Separated by oceans, united by Durga puja -- irrespective of wherever or how old they are, this can be the common slogan of all Bengalis inhabiting this planet. The count, anyway, is impressive -- Durga puja is organised at 150 plus locations across 36 countries in all six continents (besides India and Bangladesh).
The celebrations abroad may not be as spectacular as in West Bengal or the capital city of Kolkata. But they are of no less value to the expatriate Bengalis who sweat it out to ensure the gap of hundreds and thousands of miles from their homeland is bridged at least once in a year. It is the time when the Bengali Hindus becomes a single family joined by their shared interest in traditional Bengali culture, cuisine and attire, not to forget the adda.
“The tradition of the Brussels Durga Puja continues to be the fabric of our lives…” reads a line on the home page of the website of Sarbojonin Puja Committee, Brussels, Switzerland.
Therefore, organisers of the puja at Hounslow, UK, make special arrangements to ensure that phuchka, roll, ghoogni, jhalmuri, aloor chop and singara are available at fast food stalls outside the mandap and luchi and aloor dum are served in bhog.
“We wanted to make the event as close to Kolkata’s barowari (community) pujas as possible. As Durga puja is incomplete without the beats of dhak, we have purchased two dhaks for the visitors to play,” said Debabrata Das, one of the organisers of UK Prabashi’s puja at Hounslow.
Over the past five years, Biraja Ghosal, the business intelligence head of a major IT services exporter from India, has been performing the role of the priest at the Hounslow puja. Another priest from a local temple performs yajna. Local residents grow hibiscus and banana trees at their gardens to make the flower and banana leaves available for the puja. They imported a 21 ft X 9 ft idol made of fibre glass from Kolkata five years ago and it cost them nearly Rs 4 lakh. They are expecting a footfall of 8,000 at the venue this year.
“There is a common saying that when three Bengalis are assembled, a Durga Puja will not be far behind,” wrote S K Sengupta while narrating the history of the Copperbelt Durga puja Committee, which presently organises the puja in Chingola, the copper mining heartland Zambia. Sengupta, head of geology (exploration) of Konkola Copper Mines, is the secretary of the 31-year-old puja committee.
Going by that saying, tracking down Durga pujas held outside India is a good way to get an idea of the Bengali Hindu Diaspora settled in different corners of the world, where the pujas are held in different ways and durations.
The following list, an exhaustive one, gives us an idea – 11 pujas in eight African nations, nearly 60 pujas in 19 European countries, eight pujas in two countries of Oceania, three pujas in the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, one puja each in three Arab countries of Bahrain, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates, seven pujas in Myanmar, two pujas in the South American countries of Brazil and Argentina, two pujas in Japan, one in South Korea, three pujas each in Singapore and Sri Lanka, two pujas in Thailand, one puja in Malaysia, one puja the in Caribbean island of Trinidad and more than 50 pujas across all the states in the US.
Some of the overseas Durga pujas in the US, Europe and Africa date back to nearly half a century. The puja of Malaysian Bengalee Association started in 1952. The puja in Nairobi will turn 41 this year.
Nearly half of the pujas in Europe are organised in the UK alone. Apart from London, which is home to more than a dozen pujas, the other places include Birmingham, Wales, Leicester, Surrey, Sheffield, Nottingham, Southampton, Manchester, New Castle, Peterborough, Slough, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Leeds and Cambridge. Some of these pujas have grown big, full of cultural extravaganza.
Five pujas are held across Germany (Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Munich) and four pujas in Australia (Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne). In Switzerland, too, the Puja is held in four cities – Geneva, Zürich, Basel and Langnau am Albis.
Bengali Hindus who started arriving in the mineral rich belt of Africa from the early 20th century to work in various projects related to development of infrastructure and mining facilities in the mineral rich belt had to do without pujas for several years. Gradually, they started to organise pujas in small scales, with whatever means available. Many pujas were initially conducted with only an image of the goddess. But the second and third generation settlers in those faraway lands could not do without the puja in its complete form – with all rituals and cultural activities.
The puja in Chingola started in 1985 in another mining town, Kitwe and later relocated to its present location. Other cities to host pujas in Africa are Lusaka in Zambia, Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya, Maputa in Mozambique, Gaborone in Botswana, Lagos in Nigeria and in the port city of Dar es Salam in Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Johannesburg in South Africa. Most of these pujas are now more than two decades old and full-fledged, five-day ceremonies.
In the words of the organisers of the puja in Zurich: “Bengalis, who came to Switzerland almost 50 years back, always longed to go home particularly on those five auspicious Durga Puja days… Bengalis lived with a constant nostalgia and an insatiable hope that perhaps one day, they will also be able to organize a Durga Puja in the heart of Alps, right here in Switzerland.”
In the US, the trend of organising Durga puja started in the early 1970s and, by now, pujas are held in all of the 50 states in the US. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was enacted in the US in 1968, which played a key role in allowing skilled workers to work in the US. This enactment coincided with the spread of Naxalite politics across Bengal and Kolkata was gradually turning into a centre of violent urban guerrilla warfare.
Prompted by the crisis at home and the opportunities offered by the US, many families sent their boys and girls in their twenties and thirties to work in the US, which resulted in an influx of Bengalis in various state in the US from the late 1960s. According to Amitabha Bagchi, who settled in the US in the mid-1960s, Bengali community in the US was too sparse until 1969-1970 to think of organising Durga pujas.
“Their (young professional) arrival changed the demographics as well as the attitude and perspective of the immigrant Indian community. As their population, at least in big cities, began to reach a critical mass, there was a manifest yearning for recreating slices of life from back home. For the Bengali immigrants, the yearning focused on celebrating the most important annual festival of the community, the Durga Puja,” Bagchi wrote in an article.
“Nineteen-seventy was also the year when the first community Durga Puja was organised in several big cities of the US and Canada. The community response was overwhelming; people came from hundreds of miles away to bask in the back-home feel and soak in the ambience. There has been no turning back ever since. Durga Puja has continued to be celebrated, without interruption, in the major US cities and has proliferated over time to suburbs and smaller towns as well,” he added.
According to Sujoy Biswas, an organiser of the New Zealand Sarbojonin Durgotsav that turns 25 this year, “Migrants from India started settling in New Zealand more than a century ago. Bengali migrants, however, started coming only in the late 1970’s. In 1992, approximately 12 Bengali families gathered to organise the first Durga Puja in Auckland. Presently about 200 families are involved with the puja and the budget has been constant at nearly Rs 10,00,000 over the past few years. During their puja, women are relieved of their kitchen duties and it is the men who shoulder the responsibilities in the auditorium kitchen.
Due to the unavailability of holidays during the puja, the durations range between single-day events to five-day events, as per the convenience of the organisers. Most of the pujas in the US, as well as the two in Tokyo, Japan, and some European countries are held on weekends which are in proximity with the actual calendar dates. Most pujas in Germany and Singapore, on the other hand, are held elaborately for four-five days. But it is almost without an exception that the entire community at those locations turns into a single family during the days of the puja.
The organisers of one of the puja committees in Tokyo publish a puja magazine, titled Agomoni, even though they only have a one-day celebration. Puja magazines are integral part of some of the pujas in the US and European countries as well. Depending on the financial strength of the puja committees, the organisers – mostly in the US and the UK – also bring in Bengali artistes for performing during the puja.
While many of the puja committees in the US and Europe fly in idols from Kumartuli, some puja committees also fly in priests and dhakis. in 2014, the organisers of the puja in Maputa, Mozambique, failed to get a Bengali priest and had to do with a Gujarati priest who conducted the puja in his own way.
The Copperbelt Durga Puja Committee’s puja in Chingola, used the same idol for five years between 2007 and 2011, until bringing in another fibre glass idol from Kumartuli that is still in use. The organisers of the puja in Lagos, Nigeria, on the other hand, are worshipping the same idol for years.
The puja in Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam, has no immersion. According to Kumar Biswas, one of the organisers of the puja, “The idols are of reusable cardboard structure which after Puja, find place in the house of some devotee.”
The puja in Hounslow, in its fifth year, is among the several new pujas that started over the past 10 years. In 2006, Bengalis living in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China and Brussels, in Belgium, and Maputo, in Mozambique started new pujas. Two new pujas started in New Zealand, in Palmerstone North and Wellington, in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Bengalis living in Oslo, Norway started a puja in 2009. The puja in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, resumed in 2007. It originally started in 1975 but discontinued since the early 1990s.
The first community Durga puja in Sao Paolo, Brazil started in 2011 and in the next year, Bengalis living on Seoul, the capital of South Korea, started a Durga puja of their own. In 2013, new pujas started in Copenhagen, Denmark and in Sweden’s Stockholm.
Whatever be the form and duration, pujas must happen wherever this is even a small community of expatriate Bengalis, for two things appear to be central to the identity of the quintessential Bengali – their mother tongue and the mother goddess. They laid down their lives for the sake of their language in Bangladesh and Assam, and they find one way or the other to celebrate the Durga puja, irrespective of whether they are in Massachusetts or Mozambique.