A sprawling ancient church with statement arches and glazed windows. Chandeliers hanging from its high-arched ceilings. The sound of Dhak blended in with the baritone voice of a priest chanting in Sanskrit. He was praying for Goddess Durga to come and reside in her earthly idol for the next four days and bless us, the earthly beings living in this part of the world.
This 42-year-old Durga Puja by Bangiya Sanskritik Parishad, Glasgow, has organised their Puja in a former Church building this year.
The church, which has now been converted into an event venue by the Scottish authorities, coupled with the dramatic lighting and ambient sound of Hindu Puja rituals, created a surreal experience, a sight to behold!
A magnanimous celebration as such, with inclusivity, harmony and heritage at its core, Durga Puja, has left a prominent mark on the global map.
Durga Puja has now found its place in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And an epic number of 69 organisations have conducted Durga Puja in 2022 in the UK alone.
Despite that, a part of the diaspora maintained the biggest attraction of Durga Puja is in its carnival, the bustling processions leading to the immersion of the effigies. And that was always amiss in Pujas abroad.
But not anymore!
A few prominent Durga Pujas of London and Birmingham have joined hands with Heritage Bengal Global in their ‘Durga Parade on Thames’ initiative.
On October 8, three large boats with boisterous crowds went up and down the Thames River accompanied by Goddess Durga’s idol on the deck. The feel of the carnival was particularly accentuated by traditional slogans being chanted by the crowd and the Dhak dance by women in white and red sarees. All these on top of a floating boat on the river Thames with the London Eye and Westminster Abbey in the background perfectly ended one exceptional Durga Puja year of 2022.
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“The ‘Durga Parade on Thames’ is for every Bengali Indian living in the UK who can now relive the nostalgia of home with us. But most importantly, this initiative has been taken to popularise Durga Puja in West Bengal as a global heritage tourism destination. This is our attempt to strengthen the India-UK connect,” said Anirban Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Director of Heritage Bengal Global, who helmed this unprecedented affair.
The four days of Durga Puja across the UK have been marked with several other unique and key milestones this year.
The Greater Manchester Bengali Hindu Cultural Association (GMBHCA) celebrated their 30th Anniversary of Durga Puja. Several dignitaries, including the Vice Consulate General of India, Birmingham, Naresh Singh Rana, MP Navendu Mishra, Cllr Rob Duncan, Cllr Chris Boyes (Mayor of Trafford), Cllr Vimal Choksi MBE, local Conservative party member Dr Kaushik Chakraborty were present during the inaugural event.
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“GMBHCA was founded in 1993. It represents the residents in Manchester and neighbouring towns. We conduct various diaspora events from Durga Puja, Diwali, Holi, and more around the year. This year we celebrated Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. We involve our community locally, and we also invite our guest artists to perform for us,” said the General Secretary, Dr Bharati Kaur, in her speech at the inauguration ceremony.
The registered charity follows an open-door policy for one and all. This year they have broken all their records in serving the maximum number of people, as the organisation saw an influx of devotees from various Indian communities and students during the Puja days.
At the other end of the spectrum, Birmingham got a brand-new Durga Puja starting this year, Solihull Sarbojonin. The new organisation aims to go beyond its religious identity and showcase Bengali food, art, businesses, music, and culture in an integrated and wholesome celebration. Moreover, in its bid to remain eco-friendly and socially responsible, they have also chosen to uphold the theme: Conservation + Restoration. The group has repurposed a pre-loved set of idols instead of sourcing a new one from India, substantially reducing their carbon footprint.
“My maternal grandfather and uncles are priests by profession. I’ve never imagined I’d be one. When I was young, they simply imparted some knowledge and lessons to me as their blessings. I never thought these would one day come to use after so many years and in a foreign land like this. But as you know, this country has a severe dearth of Hindu priests. So yes, I took this responsibility seriously, returned to my grandparent’s place in Kolkata, read the scriptures, and prepared myself. I read the translations of the Sanskrit hymns to grasp their meaning. Durga Puja is one of the toughest Puja, and I wanted to perform it wholeheartedly,” said Mukherjee.
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Another relatively new organisation Scottish Association of Bengali Arts and Sanskritik Heritage (SABASH), is gaining increasing popularity in Scotland. In their own words, the ‘Edinburgh Durgotsav’ has “stemmed from a nostalgia-fed initiative by a bunch of Bengali IT professionals back in 2014”,
“And as the world hauls itself out of the clutches of the pandemic, there is nothing more fitting than a celebration of eternal hope. There is nothing that exudes that sense of hope better than the festival of Durga Puja,” said SABASH.