Dwindling Bengali Population in Darjeeling Hills Casts a Shadow on Age-Old Durga Pujas

As more and more Bengali families leave the areas of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong in search of educational and employment opportunities, Durga Puja celebrations in the regions have been hamstrung due to a lack of manpower.

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Darjeeling: The dwindling Bengali population of Kalimpong and Darjeeling has cast a shadow on the age-old Durga pujas in the Hill town of North Bengal. 

There was a time when around 14 teams from the Bengali community used to take part in the seven-a-side Durga Puja Hockey League tournament in Darjeeling town. Not only is the tournament a thing of the past, at present, there are hardly any young people within the community who would carry out one of the oldest Durga Pujas in North Bengal. 

Darjeeling, during the British era, boasted of a large Bengali population; a trend which continued after independence as well. However, since the mid-1980s, the Bengali population has been declining steadily. At present, there are only a handful Bengali families remaining in the Hills. 

This has left the organisers of the near-100-year-old pujas in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, in dire straits. “We do not know for how long we will be able to continue with the pujas,” lamented Sadhan Mitra, organiser of the 107-year-old puja in Darjeeling, while talking to The Wire.

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Darjeeling Hills and the Bengali community

In his book, Darjeeling, Past and Present (published in 1916), E.C. Dozey writes that in 1828, Captain G.A. Lloyd and J.W. Grant, ICS and Commercial Resident of Malda, had arrived at Chungtong, west of Darjeeling. “They were much impressed with the possibilities of the station as a sanatorium,” states the book. This was followed by another visit by Grant, this time alongside J.D. Herbert, the erstwhile deputy surveyor general of Bengal. 

The Court of Directors of the East India Company accordingly directed that Captain Lloyd be deputed to start negotiations with the Sikkim Raj for the cession of the hill, in exchange for either money or land. 

The transfer was successfully accomplished on February 1, 1835. The Raja of Sikkim handed over a strip of hill territory 24 miles long and 5-6 miles wide, which included Darjeeling and Kurseong, “as a mark of friendship for the Governor-General (Lord William Bentick) for the establishment of a sanatorium for the invalid servants of the East India Company.”

With the growth of Darjeeling as a sanatorium, the town boasted a large migrant population from the plains. While some came to do business, others came in search of jobs. 

The Bengali community was largely service-oriented, working in offices, banks, hospitals, courts, municipalities and schools. Many affluent Bengalis from the plains also bought property and built summer residences there.

From the early days, the Bengali community of Darjeeling town remained centred socially around the Nripendra Narayan Bengali Hindu (NNBH) hall.  

NNBH hall has a rich history. Located in Chandmari, the then Indian portion of the town below the market square, the NNBH was a two-story stone structure and contained a spacious hall in which the public meetings of the native community were held during the days of the British Raj.

The hall was the brainchild of M.N. Banerjee, a renowned government pleader. Initially, the money required to build the hall came through a contribution of Rs 10,000 by the Maharaja Nripendra Narayan of Cooch Behar. The Hall was later named after him.

On April 29, 1906, a devastating fire broke out which totally gutted the hall. Relentless efforts on the part of Banerjee resulted in more forthcoming funds, used to rebuild the structure as it stands presently. On October 16, 1907, the foundation stone was laid by Andrew Fraser, Lieutenant Governor of Bengal. The building took a year to be completed. 

Durga Puja then

Since Durga Puja is the most important festival of the Bengali community, it was decided that a puja would be organised by the community in Darjeeling town too. From 1914, Durga Puja celebrations, organised by the local Bengali populace, were held in the temple within the premises of the NNBH hall. The temple is a replica of the famous Lord Jagganath temple in Puri, Odisha.

Great names like Sister Nivedita (a social reformer and devotee of Swami Vivekananda), poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, scientist Acharya J. C. Bose and the great revolutionary Bagha-Jatin (Jatindra Nath Mukherjee) had all paid visits to this hall. It is said that even K.L. Saigal, the legendary singer, had once offered Pushpanjali (floral offerings to the Goddess) during the Durga Puja there.

Before independence, the Durga idol used to arrive from Krisnanagar (near Kolkata, famous for clay idols), first to Siliguri and from there to Darjeeling via the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The famous Darjeeling police band, playing the bagpipes, used to accompany the procession when the idol arrived. Since the early fifties, the idol has been made in Siliguri itself.

Akchala, the style in which the idol is made, has been kept as it was in the old days. Idols of the deities Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik are all part of a single structure, along with goddess Durga, known as the ‘Akchala Thakur’. Ornaments made of Shola, known as the Daker Saj, adorn the idols. Shola is a white, spongy material extracted from an aquatic herb that grows in the wild, marshy, water-logged regions. 

In the old days, night-long cultural programmes and plays used to be staged. Since ladies were not supposed to come out in public, a special gallery had been constructed for them with a net in front. From there, the ladies with their long drawn Ghomtas (veils) used to watch the cultural shows.

Bisarjan (immersion) was also a unique affair. In the olden days, the immersion procession used to be accompanied by a police band. Members dressed in traditional attire used to sing devotional songs all along the journey.

The idol used to be carried on a bamboo structure on the shoulders of youths and taken all over town before immersion in the Kakjhora, a spring located on the outskirts of the town. On the way to Kakjhora, the procession used to halt outside the homes of various affluent Bengali families for refreshments. The final stop before reaching Kakjhora was the Burdwan Palace where the Maharaja of Burdwan used to see the face of the idol and offer a gold Mohar (coin).

Durga Puja now

Still steeped in tradition, the Durga Puja celebrations at the NNBH hall hit the 107-year mark this year. “We have tried our best to continue with the old traditions but lack of manpower has taken a toll. The grandeur with which it was earlier organised required huge manpower and that is missing now,” explained Chiranjeet Bose, one of the organisers. 

Durga Puja at the NNBH hall. Photo: Amitava Banerjee.

“When I was a young boy, there were around 600 Bengali families residing in Darjeeling. Areas of the town like Chandmari, Goodie Road, Belombre Road, Dhobitala had [a] Bengali majority population then. At present, the numbers have declined to around 15 old resident Bengali families,” stated the 68-year-old Mitra.

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With very little scope of higher studies, a lack of employment opportunities and frequent political strife, most of the old Bengali families have migrated to greener pastures. 

The lack of manpower has cast a shadow on each and every component of the puja. “Nowadays, we have to hire help for many things which in the earlier days, members from within the community queued up to do,” added Bose.

From a month before the puja, members of the hall go around town collecting donations. All communities residing in Darjeeling generously contribute to this historic puja. 

“When I was a youngster, there used to be a huge group for collections. Duty was allotted on a rotational basis. Now, the same faces, hardly five or six in number, can be seen everyday going around town collecting subscriptions,” stated Subasish Sengupta, a resident of the town in his 40s. 

The temple in the NNBH hall, where the Durga Puja is held, used to be choc-a-block at the time of Pushpanjali. “The entire Bengali community used to be present and Pushpanjali was held in multiple batches to accommodate the swelling crowd,” reminisced 66-year-old Arobinda Chatterjee. Him and his entire family had migrated to Kolkata in 1984.

At the time of Pushpanjali, the footfall used to touch 1000 per day. There is a stark contrast now.

Bhog (food offerings) is another important component of this puja and has been so since the olden days. Bhog is offered on Shaptami (the seventh day of the puja,) Ashtami (the eighth day) and Nabami (the ninth day). People from all over town come to the hall to enjoy a community meal together. There are even provisions for taking home Bhog for family members who could not attend.

“It is a very elaborate affair. People from all over town contribute in cash and kind for preparing Bhog. Huge quantities have to be cooked. Earlier, members from within the community used to chop and clean the vegetables and cook. Nowadays, we have to get hired help to chop, clean and also cook a major portion of the Bhog. Only the portion offered to the goddess is cooked by members,” stated Saibal Chakroborty, another organiser.

The cultural programmes and plays have suffered the most. “The auditorium used to be packed to capacity; one had to arrive early to get a seat for the cultural programmes held in the evenings. The number of participants was so [vast] that auditions used to be held to choose the best,” said Babita Chakroborty.

On Shaptami, cultural programmes and plays were staged by children. An all-woman cast used to stage a play on the Ashtami and a general play was staged on the Nabami. “Nowadays, we have so few participants that it is next to impossible to stage a single play. Only a few rows of the auditorium remain filled,” she added.

The immersion of the idol now takes place in Bangla Khola, around 16 km from town. “The idol is carried till the Darjeeling Railway station and then onwards by truck. There are so few members that, without members from other communities pitching in, this task too would have been impossible,” claimed Amitava Acharya.

In 2014, during the centenary celebrations, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways had been chartered to carry the idol to Bangla Khola for immersion 

The Durga immersion by the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway during centenary celebrations of the NNBH hall puja. Photo: Amitava Banerjee.

The Dhak (special drums played during pujas) and Shanai (wind instrument) players come from Malda every year and have been part of the puja for generations.

“I have been attending this puja since I was 12 years old, holding the hands of my grandfather, Astik Ravidas. The scale in which the puja used to be organised and [the] grandeur was beyond compare,” stated Dipak Ravidas, a Dhak player from Bhaktinauda Gram, Malda.

Similar fates for Kurseong and Kalimpong 

Dwindling Bengali populations have also cast similar shadows on pujas in Kurseong and Kalimpong. 

In Kurseong, the puja organised by the Rajrajeshwari Bengali Association has a rich history.

An affluent Bengali, Rai Bahadur Sashi Bhusan Dey, had started a Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Kurseong, in the memory of his late son who had died from this disease. On a visit to Kurseong, the local Bengalis approached him for his patronage in forming a Bengali Association. Being a philanthropist, he built the Rajrajeshwari Hall in the memory and name of his late wife, just below the sanatorium. 

Thus the Rajrajeshwari Bengali Association was formed in 1930; the Durga Puja celebrations there started in the same year. On July 19, 2017, the iconic Rajrajeshwari Hall was set on fire by unknown miscreants, however, it has since been rebuilt. 

“Our puja is 91 years old. Lack of manpower has robbed it of its lustre. When I was a kid, Kurseong used to have around 500 Bengali families. Now [there] are around 20,” stated 70-year-old Arun Mohan Ghosh, an organiser.

The most famous Durga Puja in Kalimpong is organised by Kalimpong Milani Club, founded in 1929. Pratima Devi, wife of Rathindranath Tagore, used to visit this puja. 

“After the pujas, we used to hold cultural programmes for six days. Now it is difficult to arrange a cultural show for a single day also,” stated Monojit Dasgupta, an organiser.

The puja used to be held at the Kazi compound in Kalimpong. “The pandal and stage used to be erected by us with local help. Nowadays, the puja has shifted to the Town Hall premises. Decorators have to be called in from Siliguri for the pandal,” stated 62-year-old Asish Banerjee, a retired Government employee.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s brother, as well as two Afghan princes residing in Kalimpong, used to visit the puja then. “There were more than 200 families then. Now, we are around 12. We are the last generation. Our children have all left the Hills. [They do not want to leave] behind the glamour and glitter of city pujas; they do not want to return to the Hills,” lamented Banerjee.