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  • Boycotting The Durga Puja

    by guest
    3rd October, 2011 at 9:31 am    

    This is a guest post by Rita Banerji. She blogs here.

    Calcutta currently is in the midst of the Durga Puja – the 10 day carnival celebrating the goddess Durga. It is the annual climax of Calcutta’s cultural ethos. Not having grown up in Calcutta, I had never actually attended this celebration as a child. So at 30 when I moved to the city, I was fascinated and curious. I photographed the celebrations from every angle and asked a million questions.

    Hundreds of pandals— elaborate temple like structures of bamboo, cardboard and jute—are are set up all over the city, which house the idols of the goddess and her family. There are different ceremonies marking each of the 10 days with enthralling symbolisms. Yet, within a couple of years my puja fever had died down, and that was largely because I didn’t appreciate a lot of what I was discovering about the pujas. So much so, that over the last 5 years, I have consistently boycotted the Pujas and urged others to do the same. Here are my reasons why:

    > At the end of the celebrations all the idols are immersed in the Hoogly – the city’s river, a tributary of the Ganges. There are more than 40,000 idols dumped into the Hoogly every year. These idols are larger than life, some of them 10-20 feet tall, and most are made of non-biodegradable materials like concrete, fiberglass and metal. These don’t wash downstream. They sink to the bottom and make the river bed one big junkyard.

    > Most of the paints used on the idols are toxic and also carcinogenic (cancer causing). And because the junk sits at the bottom of the river, it just keeps leaching this poison into the waters.

    > This poisoned water of the Hooghly is the water supply for the city of Calcutta .

    > The people of Calcutta don’t just drink this poisoned water, but they are a fish eating community and they eat fresh water fish that have also imbibed this poison.

    > The rates of various types of cancer in Calcutta and Bengal have been increasing steeply.

    > The Gangetic River Dolphin, which is evolutionarily blind and navigates by echo-location (a hard task for sure with all the junk in the river) is almost on the brink of extinction because of this kind of dumping on and poising of the river.

    > The myth bought by many Indians, is that the river Ganges is so powerful that it can take all the rubbish that people dump into it and effectively cleanse itself. That is not true! The river needs proper management and care and citizens must act responsibly.

    > The river is not a garbage dump and the only solution is to stop all immersions as soon as possible.

    > The tradition of idol immersions is recent and man-made. Earlier Durga idols showing the goddess spearing the demon, as displayed at the Indian Museum, are in bronze, with the clothes and accessories sculpted on. These were certainly not for immersion. Calcuttans must put their heads together and come up with an alternative way of symbolizing the ‘leaving’ of the goddess, without actually junking the idols, a method which is environmentally sustainable and not harmful to community health. Traditions change and it is time for this one to. Why not – if we can have pujas offered on the internet!

    > The cost of the puja is estimated at over a billion rupees, all collected through donations from citizens and private companies!! But is a self-destructive and wasteful spending of money. Calcutta obviously has the means to mobilize grassroots funds on a massive scale as proven by the chanda (puja donations) collected. So I would also want to see puja committees using at least 80% of the chanda collected for long-term projects that will serve the community – like schools, clinics, shelters for women, and parks.

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    Filed in: Culture,India

    13 Comments below   |  

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    1. sunny hundal

      Blogged: : Boycotting The Durga Puja

    2. Rita Banerji

      RT @sunny_hundal: Boycotting The #Durga #Puja

    3. Why I Boycott The Durga Puja Festivities « Rita's Blog

      [...] I have consistently boycotted the Pujas and urged others to do the same. Here are my reasons why: Read the whole article here on Pickled Politics Hundreds of pandals (temporary temples) like this are built all over the city. They are elaborate [...]

    1. Nishma — on 3rd October, 2011 at 9:41 am  

      The older idols were of clay, and often designed to break in the Ganga water. Durga Puja is powerful and important rather because it is part of Shakti, a central feminine power that has allowed some strong women in Hindu culture to be heard, compared to the submissive masses (compared to Vaishnav culture anyway).

      However, in current circumstances, I agree with you. Religion has become a commodity fetish which allows for the replication of the caste culture, with brahmins minting off the backs of the poor who are most susceptible to the hegemonic nonsense that the elites spout.

      The only solution I can see is to fight the hybridisation of culture through the implementation of strict inequality controls (wage limitations) and high investment in education. Sadly, with industrialisation and capitalism - Indians have killed their interest in protecting “mataji” (Earth).

    2. Kismet Hardy — on 3rd October, 2011 at 12:36 pm  

      When I was in India last year I saw a Moksha ceremony, which while being beautiful to watch, made me wonder what all those dead bodies in the ganges was doing to the poor river. I saw so many people reaching over their boat to take a sip it still makes me feel queasy just thinking about it…

    3. Babs — on 3rd October, 2011 at 2:32 pm  

      Hooray! You’ve found a reason to boycott a festival (which is at pains to label itself as secular rather than religious) whilst claiming the moral high ground on environmental considerations so you cannot be accused of sectarianism and prejudice!

      Please be doing the same in other areas of your life, and, for consistency, have your cat put down unless you only feed it scraps scavenged from local bins.

    4. Rita Banerji — on 4th October, 2011 at 6:28 am  

      @Nishma — Actually most of the sculptures of Durga in the classic form as slaying the demon, in their earliest form (from the 1st millenium A.D.) — and you can actually see these in many museums [e.g. The Indian Museum in Calcutta] are in bronze. The clay forms evolved later — as the sculptors formed huge guilds and organized to expand their businesses. It makes more business sense to dispose off the idols to create a market again the following year. And I’ve got that argument from people here — that it creates work for a certain section. There is a potters’ colony in North Calcutta where this is all they do all year long — make idols for the various pujas. My counter argument is — that these potters should be helped in diversifying their skills and trade — so they can be contributing them to building more lasting things, like buildings — schools, homes, etc.

    5. SKye-Vee — on 4th October, 2011 at 2:26 pm  

      Not a case for boycotting the Puja. Is a case of educating the public on modifying their traditions. Go back to traditional methods for making the idols. Scale back on extravagance and donate more to charity. Seems a more motherly thing to do.

      Instead of criticising, make a positive change, inform and educate. Instead of boycotting celebrate in a different way. Show by example. Talk to one of the temples get them on side, involve an NGO.

      If the people actually knew what effect they have on their sacred rivers they would change some of their ways. I think evidence has shown that our sacred rivers is struggling to cleanse all our sins, but by cleaning the rivers we can atone for some of them.

      Aggressive buzzwords like Boycott do grab attention, but puts one against the people whose actions you wish to change. These are religious worshippers not a capitalist multi-national. Instead of telling them they are wrong, show them what is right.

    6. persephone — on 4th October, 2011 at 9:38 pm  

      I agree with SJye Vee

      By boycotting you push them in a corner - they think you are attacking their beliefs/religion which may entrench them further.

      The education on environmental & health impact is key.

    7. Babs — on 5th October, 2011 at 12:09 am  

      And what’s *really* strange is that by concentrating on your concerns about Gangetic Dolphins getting TheCancer from toxic chemicals (NB: The *PaschimBongo* pollution inspectors already inspect pandals, - as opposed to choking on the several thousand tonnes of shit pumped into the Ganges daily, you *Completely* miss the REAL grim side of this - still practised in the sticks and by religious devotees.

      Kumari Puja:

    8. Laurent — on 5th October, 2011 at 6:53 am  

      Funny how I had exactly the same opinion about 15-17 years ago. Freshly arrived from France in Kolkata on a govt. scholarship, I was appaled at the “wastage” of the Durga Puja when so many people had to sleep on the footpath or under tarpaulins on the canal banks, had no proper medical care, food, water, etc.

      But this moralistic, puritanist judgment ignores everything about what is the economy. People who are capable of spending so much money in such a uniquely creative, altruistic, open-to-all event, are a great people. It also creates a lot of jobs, and of the higher kind: artists, designers, bamboo builders, musicians, students… The ordinary people are here the patrons of artists. This is economically beneficial, altruistic and beautiful. The pollution part is gradually being considered, by using non-toxic paints etc. Other “industries” hugely more polluting should follow!

    9. Laurent — on 5th October, 2011 at 8:33 am  

      A 300% tax should be imposed on all forms of advertising, which is polluting the mental space of society by vampirising arts forms created elsewhere by seeking to enslave us even deeper into consumerism. That is a genuine wastage in all aspects. By contrast, community puja are a disinterested popular art form and should be left free to spend their funds as they think best. The economy has its foundations in culture, not the opposite.

    10. goutam moitra — on 15th October, 2011 at 3:26 am  

      I appreciate your concerns.Please keep it up. One good point you must have noticed that in the last one year or so, due to rising green awareness, all governments across India are taking corrective and anti-pollution steps. But a lot needs to be desired like a plan is mooted during Mumbai ganesh Festival that Ganesh be immersed in a specially created ponds.

      I loved with acute anxiety the concern or lack of it of Kolkatans about the impact on fish eating populace and about harsh impact on drinking water.Lets join , integrate with NGOs and make the change happen.

      Third and the key issue that I often nurtured and discussed, was how the puja committees not only of Bengal but across the world can be integrated into the rebuilding of Bengal economies. It will take a decade more before such thoughts take concrete steps on a larger scale.

      Anyway,I feel though you have been boycotting Durga puja, you are more closer to Bengal and a blessings from Ma Durga that you have taken up such social awareness issue. Here are my , a few links.

      Links are here - a few I wish Prabasi Bengalis watch and get warmed up. Whether one is across the sea or away 2000KM from Bengal as we are, the nostalgia of Bengal’s Puja cannot be erased from Bengali gene. On the occasion of Shub Vijaya, my best wishes - Bengalis where ever live and prosper and integrate

      Gautam Maitra

      Chartered Accountant

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