Bengal zamindars' descendants try to maintain tradition through Durga Puja
Turn around the corner, and one comes across a gated, high arched tunnel-like driveway into the palatial building which opens into a huge courtyard leading to a broad flight of stairs ending in a 'Thakur Dalian (open hall of worship).
Dominating the 'dalan' framed by Corinthian columns is a tall Durga idol in dazzling traditional attire. As if on cue, the 'dhakis' (drummers) start playing and the womenfolk of the household begin ululating and blowing their conch shells.
Kolkata's palaces still boast of zamindari-style Durga Puja celebrations more than two centuries old, while mansions in outlying districts have even older celebrations.
Though the 'bonediana' (aristocratic traditions) has somewhat dimmed as these powerful families have lost their huge estates after the country's Independence and some split into multiple factions, nevertheless, the spirit of joie de vivre (joy of living) remains strong in these puja gatherings.
''Durga Puja here started in 1792. Unlike other idols, our Durga has a 'Tapta Kanchan' (molten gold) color. Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, among others, has blessed our courtyard,'' Prasun Hazra, a descendant of the Rani Rashmoni family, said.
Rani Rashmoni is known for taking on the might of the East India Company in opposing attempts to tax Bengal's fishermen, and also establishing the massive Dakshineshwar Kali Temple on the city outskirts, and patronizing Ramakrishna, whose disciple Swami Vivekananda set up a missionary order in his name.
Around 4.4 km away, stands Shovabazar Palace, the site of the city's two oldest family pujas.
The Durga Puja of the 'Choto Taraf' (cadet branch) of the princely family founded by Maharaja Naba Krishna Deb, a rich zamindar who was a close confidante to Lord Robert Clive and Governor-General Warren Hastings, is a closed-door family affair, and visitors are allowed only by prior appointment.
Mughal-style archways frame the 'Thakur Dalan' and the mother Goddess stands on a silver lion minus the mane. On both sides of the idol hang huge Belgian mirrors with gold-rimmed frames which were a gift to the family from Queen Victoria in the 19th century.
The palace, which has a grassy courtyard enclosed by rooms on all four sides, was designed in the Indo-Islamic-Gothic style by Isha Musa Khan, who hailed from the family of one of the designers of the Taj Mahal, for the zamindar's biological son, who was younger than his adopted son.
''Our puja started in 1790-91. The expenses are shared by us descendants of Raja Ramkrishna Deb, the biological son of the Maharaja,'' said Prabir Krishna Deb, the eighth-generation descendant of Naba Krishna.
A stone's throw away is the older 'Boro Taraf' (elder branch) puja in another palace. It was started in 1757, the year the Battle of Plassey was fought. Lord Clive had come to the palace with offerings as thanksgiving after defeating Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah. A canon from the Nawab's artillery still stands guard outside the palace.
''The Goddess's decoration with silver foils is called 'Daker Saaj' as the materials used to come by 'daak' or mail from Germany and 'saaj' means decoration,'' said Sushmita Basu Singh, who has recently authored a book on Shovabazar Rajbari's Durga Puja.
''The lion in Boro Taraf puja has a horse-like face, which is the traditional Vaishnava way of depicting the animal. The lion was more of a legendary animal in eastern India till the British came with their zoos. The one depicted in the Choto Taraf puja, however, is more realistic and it is based on the British emblem lion,'' she said.
Ram Nidhi Chattopadhyay, who married into the family of Zamindar Sabarna Roy Chowdhury, whose estates were once spread over much of Kolkata and its nearby districts, received a large estate in Uttarapara as dowry.
The newly minted zamindar started a Durga Puja in 1760, constructing a separate palatial 'Thakur Dalan' for the festival.
''We don't have a zamindari to boast of but we have tried to continue worshipping in the same classic manner,'' said Professor Aparajit Chattopadhyaya, a direct descendant of Ram Nidhi, as drummers beat the 'dhaak' while family priests chanted the prayers for Maha Ashtami.
Mukherjee, except for one year when floods made it impossible for him to conduct the pujas, used to personally chant the 'chandi mantras'. He hadn't missed it even in 2008 when he signed the nuclear deal with the United States.
''In 2008, my father had performed prayers till Maha Ashtami and then left for Washington, where he signed the important pact a day after Dashami,'' said Abhijit Mukherjee, his son and former MP who is currently conducting the 126th edition of his family puja.
''Ours is a simple puja where the entire village irrespective of caste, sex, or creed participates. This makes the puja so special for us,'' he added.
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)