Over the last 6 weeks in Kolkata, the City of Joy, I’ve experienced Durga Puja, Navratri, Kali Puja, Diwali, Jagadhatri Puja, Bakri-Eid, Purnima Puja and the recently commenced Kolkata Film Festival. Maybe Kolkata should alternatively be termed the City of Never-Ending Festivals.
I’ve learned by now that West Bengal does things differently than the rest of India so it wasn’t a surprise to me to learn that Kolkata celebrates Diwali differently as well – with Kali Puja. Once again like with Durga Puja, I saw new pandals being built and the city getting ready for puja at midnight on the 26th. Though we didn’t participate in the Kali Puja, we did walk around our neighborhood watching families play with fireworks – it was a gorgeous night. I’ve also been to the famous Kali temple, down the street from our apartment. I went at 7am before work one morning and was surprised by the number of people there that early. I waited in line for about 20 minutes before getting to the idol and the person behind me in line kept chanting, “hai Kali, Calcutte wali” and I thought that perfectly summarized how people of Kolkata feel about their goddesses.
The day after Diwali, Jenn and I went exploring and wound up at the ISKCON temple’s vegetarian restaurant, Govinda’s. ISKCON, which stands for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishna movement, is gaining popularity amongst Hindu converts in the West. We enjoyed a wonderful meal devoid of onions and garlic but still so naturally flavorful that we savored each and every ingredient. We left Govinda’s restaurant in search for the ISKCON temple and instead stumbled upon another temple where we went in and received some prasadam. After inquiring about directions from a handful of people, we finally made it to the temple. Every ISKCON temple I’ve ever been to has always been gorgeous, and this one was no less. Jenn and I easily spent three hours at this temple, lost in thought, people-watching and the comforted by the peacefulness of the environment we were in. We bonded with a group of ladies, devotees, who came in every day to make flower garlands and other offerings for the idols. A young 18-year-old girl befriended us and told us about the Hare Krishna movement and her family’s involvement in it. Her mom was one of the devotees and the girl often joined her mom for the services. It was therapeutic watching the women work. After the ridiculousness that was Durga Puja and Kali Puja, it was refreshing to sit in quiet, taking in the smells of gardenia and jasmine. We sat there conversing for some time until the aarthi started. There was one person singing the aarthi and a couple others providing musical accompaniment – tabla and harmonium. After the aarthi, they changed gears and began singing some devotional songs accompanied by their traditional dancing. A few men stood in a line (side by side) and danced forwards and backwards, speeding up and slowing down with the rhythm of the music. Never tiring, these men kept at it for ages! It was absolutely mesmerizing. After observing and partaking in their spirituality, Jenn and I finally made our exit. What I loved about visiting the ISKCON temple was that Jenn and I were so warmly welcomed and we truly felt like a part of their family. It was lovely talking to our new friend and helping the women with their devotional services; but more than anything, the ISKCON temple was the perfect spiritual getaway from the daily hustle and bustle of a city life.