DURGA PUJA

From my forthcoming book Before Tourists Come: Travels & Encounters in Bangladesh

The Durga Puja—the Autumn worship of the Great Goddess Durga—is the big one, the magnum opus of pujas. This four-day public event is without a doubt the biggest event on the Hindu calendar in Bengal, and Shakari Bazar in Old Dhaka—an almost exclusively Hindu enclave in otherwise Muslim Bangladesh—is the place to see it.

It was early September, about a month before the puja, when my translator, Tapon, and I first set foot in Haripada Paul’s tiny blue workshop in Shakari Bazar. Haripada makes murtis—the clay statues of the Hindu gods and goddesses that, once consecrated, form the vehicle through which the faithful communicate with the divine. Week after week we visited Haripada and watched the great goddess and her retinue take form. A few days before the puja, Haripada put the finishing touches on the murtis. Clothes were tacked on, the final blush of colour painted on their faces. They were like children we had known from birth. I wanted to see what would happen to them now that they had grown up and were being dispatched to the care and keeping of others. In those homes and on public stages, through the rituals of the puja, they would become the bodies of divine guests, and would be offered the finest hospitality money could buy. Then, when their visit was finished and they had returned home, their lifeless ‘bodies’ would be ferried out into the inky blackness of the Buriganga and returned to the silty river from which they came.