Human Flower Project

Durga’s Finale


After working a huge city up to an excited high, how does festivity end? Sandy Ao records the last hours of this year’s Durga puja in Kolkata.


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Images of the Hindu goddess Durga, their mouths filled with sweets, are prepared for ritual immersion in Kolkata.

Photo: Sandy Ao

Oh, the water!

The Durga puja, Bengal’s most intense festival of the year (and in India’s that’s an achievement), has just ended. Sandy Ao took to the streets of Kolkata and has once again sent a dazzling photo-docucumentary, this year focusing on the dramatic, aquatic conclusion.

Durga is Hinduism great feminine deity. Maternal, though not in the lullabye-murmuring way, she’s more like Grendel’s Mother, a warrior. She was unleashed by the combined anxieties of Hinduism’s other great gods when a monster on the cosmic loose proved too powerful for them.

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A worshipper comes to pray at the home of the late civic leader Rani Rashmoni during Durga puja in Kolkata.

Photo: Sandy Ao

Astride a lion, her ten hands full of weapons and lotus flowers, Durga prevailed and duly receives honors from the faithful each fall.

In the past, Sandy has photographed Durga puja as a private, family custom;

as an occasion for young girls, including her own beloved granddaughter Ayin, to perform;

even as an environmental problem.

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Men carry the statue of Durga to the Hooghly River.

Photo: Sandy Ao

But this year she was drawn to the Hooghly River, where the festival reaches its finale. All the idols are literally drowned, and Durga, it’s believed, returns to her husband Shiva until next year.

“Yesterday immersion was of the small communities’ idols or home pujas,” Sandy wrote October 18. “Today ‘s immersion will be of larger communities, and the idols will be huge.”

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The rites of Durga end with Visarjan: ritual immersion.

Photo: Sandy Ao

“Huge” says it! After many days of prayers and feasting, Bengali worshippers in Kolkata conduct a rite called Udwasan. Best we’ve been able to understand, this is a kind de-activation of the splendid Durga idols, led by married women playing the sindoor and crowds chanting . “The common people’s idols are brought by pick up trucks or lorries,” Sandy writes, but from the larger more public pandals (altars), groups of men carry the flower-laden statues of Durga down to the water’s edge for Visarjan (sometimes anglicized as Bisarjan) – the ritual immersion.

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Devotees drop the idol of Hindu goddess Durga into the river.

Photo: Sandy Ao

“There must be more than three thousand idols in Kolkata,” Sandy writes. “My husband accompanied me yesterday. We were there more than four hours. Perhaps we could witness about a hundred idols immersed only.

“When it became dark the riverside became extremely crowded. Actually immersion normally takes place after sunset. And this will carry on till the wee hours of the morning.”

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Idols from larger public shrines are carried from altars all the way to the water.

Photo: Sandy Ao

In one of Sandy’s photos several groups hoist their Durga idols high, just visible above a fence along a rail line. “The tracks in the picture are of the metro railway,” Sandy writes, “but during immersion days, there will be no train services. This is to prevent accidents, as all the idols have to cross this rail tracks for the immersions.”

In other photos, spray from the river flies up as the heavy statues hit the water. Photographers skitter around the edges of the action, TV news reporters, their faces smeared with vermillion, report of the excitement, and garlands of orchids, tuberoses, and marigolds float among hundreds of plaster fingers.

The zenith of Durga puja exemplifies of an age-old dramatic problem— how to bring things to an end? Having churned up the energies of whole city and called out the faithful to put forth every effort, what can stop all that momentum?

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Debris from the sinking of hundreds of Durga altars float on the Hoogly.

Photo: Sandy Ao

E.M. Forster wrote about this problem in his Aspects of the Novel.

”In the losing battle that the plot fights with the character” – and what “character” could be more forceful than Durga? – “it often takes a cowardly revenge,” Forster writes. “Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up…. If it was not for death and marriage I do not know how the average novelist would conclude.”

With the culmination of Durga puja we actually have both death (or drowning and disappearance, at least) AND marriage: the reunion of Durga and Shiva.

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By custom and by law, another year’s Durga puja ends in the waters of Kolkata.

Photo: Sandy Ao

So the ritual immersion of Visarjan is an act of religious observance and practicality too. Durga puja needs some mechanism to conclude; as Sandy writes, “keeping the idols in the pandal involves expenditure such as electricity bills, pandits’ (priests’) fees, flowers, sweets etc. It becomes an expensive affair; therefore they immerse the idols on the official immersion day.” It’s actually evolved from a matter of custom, aesthetics and expediency, to one of legality. “There is law from the government,” Sandy writes: “Within three days all the idols must be immersed without fail.”

Visarjan is a desperate way to resolve this plot, but “feeble”? Hardly! As always, thank you, Sandy.


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