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  • Writer's pictureTupur Chakrabarty

Walking among the Gods

We were in Kolkata after four years, mainly to visit family and friends, but since we were there, we were keen to experience the Kolkata we hadn't seen. And given Durga Puja was only a few weeks away, the Kumartuli Walk organised by The Ganges Walk didn't seem like one we could afford to miss.

For the uninitiated, here is a simple story of Durga Puja.

Durga, the goddess of many names and narratives, and the daughter of the Himalayas, lives on Mount Kailash with her (liquor-drinking and weed-smoking yet good-natured) husband Lord Shiva, and four children: two girls - Laxmi and Saraswati, and two boys - Ganesh and Kartik. Durga, along with her children, visits Earth every Autumn for five days and gives Bengalis a chance to pamper her as parents do when their married daughter visits. This homecoming is Durga Puja.

But why do we see her fierce form standing over a shape-shifting demon with her trident deep inside his chest? That's another story. Armed with the blessing that no man could ever kill him, the shape-shifting demon Mahishasura waged war against the gods and defeated them. The male gods then used their divine energy to create Durga, who slayed the demon with her trident when he had taken the shape of a buffalo (Mahish), thereby earning the name Mahishasuramardini (Mahish = buffalo; Asura = demon; Mardini = slayer) - the Slayer of the Buffalo Demon.

So our Durga Thhakur ('thhakur' is a unisex Bengali word for all divine beings) is a daughter, a mother and a warrior rolled into one - our Durga Thhakur is the goddess-next-door.

Although the vast majority of Bengalis celebrating Durga Puja are Hindus, the occasion is a lot like Christmas - it transcends religious boundaries. Almost all neighbourhoods build their own 'pandal' (the closest translation would be a marquee, but a pandal is way more grand) and worship idols of the goddess and her children.

So what does a Kumartuli Walk have anything to do with this celebration? Well, one half of the walk is a sneak peek into the numerous potters' studios, where clay idols of Durga Thhakur and her children are made. The other half explores some of the age-old temples in the area.

The day before the walk, Rakesh is added to a WhatsApp group with all the other participants. Atreyee, from The Ganges Walk, even calls to confirm the time and meeting place.

The following morning, we arrive at Kumartuli Siddheswari Kalibari ('bari' here means temple), in Bagbazar, for a 7 o'clock start. The idol of Goddess Kali in this temple has a (hi)story of her own. A hermit named Kalibor, who lived high up in the Himalayas, dreamt that Goddess Kali wanted him to travel to the eastern bank of the river Hoogly (also known as the Ganges) and build her idol, which he did - 500 years ago! But Siddhswari Kalibari was not this idol's original abode - it was the temple across the street, nicknamed the Black Pagoda.

The real name of this heritage-listed Black Pagoda is Gobinda Mitra's Navaratna Temple. Gobinda Mitra was the first black zamindar (native tax collector) appointed by the East India Company in 1720 to collect tax from the three villages that later formed Calcutta: Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata. This tyrant of a zamindar, who remained in office until 1756, was corrupt as well. He made money through illegal trade, built a sprawling house, spent lavishly on Hindu festivals and built the Navaratna Temple in the Black Town, where the natives lived - hence the name the Black Pagoda.

The Black Pagoda boasted a 165-foot spire, which would be used by sailors for navigation. However, in 1737, a storm followed by an earthquake destroyed the spire and much of the temple. In 1813, Gobinda Mtra's grandson moved the idol to the newly built Siddheswari Kalibari.

We are told these stories by Poulomee, soon after we've finished our steaming tea from clay cups - bhNaarer cha. I'd always wondered how many cups of tea a tiny stall like this would sell daily. The vendor said they'd make 12-13 batches of tea each day and sell about 100 cups. The stall is open from 4:30 am to 8:30 pm, but it does close for a couple of hours after lunch.

From the Black Pagoda, our walk continues. We turn right into Banamali Sarkar Street. The hubbub of Bagbazar traffic melts away, and as we stand at the entrance of Kumartuli, our noses detect a subtle fragrance of incense. The potters settled in this part of the town in the early 17th century. Although initially they only made household items such as pots and urns, as affluent Bengalis gathered in the area and started showing off their wealth through extravagant Durga Puja, the demand for Durga idols grew so much that more potters arrived. Now probably a couple of hundred potter families live and work in the area.

Even though it's only 7:30, we're already quite sweaty from the humidity. We enter even narrower quarters of Kumartuli and walk through a sliver of a path between studios. There has been quite a bit of rain - we see large pieces of plastic draped over the entrances of the studios. The idols inside are in various stages of their creation.

If you're wondering what the stages are, here's a quick overview. The first stage is building a bamboo frame and creating the shape of the figure with bundles of straw tied with ropes. Then the first layers of clay (collected from the Ganges) are applied to the structure and dried in the sun. Once the rough layer dries, another layer goes on top, giving the idol a smooth finish. The idol is then painted and clothed.

Each idol is then decorated with ornaments. The traditional decoration, or 'shaaj', was usually either of 'daak', or 'raangta' or 'shola'. Decorations made with gold and silver foils imported from Germany by post, or 'daak', were called 'daaker shaaj'; if made with gold or silver plates beaten very thin, they were called 'raangtar shaaj'; and when made with the white pith of a water-weed called sholapith (Indian cork), they were called 'sholar shaaj'. I only have a photo of what 'shola' looks like, unfortunately. If any of our readers spot any 'daaker shaaj' or 'raangtar shaaj' while pandal-hopping this year, I hope they share it in the comment.

The narrow path which we follow for about 30 minutes, stopping frequently to take photos, opens back onto Banamali Sarkar Street. We now follow the street and find ourselves in front of a very small shop full of radios of different shapes and sizes and from different eras - yes, from as early as 1944! This is the radio repair shop of Amit Ranjan Karmakar. He has still kept all the radios that were brought to him over the years for repair but left uncollected. He won't sell them in case someone ever comes back for what have now become incredible family heirlooms. In recognition of his work, he was awarded this tablet by Purono Kolkatar Golpo (Stories of Old Calcutta) on Mahalaya, 2021. FYI, Mahalaya is when Durga Thhakur starts her journey from Mount Kailash to Earth.

Since we are on Banamali Sarkar Street, Atreyee and Poulomee find an appropriate moment to tell us about Banamali Sarkar, a Deputy Trader of the East India Company, who built a beautiful mansion extending from Kumartuli to the Ganges. Banamali did not have a son, so the mansion passed on to his nephew. The nephew also did not have a male heir, so the building became his son-in-law's. Over the years, the property was passed down to various sons-in-law and it eventually got to a stage when the original mansion was no longer recognisable because it had been divided into smaller houses and remodelled extensively. What remained though were two temples Banamali Sarkar had built - the Baneswar Shiva Temple, which was believed to be one of the most beautiful terracotta temples of its time, and a Krishna Temple, which was damaged and has since been rebuilt.

We squeeze through a narrow paved alley that leads to a courtyard. We stop in the alley to look at the black touchstone Shivalingam on our right. The original entrance of this heritage-listed temple is now blocked by an open urinal!

After a brief stop at the courtyard and look at the Krishna Temple, we proceed to the Dhhakeswari Mata (Mother) Temple. The word 'Dhhakeswari' is actually two words combined: Dhaka (yes, the capital city of Bangladesh) + Iswari (goddess) = the Goddess of Dhaka, even though it is believed that Dhaka got its name from the goddess rather than the other way around. Anyway...

So what is the Goddess of Dhaka doing in North Kolkata? Apparently, right before (or was it soon after?) the partition of India in 1947, the idol of Dhhakeswari was sent to Kolkata on a chartered plane. The custodian of the idol was the Tiwari family. Now, Tiwari is a non-Bengali, North Indian surname, which is interesting, because Goddess Dhhakeswari, another form of Durga Thhakur, is worshipped by non-Bengalis and they do so in not the tradition of the Bengali Durga Puja, but that of the North Indian Navratri.

What happened to the Dhhakeswari Temple in Dhaka? A close replica of the original goddess now resides there.

A fibreglass 'ekchala' idol soon to be shipped overseas

Before we reach our next stop, Atreyee and Poulomee tell us how the quick-thinking-and-working Lightning Sculptor saved the Kuamrtuli Sharbojonin (communal) Durga Puja of 1938. The tradition was to build Durga Thhakur and her four children on one platform or frame, as you can see in the photo - this was called 'ekchala' (ek = one, chala = platform/frame). However, when a devastating fire destroyed the 'ekchala' idol of Kumartuli Sharbojonin the day before the festivities were to commence, the day was saved by Gopeswar Pa(u)l, a gifted clay craftsman who could create clay models and sculptures in minutes and earned the name 'the Lightning Sculptor' from Lord Carmichael, the first Governor of Bengal. Within 24 hours Gopeswar Pa(u)l created the five idols - Durga and her four children - on five separate platforms, and the form of 'pNaachchala' (pNaach = five) was born.

Then we have the privilege of entering the workshop of G. Paul & Sons. They no longer make clay idols of gods and goddesses. Instead, they build impressive stone and metal sculptures of notable individuals of the past. Being Ramakrishna Mission alumni, the Holy Trinity for both Rakesh and me are Sri Ramakrishna, Maa Sarada and Swami Vivekananda. They feature extensively throughout the workshop.

Someone who I felt deserved a place at the workshop alongside the Holy Trinity was Sister Nivedita, an Irish teacher who followed Swami Vivekananda to India and dedicated her life to women's education as well as India's reform. She founded my alma mater Sister Nivedita Girls' School in 1898.

I did spot a sculpture of Sister during our walk. She looked abandoned. It broke my heart.

It is around 9:15. Biswarup from the Ganges Walk hurries us out of Gopeswar Pa(u)l's workshop because the kochuris are getting cold! There is no bigger disrespect to kochuri than allowing it to get cold. We rush to the food shop where the Ganges Walk have organised an authentic breakfast of kochuri (fried bread), chholar dal (yellow split peas) and jilipi (a Bangali fried sweet that's crispy on the outside and syrupy on the inside). Our rumbling tummies thank the amazing trio Atreyee, Poulomee and Biswarup as we devour the food standing in front of the shop with our fellow walkers. No blasphemy is committed, thankfully, as the kochuris have most certainly been eaten hot!

Our second last stop is Gokul Mitra's Madan Mohan Temple (Madan Mohan is another name for Lord Krishna). Gokul Mitra made quite a lot of money by selling salt and animal feed to the British.

This is how one of the stories of Madan Mohan goes: Madan Mohan was brought to Kolkata by Chaitanya Singha, a king who had to flee his kingdom in Bishnupur, which is in another district of Bengal. He was in dire need of money to file a lawsuit against a family member and had only the idol of Madan Mohan to mortgage, which is what he did to borrow the money from Gokul Mitra. Some say Chaitanya Singha never paid off his debt, and some say even though he did, Gokul Mitra gave him a replica of the idol and kept the original for himself. Either way, the god appeared in Gokul Mitra's dream one night and told him that he was returning to Bishnupur. He said he would visit Gokul Mitra's temple on the annual Annakut (literally meaning a heap of rice) Festival, when a variety of vegetarian foods are offered to Madan Mohan. He said he would do so as a fly. Since then, thousands of devotees, including many from Bishnupur, visit the Madan Mohan Temple on Annakut festival every year.

The idol used to be in the 'thhakurdalan', the temple adjacent to the courtyard, but it was later moved to the ballroom. The ballroom? Yes! Gokul Mitra was quite progressive and would organsie balls to entertain his clients, the Britishers. That ballroom is now the Madan Mohan Temple.

We climb down the marvellous marble stairs of Madan Mohan Temple to go back out onto the street and head to Kumartuli Ghat. We are treated to a second cup of tea on the way.

Standing at the top of the flight of stairs leading to the water, Atreyee and Poulomee point out the 'baradari' (twelve doors/openings) structure behind us - each side of the small building has three door-like openings, so 12 altogether. You can't miss the old English spelling of Coomertolly.

This is one of the ghats where the clay idols of Durga and her children are immersed on the last day of the Puja. Once the clay washes off, the bamboo frames are retrieved from the water and returned to the craftspeople for reuse.

Our walk ends. We stand there awhile, watching the timeless Ganges flow. It suddenly dawns on us that we have walked among the gods.


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1 Comment

Jan 28

Lovely write up as usual 👍👍

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