“The way we show our affection is through food,” explains Abhijit Ray, who said he hasn’t slept in the past 48 hours in preparation for the Hindu festival.
In India, it’s a five-day event that shuts down entire cities.
In the Salt Lake City area, where a few hundred Bengali families reside, the Durga Puja took place over Saturday and Sunday at the India Cultural Center in South Jordan, organized by the local Bengali association, called Ulhaas, or joy.
For people from the Bengal region of India, Durga Puja is the most important festival of the year.
“This is like our Christmas,” said Prabir Roy, a resident of Shelley, Idaho, who drove three hours to attend the celebration.
Roy has been doing so for the past five years, ever since he first moved to the U.S. from New Zealand. All over the world, Bengali people look for the nearest place to celebrate the festival, he said. When he couldn’t find a Durga Puja — “not in Boise, not in Twin Falls, not in Idaho Falls” — he started coming here.
Food is a big part of the holiday — the fragrant curries and chutneys are all handmade by festival-goers — as is music, singing and dancing. Part religious ceremony and part cultural festival, Durga Puja is a celebration of many things.
First and foremost, it’s a celebration of the mother goddess Durga and the triumph of good over evil; a time to reflect on whatever is bad in yourself, to purge it and to replace it with blessings for those around you.
It’s also a celebration of family, however that’s defined, explained Ratan Banerjee, the president of Ulhaas. Stranger or friend, Bengali or not, everybody is welcomed — and fed.
“It’s a total extended family,” Banerjee said.
Lastly, it’s a ceremony about homecoming and leave-taking. The goddess is welcomed like a daughter coming back to visit her parents after a long journey, showered with food and blessings and then sent back on her way.
“I have a child, so I think, when she gets married and comes home, the joy I have as a parent is the same as for my god,” Banerjee said.
The Bengali families in Salt Lake City have held a Durga Puja for the past 13 years, he said, but the growing Bengali community in Utah and the creation of Ulhaas two years ago made this year’s celebration the biggest yet.
A source of pride for many festival-goers was the idol. For years, the Bengali community has made do with a smaller version of the idol, at whose feet they lay down flowers, fruits and candles. This year, they have the real deal — a towering altar, decorated with statues of the multi-armed Durga and her four children and covered in garlands and jewels.
They got it from a Bengali association in San Diego, which bought a newer version this year and donated their old idol to the Salt Lake City Bengali community.
Roy said that, in turn, Ulhaas decided to donate their old altar to the Bengali community in Logan. Their Durga Puja is next week.
As the celebration wound down, Roy watched people prepare for the last ceremony: a send-off for the goddess with light breakfast of rice, yogurt, bananas and coconut.
They will offer the refreshing breakfast to Durga along with blessings for a safe return journey to her home.
“And then,” said Roy, who himself was getting ready to make the long drive back to Idaho, “it will be off for everybody.”