Durga Puja Pandal Hopping, Kolkata: Best Advice

Durga Puja Pandal Hopping, Kolkata: Best Advice

Come autumn and it is time for Goddess Durga to return to her baap’er baariher father’s home, from Kailash and all of Bengal gears up to welcome her. She is accompanied by her four children, Ganesh, Kartik, Saraswati, and Lokkhi. Together, they are worshipped in pandals– makeshift places of worship– hundreds of which are erected throughout the city. For Kolkatans, Durga Puja is more a carnival than a religious festival. Each year, the pandals get bigger and more glamorous than the previous year and millions pour out into the streets to celebrate the annual extravaganza. Kolkata transforms into a week-long open-art gallery and people go from pandal to pandal admiring the handcrafted decorations and to seek the blessings of the Goddess. More and more puja committees are bringing forth Bengal’s rural and ethnic craftsmanship to the forefront during puja. Craftsmen and artists from various corners of the state labour year-round to complete the pandals. Some of them have themes; in recent years there has been a replica of Madurai’s famous Meenakshi Temple, a pandal inspired by Dali’s surrealism, and one promoting freedom of expression through motifs from the Bollywood blockbuster, Padmavat. Asian Paints awards the prestigious Sharod Shammaan for Best Puja, Best New Discovery to a previously unknown puja, Creative Excellence for innovation decorations, and Best Artisan to a Protimashilpi and every year, clubs battle it to present to the millions that descend on Calcutta the best of the best.

While pandal hopping is fun, the heat and crowds can dampen the experience. Learn the tricks to make pandal hopping this Durga puja a little less exhausting and a more time efficient experience from city insiders who have lived Kolkata’s unparalleled Durga Puja experience since birth! 

Durga Idols being made at Kumartuli (Image: Gourab Basak)

Wear Comfortable Footwear

Rules of Thumb:

  • If you haven’t broken it in, don’t wear it.
  • If it has a heel higher than an inch, don’t wear it.

Pandal hopping in Kolkata involves walking. A lot of walking. For effective crowd control, Kolkata Police barricades large swathes of roads and cabs will drop you, most of the times, half a kilometre or so away from the pandal. Often you will find yourself in an endless queue outside the pandal and sometimes it will take you almost an hour of painful waiting before you are finally inside, asking Durga and her children for their blessings. Aching and swollen feet are common complaints. Because you will have to walk long stretches and spend time standing in queues, consider comfortable footwear like flats with soft, breathable soles. We personally favour sneakers (pack an extra pair of socks if you sweat a lot); not only are they easier to walk in for hours but they also protect your feet from the dust and grime. Plus added protection from the tens of times your tired feet will be trodden upon. If rain is forecast, pick something waterproof.

Earthen houses tower over crowds at Suruchi Sangha 

Carry a Refillable Drinking Water Bottle

Skip buying plastic mineral water bottles and carry a refillable drinking water bottle instead. There are numerous drinking water dispensing fountains throughout the city. All malls, metro stations, and railway stations will have at least one and the water is safe for drinking. Most puja committees offer drinking water to visitors. You might also come across drinking water dispensers set up by various local organizations. If you are sceptical about the quality of water they offer, consider carrying some purifying tablets or a LifeStraw. We carry a HydroFlask each and fill up wherever we can. Here’s to celebrating Puja sustainably!

Cherubs adorn the ceiling of a pandal in South Kolkata 

Wear Breathable Clothes

You might be tempted to wear the latest in fashion for a day of Durga Puja pandal hopping, but Kolkata is no Darjeeling and the weather, even in October, is nothing close to salubrious. The heat is unbearable, of course, but then there’s Kolkata’s notorious humidity. Agree it isn’t as bad as it is in mid-June but it is bad enough to call for moisture-wicking fabrics. Wear something breathable like cotton, linen, or khadi. The silks and rayons can wait.

At Babu Bagan, the pandal resembled a terracotta temple

Carry Band-Aids and Sachets of Oral Rehydration Solution

Shoe-bites are perhaps the most common complaint during Durga Puja. Look around and the number of feet adorned with band-aids will baffle you! My dad used to joke that band-aids are the most popular goynaornament, during Durga puja. If you can’t resist your new pair of shoes that you haven’t had the time to break into, make sure you are carrying a couple of band-aids to save yourself from those dreaded blisters. Even if you don’t need them, you might be the saving grace for a fellow pandal hopper in need of one. Besides, things can go multiple ways when you are squashed in a crowd. Two years ago, my toenail was crushed in a rush at Howrah Station. Thanks to band-aids and the nurses at a medical assistance booth I was able to limp home but a painfully swollen toe meant I could hardly enjoy the rest of the puja.

The heat might leave you dehydrated, so consider carrying a few sachets of Oral Rehydration Solution. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, mix one in your water bottle and drink. Note that all the big puja committees offer medical assistance. Don’t hesitate to seek help should you feel unwell.

A photographer takes a picture of the idol

Avoid Street-food & Pack Snacks

Excess demand often translates to a degradation in quality. Kolkata’s street food during Puja is oilier and definitely not as delicious as it is at other times. Hygiene takes a dip too. Popular eateries have long wait times, so unless you are keen on wasting time standing outside a restaurant, pack some snacks in your backpack. You can munch on them while waiting in queues outside pandals or while travelling between pandals. We prefer cakes, biscuits, fruits, muri, chinre bhaja, chocolates, peanuts, etc.

Unlike in North India where Navratri is an entirely vegetarian affair, in Bengal, we eat our weight in meat, fish, and eggs during Durga Puja. If you are vegetarian or from a predominantly vegetarian part of the country, it might shock you to see kebabs glistening from skewers, eggs being cracked on smoking tawas, or fish fillets being crumb-fried to perfection everywhere you look. Kolkata’s Muslim population also celebrates Durga Puja with much festivity. In areas like Park Circus and Khidderpore, you might come across eateries selling beef biriyani. Since it has already led to controversies in the past, it is recommended that you respect local traditions and stay away from the redundant How Can Bengalis Eat “Non-Veg” During Durga Puja debate.

Dum Dum’s Tarun Sangha attempted to bring awareness to minors who work at tea stalls. One of the art installations at the pandal.

Plan Ahead

There are far too many pandals that can be visited. To be honest, there is no way you can see even three-quarters of them without completely exhausting yourself even within a span of 3-4 days. Here’s a tip: Don’t overdo it. Pick an area and plan your route ahead using Google Maps. Or, pick the ones you most want to visit and plan a route between them. Local newspapers like the Telegraph and Ananda Bazaar Patrika run a list of popular pujas and their themes. Check the maps below to locate pandals. Effective planning means you can see more in a shorter time. Make sure to keep an eye on traffic diversions and roadblocks while you are on the road.

We usually spend a day or a day and a half exploring North Kolkata where the pandals are located much closer to each other and then two days in South Kolkata. This year, we are planning to devote more time to visit the heritage Bonedi Baari’r pujas. 

Also read: When to Visit West Bengal

The pandal at Sreebhumi was inspired by Padmavat

Carry an Umbrella

Climate change means gone are the days when puja meant a nip in the air and clear skies with pleasant sunshine. Now it is either rainy or insufferably sunny during Puja. Thus, an umbrella is a must.

Bird houses adorn the pandal at Selimpur

Carry Sanitary Napkins

Periods can be unpredictable, and it is best to be prepared. Carry a small packet of sanitary napkins with you. Even if you don’t need them, somebody else might. 

Here’s a thought: What if the men carry a packet too for their female friends and family in case need arises?

A glittering Rajasthani haveli houses the goddess at Chetla Agrani

Use Public Transport

If you have your own car, consider not using it for Durga puja pandal hopping for the sake of your sanity. Finding a spot to park your car in Kolkata during Durga Puja is daunting. Most of the times, you will find yourself a kilometre or more away from the pandal and having to walk to and from the car will only add to exhaustion. It is ineffective, time-wise, and you will lose precious minutes when you could have walked to the next pandal instead of returning to your car only to begin a search for the next parking spot. Kolkata’s robust public transit ranks the best in the country— although the city is one of the worst for driving— and it is amped up during the Puja. There is no dearth of buses. Plus, we have trams, the metro, the circular railways, and autos. You will find something even in the middle of the night during Durga Puja! If not, you can book a cab.

Quick tip: Get a metro card ahead of the Puja. It will save you from standing in long queues at the ticketing booths.

Durga Puja at Rani Rashmoni’s House in Janbazar

Keep a List of Emergency Numbers Handy

Trouble never comes announced. Here’s a list of emergency numbers to keep handy:

Traffic Helpline: 2000/2001

Senior Citizen Helpline: 98300 88884

Women’s Helpline: 1091

Medical Helpline: 98300 79999

Emergency: 100

A comprehensive list of emergency numbers can be found on the Kolkata Police website and the West Bengal Tourism website.

It is important to stay calm. Crowded spaces can cause distress and during Durga puja, a vast ocean of humanity billows through the streets of the city. You might feel anxious or claustrophobic especially if you are not used to crowded urban spaces. Crowded spaces trigger panic attacks in me sometimes but it is important that we fight our demons and slay them like Maa Durga slew Mahisashura. A bit of careful planning and you can enjoy the magnificent artworks that are the Kolkata’s Durga puja pandals and the idols worshipped inside them. Remember to take breaks. Stop for a daab or a cup of cha. Maybe eat a sondesh before you join the happy frenzy again. 

Maa Durga at Selimpur
Maa Durga

Disability Access:

Kolkata, like most Indian cities, struggles with disability accessible infrastructure. The AC buses are wheelchair accessible and so is the overland stretch of the metro between Tollygunge and Kavi Subhash (New Garia). If you require wheelchair access, the best way to enjoy Durga Puja would be to book a cab or use your own car. If there is a pandal you’d love to see, we recommend calling ahead to inquire about accessibility. Most puja committees have wheelchairs available. They honour requests and will let you use their committee entrances and parking.

Durga arrives in Kolkata

Wishing you a fabulous Durga Puja!

17 thoughts on “Durga Puja Pandal Hopping, Kolkata: Best Advice”

  • Very well explained. I do something similar in Delhi but of course the magnitude of that is much smaller than Kolkata. This article couldn’t have come at a better time!

  • I never even heard of this event but I would sure love to check it out when I eventually get to India.(Kolkata) one day. Very good advice and tips here.

    • I usually don’t see a lot of foreigners but this year was an exception. There were foreign tourists jostling in the crowds or touring in buses. I think the state tourism board is trying to attract more tourists. This year they organised rides in air conditioned buses to tourists. You can also pay for a VIP pass which will let you skip the long queues. Check out West Bengal Tourism’s ad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwCTpdeuVe8

  • I honestly have never heard of pandals, very interesting concept…even more so that some have themes and that there’s such a thing as pandal-hopping! Although I have to admit, if it’s really hot I wouldn’t want to do it as I don’t like to do excessive walking or waiting in the heat. The misery the heat causes me isn’t worth it. I love winter! 😉 I definitely agree with your tips of sneakers or at least a flat, comfortable shoe and a refillable water bottle. Those two things are musts if you are going to do it!

    • You can choose to start really early, say around 4 am, and tour the pandals and be back around 10-10:30 am. There are hardly any crowds then. Plus, early mornings are pleasant at this time of the year. If it rains, you might even want a light shawl. However, it gets hotter as the day progresses.

  • Such a comprehensive post and wonderful advice for this carnival event. It would be incredible to see, although I think the crowds could get overwhelming! Good advice about the shoes and great to see you’ve listed the emergency numbers too. What a magnificent festival, rich in culture, religion and heritage.

    • If you want to skip the crowds and see the pandals, set off on foot (or, book a cab) in the wee hours of the morning and tour the entire city. There are hardly any crowds and you’ll get ample parking space. Footfalls are highest post sundown.

  • Durga Puja is an amazing festival. Love the idea of pandal hopping, despite the long walking. Your advice is excellent and can also be used for other festivals and carnivals around the world!

  • I want to visit Kolkata during Durga Puja and these days seeing celebration posts from my friends is so exciting! Thanks for these tips! Somehow gives me a feeling that it is similar to Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai but Pandal hopping is something new for me. Would keep these tips in mind whenever I visit for this special celebration time in Kolkata!

  • This is my first time reading about thsi event and it sounds fascinating! Since you are stressing how many bandaids they go through and the condition of footwear being of utmost importance, this seems to be a very great deal of walking. 😉 I love the Dali association, one of my favorite artists. Fun!

  • A very exciting and interesting festival. I like the tips, very practical and certainly very useful. I’ll remember it when I plan my next visit to a big event!

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