Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, is mythologically the time of year when the mother Goddess Durga visits her ancestral home and triumphs over the forces of evil.
Tearing up the streets and tapping into the electricity grid, communities in Kolkata build pandals—structures that house Durga and her god-children during their ten day visit.
As communities vie for the best pandal (and an ever-expanding list of awards), corporate India has put its weight behind the festival. Imperial Blue whiskey, Tata Docomo internet, and Lux undergarments all sponsored pujas this year and took credit by plastering the streets with linoleum advertising banners.
With the corporate sponsorship, budgets have grown and the pandals have become bigger and more elaborate. Many cost over 50 lakh rupees (about 100,000 US dollars), and construction can take two to three months with teams of 20 to 40 workers.
This year, one puja even became a tool of West Bengal’s foreign diplomacy. Flanked by dragons, a giant bronze Buddha-face towered over the display of Durga and her family. The consul generals from Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Thailand attended the inauguration of this Buddhist-themed puja. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee rolled up to deliver a speech. Tibetan Buddhist monks and a dance troupe, invited by pandal organizers from Darjeeling, looked on.
Still, there are hold-outs. For example, Babuda, the General Secretary of a south Kolkata neighborhood, opts out of the corporate puja and instead relies on money from his neighbors to fund a modest pandal. In front, families lick kulfi as Babuda explains, “This is a time for the community to unite. Why do we need such a big display?”
And even at the increasingly lavish shrines, the actions of visiting devotees remain the same. A father holds his daughter up for a better view. Teenagers capture the moment on camera. And many close their eyes to the crowd and structure to pay respect to the goddess within.
A sculptor in the north Kolkata neighborhood of Kumartuli paints the murthi depicting evil.