This year, experience the sheer elegance and opulence of Bengali aristocracy at some Durga Pujas held privately in some families, who were affluent and stalwarts previously, specially during the colonial regime.
Durga Puja has traditionally been the most celebrated festival of West Bengal in general, and Kolkata in particular. People from all sects and religions have been celebrating this event with great fervour and enthusiasm for years. Zamindars (rich landlords) and aristocratic families of the state have long been known to celebrate this festival in their own unique ways, thus giving birth to the concept of ‘Bonedi Barir Puja’. Each generation passed on the baton to the next. And despite financial constraints, the families have adhered to these rites. Little wonder then, that thousands of devotees flock to catch a glimpse of the families and their rituals that were once the talking point of the town.
It’s ashtami and Sandhi Puja is about to begin. The cannon fires a salutary shot for Maa Durga, who has been the primary deity of the Daw household at Jorasanko since 1853. The cannon, a prized possession of the family, dates back to 1803.
Originally hailing from Kotolpur in Bankura, NC Daw settled down in Jorasanko and started his arms business in 1835. During those days, one did not require a licence to buy arms and hence they were freely traded across Nepal, Europe and the rest of India. Till date, the family’s ancestral business is arms and ammunition, though the later generations after NC Daw have moved onto other businesses.
The family mansion at Jorasanko has four courtyards akin to the old north Kolkata houses and an inner palace or living quarters that is separated from the public area to retain privacy. Victorian arches and a portico lend an old world charm to the house. The property is under a debottar trust that governs the affairs of Daw-bari and takes care of all expenses of the puja – a grand event that continues to be celebrated with great splendour.
The entire Daw family gets together for the five day of celebration. For those based abroad, this is the time for home coming. The 12 feet idol of the goddess is an ekchala protima with daaker saaj. A particular family of potuas has been making the idol for generations. Earlier the idol was made from a very expensive variety of wood, goran kaath. Now one piece of goran wood is used for making the structure of the goddess.
But the talk of the town is the beautiful traditional jewellery that the goddess has been adorned in for centuries. The gold ornaments include, chik, sitahar, mobchain and saatnali haar or necklace for the neck, bauti, chur and bala for hands, kaan for the ear and noth for the nose. The lion and the asura too wear ornaments. Everything is polished every year before rath yatra when the celebrations begin.
The best part about the celebration is the getting together of the entire family for lunch on all days of the puja. Eating khichuri together, all the sweets are made in the house, that includes langcha, goja, naru and kheer items. The women of the house also chip in. The elements of fun apart from the rituals are carried out with great fervour. The kalabou rituals is an elaborate one. At the crack of dawn on Saptami, the Kalabou – believed to be a manifestation of the goddess – is taken for a dip in Ganga river with male family members in tow. The umbrella that is held over the deity’s head has a silver handle that weighs around 80 kg.
Sandhi puja on ashtami begins with a gun salute to the goddess. The women of the house dress up in all their bridal finery. For the first year after marriage, women of the house are excused from following any ritual.
Kumari Puja on Nabami is organised by the elderly women of the house. An elaborate immersion ritual takes place on dashami after which the guests take their leave. The married women of the family do not go for the immersion, but indulge in the baran ritual, wearing rich silks and matching jewellery. Earlier, a neelkantha bird would be released before immersion but the ritual was later discontinued following a government ban. The goddess takes seven rounds before she leaves for immersion. Once the immersion party returns, the women of the house serve sweets.
Preserving the Culture
These affluent families have always given importance to preserving the culture and tradition in the finest ways, such that these festivities have always matched the opulence and charm of the common form of financed ‘Barowari’ pujos. With Bonedi Barir Puja, they have always exhibited the significance of age-old traditions, rituals and great culture of India.
Text and photos: Anupam Chanda