midnight. We visited our neighbours every year and offered our puja or worship. We were invited to their places again the next morning to have the prashad or the blessed food once the puja was over. Sometimes, I used to go out with my friends or family to see the grand community Kali Puja celebrations in different parts of Kolkata. They would have a huge idol of the goddess worshipped inside a makeshift pandal (a temporary shed-like structure) that was beautifully decorated with handicrafts and artwork. Spectacular work of lighting brightened the streets that witnessed long, winding lines of thousands of people who visit the prayers every year on the night of Kali Puja.

With the passage of time, we left the cozy comfort of our homes and moved to different places to explore the world. Diwali has now become a global festival. I have been fortunate to become a part of some grand Diwali celebrations in different parts of the world, including Canada. In Saint John too, we celebrate Diwali every year to bring cheer to our community and spread the message of love and happiness. But even today, when Diwali comes, the little child inside me longs to go back to his childhood days in Kolkata to brighten his home by lighting the candles and dive into the playful excitement with his cousins.

Written by Somaditya Das