Durga may be recycled and Diwali celebrated before time, but Indians import their festivals with gusto.
Both Ganeshotsav and Durga Puja are celebrated with much fanfare in the US and UK, two countries with a large population of Indians.
In the UK, the Ganesh festival in Leicester, home to 70,000 Hindus, is a big affair with a 9 ft Ganesha brought in from Mumbai, which is immersed at the end of the 11-day festival in the sea by Liverpool up north.
Ganeshotsav is a relatively low key affair in London. The Siva temple in Wembley celebrates the festival, at the end of which the Ganesh idol is quietly immersed in an undisclosed part of the Thames to avoid the hassle of taking police permission, says a committee member.
The Durga Puja, on the other hand, is held on a far grander scale. The Camden Centre Durga puja in Central London is the largest Indian religious festival outside India, says Shyamal Mukerjee, general secretary of the London Durga Puja Dusserah Committee 2010. Being held every year for the last 48 years, it counts Lakshmi Mittal as one of its chief patrons along with other bigwigs such as Lord Swraj Paul and Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya (a member of the committee that will select the new Tata Group chairman). The idols, which are recycled once every two years, are flown in from Kolkata. They are commissioned by Mittal and specially made by Ramesh Chandra Paul of Kumartuli. On weekdays, over 8,000 people attend. And this number can go up to 14,000 on the weekend.
In the US, the Philadelphia Ganesh Festival is probably the biggest and most popular, attracting over 10,000 visitors. This year it’s being held in Chalfont from September 11 to 21. This is probably the only Ganesh festival in the US to be celebrated over 10 days. A clay Ganesh idol is brought in from India every year, and the immersion done in a pond close to the temple — for which local permits are obtained.
“Ours is not just an event for Marathis, local associations from various states come together to host the event,” says Niranjan Samant, religious committee head of the Philadelphia Ganesh Festival. The event has a budget of around $50,000.
As in the UK, Durga pujas are more popular. There will be over 50 pujas in the US this year — 10 of them in California alone. None of these will necessarily be held on actual puja days, but on weekends close to the puja either because civic permits haven’t come for the actual dates or to better suit the convenience of visitors. (Even the biggest Diwali celebration in the US at New York’s South Street Seaport rarely coincides with the actual festival date. It’s usually a couple of weekends or sometimes even 3-4 weekends before the festival — depending on when the organisers get the permit for their street festival and fireworks display).
Durga pujas here don’t use clay idols; they are usually made of fibre glass/styrofoam, made mostly in Kumartoli, Kolkata, and flown in. The idols are not immersed at the end of the pujas owing to the difficulties in getting permits because of environmental concerns, and so are typically used for 7-8 years. The pandal decoration is done locally.
Most of the big pujas feature cultural entertainment, mostly music, and artists are often brought across from India.
Some of the older, better known pujas in the US are Bengali Society of Florida Puja in Winter Springs (October 9-10), the East Coast Durga Puja in Fresh Meadows, New York (October 14-17, also the oldest Durga puja in the US organised first in 1969), and the Sanskriti Annual Puja in Los Altos, California (October 9-10).