Durga Puja fervour at peak on ‘Mahaashtami’
Devotees across West Bengal offered 'pushpanjali' on Wednesday morning, on the occasion of Mahaastami, and rituals such as 'Kumari puja' got underway, as priests chanted mantras over loudspeakers and organisers tried their best to manage crowds at the Durga puja pandals.
Thousands of revellers descended on the streets to visit the big-ticket puja marquees in the city and elsewhere, with festivities reaching a crescendo on the eighth day of the ten-day festival.
Unlike last year, several people, having taken double doses of Covid-19 vaccine, also queued up outside restaurants and roadside food stalls.
Many were seen removing masks to take selfies or simply to breathe easy amid the humid weather conditions.
“People needed some respite from the restrictions that were imposed on their movements over the past one-and-a-half years,” said Partha Ghosh, a founding member of Forum for Durgotsab -- the apex body for the city's community puja organisers.
"The number of visitors to pandals is definitely more this time when compared with last year, as people, after taking their vaccine doses, no longer fear COVID-19 the way they did in 2020," Ghosh, who is also an office-bearer of Shiv Mandir Puja committee, stated.
Organisers and police personnel, however, were in some places seen urging revellers to avoid crowding, and wear masks at all times, amid speculation that COVID cases might rise after the festival.
"Please follow COVID-19 protocols for your own safety. You need not see all pandals this year. Try keeping celebrations low-key. Don't be out of home all day," an organiser of Baghbazar Sarbojonin Durga Puja Committee, one of the most popular marquees in north Kolkata, was heard telling people over microphones, even as individuals jostled for space as they tried to catch a glimpse of the traditional 'ek-chala pratima' (idols of deities mounted on one frame).
Similar scenes were also witnessed at Sreebhumi Sporting, this year's big draw, despite the suspension of the laser show at the pandal, which is a replica of Dubai's Burj Khalifa.
Authorities at Belur Math, the global headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission (RKM), did not allow any visitor on its premises, quite like last year, as monks performed 'Kumari puja' (a girl child is worshipped as goddess).
RKM units in Jayrambati and Kamarpukur also followed suit.
The step-by-step rituals were streamed live on the official website of Belur Math.
Women, during the day, were seen making preparations for 'Sandhi puja' (prayers offered at the juncture of Mahastami and Mahanabami).
Mahastami puja was also observed with fanfare at the iconic Sovabazar Rajbari and other aristocratic households in the city, but visitor entry was barred at many such places.
Cricket icon Sourav Ganguly offered 'pushpanjali' at Barisha Players Corner marquee.
Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari visited a community pandal at Kanthi in Purba Medinipur district to offer prayers, while TMC spokesman Kunal Ghosh gave 'pushpanjali' at the Rammohan Sammilani puja pandal in north Kolkata.
The Maddox Square Puja, a favourite meet-and-chat point for pandal hoppers, wore a forlorn look for the second year in a row, as organisers allowed people inside the complex only in batches.
The Calcutta High Court has ordered that all Durga Puja pandals in West Bengal be made no-entry zones for the public, as was directed last year, to curb the spread of COVID-19.
The court has this year permitted puja rituals like 'Anjali', 'Arati' and 'Sindur Khela' inside the marquees, while directing that the relaxation will be subjected to a cap on the maximum number of persons allowed, and compliance with conditions like double vaccination and wearing of masks.
Most Durga Puja organisers had planned their marquees keeping in mind last year's high court order, thus allowing visitors to view the idols and the artwork from a distance.