Barun Mukherjee has not missed a single Durga Puja in Delhi, except for the one in the year 1987. “Unfortunately, I was in Bharatpur then and couldn’t make it for the Puja here,” he says. Mukherjee is one of the many Bengalis whose families moved to Delhi from West Bengal in the early 1900s. A resident of Chandni Chowk, he subsequently moved to Karol Bagh and then Noida (where a 2 BHK can set you back by Rs. 40 lakh, depending on the sector) before settling down in his own apartment in Rohini (where a 900 sq ft apartment near a Metro station can cost you upwards of Rs. 1 crore).
Mukherjee has been associated with the Delhi Durga Puja Samiti (also known as the Kashmere Gate Durga Puja) for the last 50 years or so. Widely regarded as the oldest Puja in Delhi, this pandal was started in Chandni Chowk in about 1910.
The Partition of 1947 brought in streams of refugees to old Delhi and the organisers of the Puja decided to shift the venue to the erstwhile Delhi College of Engineering (DCE) in 1948. “The refugees needed the place more than we did; so settling them was a priority then. Which is why we shifted the venue to DCE and moved to our current venue at the Bengali Boys Senior Secondary School, Civil Lines in 1967,” says Mukherjee, who, incidentally, studied there. Things definitely have changed. Earlier, the practice was to use an earthen pot as a symbol of Durga during the Puja.It was Parmananda Biswas, a Bengali Christian, who is believed to have helped procure an idol from Varanasi and is credited with setting up the Puja as Bengalis in Delhi know it today.
Anuradha Mukherjee, Barun’s daughter, ushers in guests like a gracious hostess ensuring that everyone has had the authentic bhog khichuri (rice and lentils) being served at the pandal. She says, “This is a special Puja and we keep traditional practices alive. For instance, on the last day, after the Sandhi Puja, we take the idol to the Yamuna river in a bullock cart. More than 1,000 people come here every day from all parts of Delhi.”
There is nothing that brings greater joy to the Bengali community than the Durga Puja. It’s the superglue that binds the community together and you can see the camaraderie at the pandal – it’s almost like a wedding in their family. As one of the visitors from Kolkata, points out, “We take care of the goddess and the guests just like our mothers would take care of us when we go home.” Shaibal Mukherjee, who is visiting the Puja from Sahidabad, says, “Most of us happen to be old students of the Bengali School here, and we were all neighbours at some point. So this is also a great way to re-connect with our past, celebrate our tradition together and meet old friends and family.” (Sahidabad, an industrial area near Ghaziabad, has 2 BHK apartments in the range of Rs. 30 lakh or more.)
It’s not just the older generation that is involved in organising the Puja. The younger generation is just as enthusiastic. Sushmit Mazumdar, a youngster, is busy scurrying around the pandal and running errands. Clad in a traditional dhoti and kurta, he has grown up seeing his family perform the Durga Puja. “I have also been involved in organising the festival ever since I was a kid. Initially, you start out with gathering flowers for the Puja - it’s almost like a rite of passage. The Puja is all we talk about for most part of the year,” he adds.
The Timarpur and Civil Lines Puja Samiti is considered the second oldest Durga Puja in Delhi and was set up officially in 1913 by ‘probashi’ Bengalis (ie, Bengalis outside West Bengal). Anand Sengupta, a corporate professional and VP of this Puja samiti, says, “The Puja was set up by Bengalis who wanted to recreate memories of the festivities far away from their homes. It has turned into a socio-cultural religious event bringing people together. This year, the Puja is centred around the theme of Nari Shakti (woman power).”
Bengali neighbourhoods in the city
Timarpur started out as a private colony for government service employees. It was where Bengalis employed in the post and telegraph departments, railways and other government bodies moved to when the Capital was shifted from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911. The old secretariat, viceroy’s office (which is now the Delhi University) were in the vicinity and hence this was a convenient place of residence for Bengalis who were working in the government sector
Known for its predominant south Indian population and shopping options, Karol Bagh also has a sizeable Bengali population. Most of the Bengalis who retired from government service while working near Gole Market and Timarpur eventually settled in some pockets of Karol Bagh. The area is centrally located and well-connected to the rest of the city. Karol Bagh also hosts one of the oldest Durga Pujas in the city organised by the Bengali
Among the most popular Bengali neighbourhoods in the city, Chittaranjan Park, set up in the 1960s, was earlier called the East Pakistan Displaced Persons (EPDP) colony. Considered a melting pot of Bengali culture and cuisine, the place has been named after Chittaranjan Das, a patriot. Plots were allotted to migrants and refugees of the Partition from east Bengal. The area is famous for its food, temples and its Durga puja pandals