Durga Puja: The Queen of All Festivals

India is a land of festivals. Being a secular country, there is no dearth of things to celebrate in this land of wonders. From Christmas to Eid ul Zoha, Independence Day to the Cricket World Cup, there is hardly anything that Indians do not like celebrating. Simply point us towards an occasion and we are all for it. But hidden amongst this long list of celebrations is a gem in the form of Durga Puja, something celebrated in its full glory in the Bengali community.

So, what exactly IS the Durga Puja?

Well, for the sake of clarity, Puja refers to a religious festival. However, for us Bengalis, Durga Puja is less of a ‘Puja’ and more of the embodiment of the spirit of festiveness. What exactly does that mean? Well, let us go back a few millenniums to answer that question.

The tradition of invoking the goddess Durga (or the mother, known as ‘Ma’) is first considered to have been done by Lord Ram before he went forth to battle Ravana, as documented in the epic Ramayana. However, the tradition lay dormant till about the late 1500s, when the landlords in Bengal took it up. It was finally given its final form in the 18th century as Baroyaari (or 12 friends’) puja, a term which finally came to refer to community sponsored Durga Pujas held in Kolkata.

Essentially, all parts of India celebrates this period, but in the form of Navratri. It constitutes of 9 days’ worth of fasting, which ends with Dussehra, a day where an effigy of Ravana is burned as a way to show that evils are always championed by good as Lord Ram had championed above Ravana.

In Bengal

In Bengal, however, the meaning of these 10 days are quite different.

My earliest memories of Durga Puja are that of waking up in the middle of the night to listen to Mahalaya on the radio. It is a programme that has been airing on the first day of the Bengali month Ashwin for more than 7 decades and 4 generations of Bengalis, forcing them to wake up at 4 am, something I still do religiously every year on that particular day. Although the magic of the scent, the half awoken self and knowing Ma is coming has somewhat diminished with the years, the idea of something so collectively powerful that it makes a whole community look forward to it still holds a great deal of charm nonetheless.

Ma

We treat Ma Durga as something more than just the goddess. While it is true that she embodies the raw power (or Shakti) that overcame evil by slaying the evil demon Mahisasur (hence the term Mahisasur-mardini), she is much MUCH more than just that. The ten days that start with Mahalaya signify her annual visit to her paternal home in Bengal with 4 of her children. As such Ma is, at the same time, a mother, a wife, a goddess, and most importantly, a member of our family. We pamper her, we respect her, we love her and we adore her. She is more than just a divinity.

To us Bengalis, she embodies our truest nature. No matter where a Bengali might be, come Durga Puja, he/she feels a connection to his/her family.

THIS is what it means to celebrate Pujo (a colloquial term for Durga Puja).

Frankly, it cannot be compared to anything else in the world. But, remember the togetherness one gets when visiting the family, or the warmth during Christmas, or the feeling you get when you visit your family after a year away? That is what Pujo means to a Bengali. It is more than celebrating a religious festival. The idea of Pujo is bringing everyone together. And what better way can there be than a mother facilitating all that? We eat, we cry, we talk, be happy and celebrate something that is practically unheard of anywhere else in the world. It does not matter what you religion is. Whether a Muslim, a Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain or anything in between (including atheists), if you are a Bengali at heart, Durga Puja is for you. From visiting the tens of thousands of makeshift podiums (or pandals) for hoisting Ma Durga to having a cup of tea in the middle of the night (under a tree in the local shop because it seems to inevitably rain during Puja nights these days, especially if you are out at 2 am) to dancing during the idol immersion ceremony (called Bhashan), Durga Puja is something that you have to experience at least once in your life.

Oh, and did I mention scrumptious luchi and khichudi as lunch during Ashtami and the gorgeous ladies who grace the pandals? Pujo is worth it… believe you me.

And It all Ends

And once Pujo is done, while we are all sad, we pray for Ma to return safely to her heavenly abode atop the Himalayas. Thus begins the wait for the next Puja. Another year to spend before our dear mother comes back. Because Pujo never ends, it simply gets shifted by another year. After all, Ma is like the mother who wants you to be happy even when she is gone.

6 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Iran

If you are going to visit Iran soon, make sure you know some important things beforehand. There are a lot of things to discuss, such as visa, money issues, dress code and attractions in Iran. Let’s know more.

Getting A Visa

Based on the passport you have, the visa requirements may vary. If you are from Japan, France, Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand or Australia, you won’t face many problems getting the visa. You can a contact the Iranian embassy for visa or you get it on arrival. On the other hand, if you are from Canada, UK, or USA, you have to get the visa before reaching Iran. Make sure you fill in the documents correctly.

Money

In Iran, the local currency is called Iranian Rial. The exchange rates vary greatly. For currency exchange, you can head to the currency exchanges or the other currency dealers. So, it’s a good idea to shop around when getting your money exchanged for the local currency. This way you can get a better rate of exchange. It’s interesting to know that if you have $35, you will become a millionaire in Iran. As a general rule, you won’t need more than $35 for a day of expenses in Iran.

Dress Code

The rules for dress code keep on changing in Iran. Nowadays, if you are a man, you can go for jeans or trousers. Just make sure your legs are covered. In other words, you can’t put on shorts. As far footwear, you can choose whatever you like, such as boots or sandals.

For women, the dress code is a bit complicated. Generally, you can go for loose tops that should cover your whole arms all the way to your knees. You must be in trousers and your hair must be covered. But you are allowed to keep your hands, face and feet open.

Internet

In Iran, Internet sucks. In big cities, the connections are a bit stable. But mostly, you lose connection over and over again. Outside big cities, things are terrible. Many types of sites are banned, such as Facebook and Twitter. If you want to access these websites, you will have to make use of a VPN, which will make your internet slower.

Safety

Unlike what the western media tells, Iran is not a country full of terrorists. As a matter of fact, the people of Iran are quite friendly. They are more than happy to know more about you. They are really nice people. You can talk to them almost anything under the sun. For many reasons, not many people go to Iran. You will be surprised to see that some Iranians will even offer gifts to you. So, safety is not a big issues over there.

The “Religious Thing”

While Iran is an Islamic republic, you may not feel that the country is overly religious. The dress code is strict, alcohol is banned but all else is normal. The life goes on in Iran just like it goes on in any other country of the world.

So, these are a few important things that you should keep in mind before visiting Iran.

Alleppey Houseboats – The Unique Way Of Enjoying The Location

Alleppey is a very popular backwater destination in Kerala and for this reason it is inevitable that houseboats are some of the most sought after by holidaymakers and other kinds of visitors making their way here. The lagoons and lakes here make scenic beauty and cruises make it possible for travelers to enjoy the location at its best. The houseboats are actually responsible for the rapid tourism industry development here and I make sure that I enjoy a stay in one of the many houseboats found here. One of the things I love the most about the facilities is that they offer access to breathtaking views of the backwaters and there are others that complete the experience by making village tours, canoeing sessions and fishing expeditions all possible.

Alleppey is not short of houseboats meaning it is very possible to find one at any given time. They are modern luxuries that come at very affordable rates passing through tropical mangroves and other mesmerizing sceneries. I particularly love the coconut aroma that the trips are filled with as the boathouse wades through the waters. Saji Holidays Houseboat, B 4 You Houseboats, Alleppey Crystal Holidays Houseboats, Lake Pearl Houseboat and The Kerala Houseboat are some of the most popular houseboats but there is a long list of properties available for enjoyment. I have personally had a chance to enjoy a few of the facilities and I have a few favorites that while I am in Alleppey.

The Vrindhavanam Houseboat

This beauty of a boathouse can be found at Zacariva Bazar a kilometer from the Alappuzha Railway Station. It is also a few kilometers from the KSRTC bus stand in Alleppey. The free breakfast here is a huge attraction for visitors and I like the fact that I can access assistance at the front desk round the clock. It comprises of two spacious guestrooms and ample amenities including makeup mirror, wardrobe, medical assistance, room service and laundry. Parking is available and the power supply is round the clock. The AC room can accommodate a total of 4 adults and 2 kids so I don’t have to worry even when I tag my family along for a deserved stay in this part of India. The attractions near this houseboat are Alleppey beach and the Mullackal Rajarajeswari Temple.

Aqua Castle Houseboat

This magnificent houseboat is another of my favorites in Alleppey. It is in the Kumarakom area offering very comfortable accommodation. Notable is the suntan deck where the views of the backwaters can be enjoyed. I particularly find the wooden flooring appealing and the rooms are furnished beautifully featuring important amenities like music system, TV and a modern bathroom. Some of the rooms on this houseboat have seating area and from the dining area traditional dishes can be enjoyed. It is a few kilometers from the Cherthala railway station and the Kuamrakom Bird Sanctuary as well as Vembanad Lake. It is complete with smoking rooms, Ayurveda clinic and is child friendly too.