In an age of larger than life themes, elaborate lights and decorative pandals, simplicity has lost its place. Far from the city, even in the remotest village, theme pandals are the order of the day. In such a day and age, organising puja in the village aatchala (a common covered area opened on all sides) is unthinkable.
At one time, aatchalas played an important role in rural Bengal. In the absence of an auditorium, almost all religious and social events were held at the common aatchala. Be it Durga puja, Kali puja, Manasar gaan or jatras, the aatchala was the common venue. However, all this is passe in the age of smart phones and cable TV. Puja committees have a sizeable budget for decorative pandals and lights to draw as much audience as possible to their pujas.
Despite such grandeur all around, the puja at Kanthaldaha village in Shyampur, Howrah is still held at the village aatchala. This has been the venue of this puja for 85 years.
“Most of our villagers are doing government jobs and also own agricultural land. We can easily spend on making a gorgeous pandal and fancy lights, but we want to stick to tradition,” said Debasish Munshi, a chemistry teacher of the village. Himself an artist, Debasish had made the Durga idol for the village puja one year.
According to villagers, they budget a few thousands on pandal and lights. “We purchase the idol from a local artisan, thus reducing the cost of the idol as well, unlike other puja committees,” said Ashok Sen, president, Kanthaldaha Sabojanin Durgotsav Committee. He said that the villagers do not believe in animal sacrifice and only sacrifice chaal kumro on Navami. “The youngsters of this village are well educated and free of superstition. The puja was started to unite all sections of people of the village,” he said.
Bela Munshi, a 105-year old woman, recalls the days when the aatchala was illuminated with earthen lamps during Durga puja. “We used to collect flowers from the village gardens for the puja. The only year when we did not have idol worship during Durga puja was 1978, during the massive floods. We had only Ghot Puja,” she said.