Durga Puja in Kolkata: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

If everything goes as planned, the Durga Puja of Kolkata may finally get the UNESCO World Heritage status next year. Durga Puja in Kolkata is India’s official nomination (No. 00703) for UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for 2020 that require protection and preservation, according to Sangeet Natak Akademi, an autonomous body under the Union ministry of culture that is the nodal agency for this purpose.

Durga Puja is one of the biggest Hindu festivals and it is celebrated in numerous ways in India and beyond. Although the Durga Puja originated in the Indian state of West Bengal, the festival is popular in the eastern part of India and today it is also celebrated by Bengalis living all over the world. The festival honours the goddess Durga, who according to Hindu mythology won a battle against the demon king Mahishasura. Thus, the victory of good over evil is an important theme of the Durga Puja festival.

Durga Puja is not only a religious festival, but it is also the most significant socio-cultural event in Bengal. It is the occasion for multiple functions, preparations, exposition, and references in Bengali life. Though predominantly originated in the Hindu ritual and legends, the Durga Puja celebration cross-cuts the communal divide in many of its attributes. It is an epitome of harmony across caste, class, creed, and religion.

The 10-day revelry which is dedicated to worshipping Goddess Durga begins with the inaugural day of Mahalaya when the clay images have life invoked in them through the painting of the eyes and ends on the tenth day of Bijoya Dashami when the images are immersed in the river., but it is now celebrated all over the country and with the spread of Bengali diaspora, Durga Puja is now celebrated in every continent.

The first grand worship of Goddess Durga in recorded history is said to have been celebrated in the late 1500s. Folklores say the landlords, or zamindar, of Dinajpur and Malda, initiated the first Durga Puja in Bengal. According to another source, Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur or Bhabananda Mazumdar of Nadiya organised the first Sharadiya or Autumn Durga Puja in Bengal in circa 1606. The baro-yaari puja (public version) was brought to Kolkata in 1832 by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar, who performed the Durga Puja at his ancestral home in Murshidabad from 1824 to 1831. Sabarna Roy Choudhury family started Durga Puja in the year 1610 and is well-known for being the oldest Durga Puja of Kolkata.

Durga Puja at the Thonthonia Dutta Bari in Kolkata
Durga Puja at the Thonthonia Dutta Bari in Kolkata (Photo: Jean-Michel Turpin/Getty Images)

Every year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adds to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and Durga Puja, a ‘conglomeration of different cultures’ is India’s choice for its 2020 update, according to the Akademi website. India currently has 13 cultural traditions under the UNESCO list. While yoga was added to the list in 2016, Kumbh Mela became part of world heritage in 2017. “Sowa-Rigpa” commonly known as the Tibetan system of medicine, was nominated for this year’s list.

Durga Puja is the best instance of the public performance of religion and art in the city. It witnesses a celebration of craftsmanship, cross-cultural transactions and cross-community revelry. The manner in which the festival is enmeshed in a web of competition and consumption, accelerated by the winning of accolades, secures its secular identity, embedding it in the contemporary global cultures of touring, spectacle, and entertainment. The exemplary character of Durga Puja lies in its ability to not temporally bound itself to the ritual occasion. Its dynamism lies in it being a constantly mutating event — in its fusion of tradition with changing tastes and popular cultures, and in the adaptation of the iconographies of Durga and the styles of her temporary abodes to cater to new regimes of art production.

The Sangeet Natak Academy

India currently has 13 cultural traditions listed under the UNESCO list. The Intangible Cultural Heritage added into this list include:

  1. The tradition of Vedic chanting
  2. Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana
  3. Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre
  4. Ramman, religious festival and ritual theatre of the Garhwal Himalayas.
  5. Mudiyettu, ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala
  6. Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan
  7. Chhau dance
  8. Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: the recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the trans-Himalayan Ladakh region, Jammu and Kashmir.
  9. Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur
  10. Traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, Punjab
  11. Yoga
  12. Nawrouz
  13. Kumbh Mela

In addition, there are a number of elements that have been nominated to Representative List by the Sangeet Natak Akademi over the years but have not yet been selected by UNESCO. These include Qawwali, turban tying in Rajasthan, Kalamkari and Phad paintings, the art of Kolam, Patola textiles and Nautanki theatre.

Finally, on 15 December 2021, UNESCO included Durga Puja in Kolkata in the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s a proud moment for all Indians, especially Bengalis. Jai Maa Durga!

16 thoughts on “Durga Puja in Kolkata: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

  1. Really informative. Hope it gets included. A point to be noted is that in the current form, Durga Puja is more of a social celebration than religious. Only a handful of Pujas are true to the religious-ritual. The youngsters look forward to Durga Puja as a festival rather than any religious affair.

    Liked by 1 person

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