Began in 1757, Kolkata Durga Puja is recognised as ‘intangible heritage’ by UNESCO
Kolkata’s Durga Puja, the second event from West Bengal to be recognised as ‘intangible heritage’ by UNESCO, was known as a rich man affair till the late 1700s
Kolkata’s Durga Puja has become the latest addition to the list of ‘intangible heritage’ by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Overall, 14 Indian events are enlisted in the ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO, representing its culture and tradition.
“Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers… During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations,” the statement by UNESCO read.
This is the second event from the state of West Bengal after Chau Dance, inscribed in UNESCO’s ‘intangible heritage’ list.
Initially, Durga Puja was celebrated in the regal homes of Zamindars of Kolkata. These pujas were called “Bonedhi Barir Puja” or Puja in the house of Zamindars. The first Durga Puja celebration in the state capital, as per the literature, dates back to 1757.
The first Durga Puja in Kolkata
The first Durga Puja was celebrated in 1757 by Maharaja Naba Krishna Deb, the founder of the Shobhabazar royal family at their family home, popularly known as Sovabazar Rajbari. History says that Colonel Robert Clive wanted to express his gratitude to the divine powers after the victory of the British forces in the Battle of Plassey. The battle marked the beginning of British rule in India.
But he was not able to find any churches as Siraj-ud-Daulah had burnt all of them. When Maharaja Naba Krishna Deb heard about this, he asked the chief officer of East India Company to offer prayers to Devi Durga in his house to appease the officers.
Clive was initially hesitant as Christians were not allowed in Hindu festivities in those days. He finally agreed to attend the puja after mighty Naba Krishna Deb’s assurance. This was the beginning of the Durga Puja celebration in Kolkata.
With time, several British officers used to come to witness the grandeur of the Rajbari celebration. And the Shobhabazar Durgotsab (Durga Puja ceremony) was called the ‘Company Puja’ by the locals. This puja also paved way for showcasing one’s status among the Zamindars.
Rajbari Durga Puja was not only the beginning of festivities in Kolkata, but it also turned those five puja days into days of celebration with events, sumptuous feast and entertainment for their guests.
Democratizing Durga Puja
As mentioned above, Durga Puja was an exclusive matter of the affluent society as it had a bunch of customs that was impossible for a common man to sustain financially. Thus in the late 1700s, 12 friends formed a committee to conduct the puja for all kinds of people in Gutipara in the Hoogli district.
The term Baroyari in Bengali has two words. The word baro means 12, and yari means friends. Gradually, Baroari Puja became synonymous with the term ‘Durga puja for a common man’.
The current situation
The first official community Durga puja of Calcutta was conducted by the ‘Sanatan Dharamatsahini Sabha’ of Behala’s Shaker Bazar. Since then, West Bengal has seen a steady increase in enthusiasm and attendance among the masses in the puja.
So much so, now the celebration is extended to seven days festival from five days. Digpu News had earlier reported that the celebration currently contributes 2.53% of the state GDP, amounting to $4.53 billion. This figure is comparable to the GDP of Maldives.