If you want to experience Kolkata Durga Puja, ideally you should be in the city at least a week before the festival starts so you can see the finishing touches being put on the idols of the goddess. If that's not possible, there are still plenty of other ways to enjoy it -- all night long! Here's the best of them.
The easiest way to participate in the celebrations is to take a Durga Puja festival tour.
1. See Durga Idols Being Made
The beautifully handcrafted idols of Goddess Durga sure are stunning. However, you'll appreciate them even more if you see the effort that goes into making them. Fortunately, this isn't hard to do. The majority of them are crafted in one area -- Kumartuli in north Kolkata, around 30 minutes drive from the city center. The name literally means "potter's locality" and as it suggests, the area was settled by a group of potters. Nowadays around 150 potter families live there. If you go there on the occassion of Mahalaya (around a week before Durga Puja starts) you'll be able to see the eyes being drawn onto the statues in an auspicious ritual called Chokkhu Daan.
2. See the Kola Bou Bath
Durga Puja officially gets underway early on the morning of Saptami, the seventh day of Navaratri. A special ritual is performed to infuse the energy of the Goddess into the idols, installed on podiums across the city. This is done though a small banana plant called a Kola Bou. Accompanied by drummers and the chanting of mantras by a Hindu priest, the Kola Bou is bathed and purified in the river. It's then dressed up in a sari with a red border and carried, in a procession, back to the idol where it's placed alongside Lord Ganesh (son of Goddess Durga). Many people consider the Kola Bou to be Lord Ganesh's wife. The best places to see this ritual are at the north Kolkata ghats of Bagbazar and Airitolla. Be sure to arrive by 6 a.m.
The highlight of Durga Puja is no doubt visiting the many different displays (pandals) of Goddess Durga, each with a unique theme. This activity is often referred to a "pandal hopping". There are thousands of pandals in Kolkata so it's only possible to visit a fraction of them -- and even then it requires a bit of strategic planning as they're spread out all over the city. You'll find the most well known ones in north and south Kolkata, which is conveniently connected by the Metro railway. The most popular time for pandal hopping is in the night when they're lit up. If you go during the day, you can avoid much of the crowd.
There's never a better time to sample Kolkata's famous Bengali cuisine than Durga Puja. The festival isn't considered to be complete without food! You'll find a wide array of it everywhere -- on the streets, at the pandals, and in specialty Bengali restaurants. Pandal hopping does get tiring, so eating while you're out and about is a must. The food served to visitors at the pandals is called bhog (offerings to the god which are distributed). It commonly consists of mixed vegetable curry, a sweet dish, fried item, and chutney. Kolkata's Bengali restaurants also have exclusive Durga Puja menus packed full of authentic delicacies -- both buffet and a la carte.
5. See the Immersion of Durga Idols
On the last day of Durga Puja, known as Dashami, the festivities commence with married women placing red sindoor (powder) on the idols of Goddess Durga. They then smear it on each other. In the evening, the idols are immersed in the water. One of the most popular immersion points is Babu Ghat (centrally located near Eden Garden), although you'll be able to catch the action at any of the ghats along the river. An excellent way of seeing it is by boat.