Culture-hungry tourists have long recognised the vibrant Hindu festival of Durga Puja as a perfect reason to visit India’s north east, soaking up the local atmosphere at its most colourful. Now UNESCO has followed suit by adding the celebrations in Kolkata, characterised by large-scale installations and traditional Bengali drumming, to its cultural heritage list.
“I would like to offer warm congratulations to India, its people and especially all those who worked on the nomination dossier,” said Director of UNESCO New Delhi, Eric Falt, on the festival’s inauguration. He added he was confident its inscription would offer encouragement to the local communities that celebrate Durga Puja, “as well as tourists and visitors who partake in the inclusive festivity”.
“A matter of great pride and joy for every Indian!” is how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the news on Twitter. He added that the festival highlights “the best of our traditions and ethos. And, Kolkata’s Durga Puja is an experience everyone must have.”
The ten-day festival of Durga Puja, one of the most important religious celebrations in West Bengal, represents the collective worship of the Hindu Goddess Durga. A major deity in Hinduism and widely revered throughout India, she is associated with protection, strength, motherhood, destruction and wars.
During the festivities, believers worship intricately designed clay models of the Goddess – astride a lion or attacking the demon king Mahishasura – in small pavilions, known as “pandals”. This is where local communities come together to celebrate with vibrant Indian folk music, culinary delights, local craft, and breathtaking performing arts shows.
The first day of Durga Puja, Mahalaya, is in early October and heralds the arrival of the goddess, when worshippers paint eyes on to the clay images of the goddess, bringing her to life. However, the celebrations truly get going on the sixth day or Sasthi. Over the next three days, the goddess is worshipped in her various forms as Durga, Lakshmi, and Sarasvati.
The festivities reach their climax on the “Tenth Day of Victory” or Vijayadashami. Huge processions of chanting worshippers carry sacred images of the Goddess to local rivers to immerse them in the waters, accompanied by stunning traditional Bengali drumming. The custom is meant to symbolise the departure of the deity to her home and to her husband, Shiva, in the Himalayas. Therefore, the festival has also come to signify ‘home-coming’ or a seasonal return to one’s roots, according to UNESCO.
While Durga Puja is one of the most important festivals of West Bengal in India’s north east, it is also widely observed across the country and by the Bengali diaspora in major cities around the world. The event, according to UNESCO, collapses the divide of class, religion and ethnicities as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations. Over the years, the state capital of West Bengal, Kolkata, has emerged as the geographical and cultural heart of the celebrations, making it an alluring destination for tourists who want to soak up the beauty of India’s dynamic cultural practices.
Durga Puja is the 14th Indian element to be added to the 492-strong Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO explains it includes forms of expression “that testify to the diversity of intangible heritage and raises awareness of its importance.” It adds that by enhancing the visibility of communities’ cultural practices like Durga Puja, it hopes to safeguard the cultural heritage of communities around the world.