Durga puja pandal hopping

Srinivasan Balakrishnan

Pandal hopping is an obsessive integral part of Kolkata’s Durga Puja festival, the mother of all festivalsof West Bengal.  With my daughter indulging in pandal-hopping in Kolkata along with her friends, I decided to compete with her by pandal-hopping in Chennai. In Chennai?! Yes, indeed, in Chennai! With Greater Chennai expanding its limits in west, north and south (alas, on the East is Bay of Bengal!) and with influx of people from all over India, it is truly turning into a cosmopolitan city. But before we go on pandal hopping, let us go deep down to find the root of the word pandal, right? It is from Tamil ‘pandhal’ which indicates a ‘temporary roofing structure’ made of dried coconut palm fronds.

Though I am in Chennai for the past three decades, somehow I never pulled up myself to visit a Durga puja pandal. It would be surprising that the first Durga Puja was organised in Chennai in 1934 itself, much before independence. The Bengal Association, Madras, was conceptualised in 1927 and was registered in 1929. A plot was acquired for the Association in 1934 in Theyagaraya (T.) Nagar, the commercial hubof Chennai. Probably this association is the mother of all Bengali associations in Chennai, as it dates back to 90 years! This was my third pandal hopping on Saptami day. What a crowd! If a rasagulla falls down you won’t be able to pick it up. With my little knowledge of Bengali, I had ear full of Bangla basha. As the pandal was put up inside their own building,it was a bit cramped with devotees pouring in as it was in the heart of Chennai.

Another major Durga puja pandal is by the South Madras Cultural Association (SMCA). Established in Adyar area of Chennai in 1975, this year’s puja is their 41st.  SMCA pandal was a vast one but put up in a hired venue just opposite the Besant Nagar bus terminus, hence easily approachable.

The third pandal hopping was at Anna Nagar West Extension, near my house. Organised by the Dakshini Society, this is their silver anniversary. Among the three pandals I hopped in & out, I would rank the images worshipped here as gorgeous. The Bengal Association images were traditional and lively; the Durga image at SMCA venue was quite tall and impressive.

While at the puja area people were occupied with selfie shots, the stall area was filled with the mixed aroma of all that is good of Bengali cuisine, including fish, egg, etc., which made some non-Bengali visitors aghast. Non-veg items at puja pandal! They could not simply ‘digest’ it, I mean, the selling. But is not ‘machha’ (fish) an inseparable part of Benglai culture? I was really surprised that so many Bengalis live in Chennai. I noticed a few new brides, all decked up and shy, happy to be in the awed presence of Ma Durga. One thing common in all pandals was the unquenchable passion of visitorsfor a selfie with Ma Durga! Oh, Maaaa!

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