The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tryst with history on festive sojourn

The trip was scheduled to start at 1 pm, Saptami. Excited families and groups of friends stood around the front entrance to the Tourism Centre, in BBD Bag, chatting. The plan was for four buses to depart together for a tour of heritage pujas. Unfortunately, as most people soon found out, as far as the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) is concerned, nothing goes according to plan.

Buses number two and three were “stuck in traffic”, indefinitely. Although there was one sitting idle at the terminus, WBTDC officers repeatedly informed increasingly agitated customers that “this bus will not go”. As the minutes ticked by, polite inquiries were impolitely dealt with by “typical government officials”, sparking heated arguments. At 1.40 pm, when bus number three finally trundled in, puja passengers were told that due to a “mechanical failure”, it would not budge from BBD Bag. They were unceremoniously herded into the waiting bus that had previously been declared ‘will not go’.

But nothing could dampen the festive spirit of the Bengali setting out on a “pujo parikroma”. Bottles of mineral water were passed around out and the rickety bus set off, 50 minutes late. The destination list included baroari pujas like the house of Protap Chandra Chunder, the Thanthania Dutta bari, Hatkhola Dutta bari, Chhatu Babu-Latu Babu’s house, Mitra Bari, Sovabazar Rajbari and the house of Rani Rashmoni.

Unique and intriguing traditions, practised sometimes for as long as two centuries, characterised these pujas. The lion in the Chunder puja had a gold mane, made of zari. At the Hatkhola Dutta Bari, the pratima is placed on a special throne, and none other than the priest can touch her. The pratima at Thanthania takes the form of Uma, visiting with her children and husband, Shiva. At Rani Rashmoni’s, where Ramakrishna used to come for Durga puja, animal sacrifice is still in practice, with seven lambs being slaughtered.

Some of the tourists were worshipful, praying to the Devi at every stop, while others were more interested in the historical and cultural aspects of the Saptami sojourn. Each stop was watchfully regulated because of the late start, with the guide providing a brief background of the pujas. Despite the traffic and the rain, there were enthusiastic questions and animated conversations all around. “See how the married women of the Thanthania Dutta Bari wear such huge, beautiful nose rings,” one girl pointed out to her mother in wonder. Another member of the Puja patrol was convinced that Kartick at one of the Pujas was in a pair of red shorts, a red T-shirt and black boots, “British style”. Disappointingly, the signs of dilapidation in the once-grand houses are everywhere. A sign of the declining times — the cold radhaballabhis served as “freshly-made” to visitors at a rajbari. In the disappointment department, however, WBTDC won hands down — a leaky bus and an awry schedule adding up to disgruntled passengers by the end.

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