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Pet-friendly Durga Puja pandals in West Bengal set to redefine faith and family

'If Durga can be worshipped with Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik, Ganesh, why can’t a street dog be allowed to coexist peacefully with her children?' asks a puja club member.

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New Delhi: In its first year since receiving UNESCO’s intangible heritage tag in December 2021, Kolkata’s Durga Puja celebration will witness at least two pandals chronicling another social change — pet-friendly pandals, expanding the definition of both faith and family.

The opening of pandals to pets comes hardly as a surprise, given the attention that the animals have come to command in modern families.

While the Behala Club Durga Puja will go for a pet-friendly pandal where pet parents can drop in for a glimpse of the deity with their dogs or cats, the Bidhan Sarani Atlas Club in Kolkata’s Shyambazar area has gone a step further and made the plight of stray dogs and Indie breeds its theme.

On Sunday, four canine members of the Kolkata Police’s dog squad were the chief guests at the inauguration of the Bidhan Sarani puja.

Kolkata police dog squad was chief guest on Mahalaya, Day 1 | Kolkata Police
Kolkata police dog squad was chief guest on Mahalaya, Day 1 | Kolkata Police

For artist Sayak Raj, the idea for the Bidhan Sarani puja theme was born of a news report in May about the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee filing an FIR against a Noida resident for allegedly hurting religious sentiments after a video of his Husky touching an idol’s feet at the temple precinct went viral on social media.

“Kedarnath is a shrine of the deity Shiva, who is also referred to as Pashupatinath or the lord of animals. And yet, there was such a controversy over a dog visiting the temple,” says Raj.

The pandal was opened exclusively for pet parents for a three-day period between Pratipada — the day after Mahalaya, which marks the beginning of the Debipaksha or Navaratri period — and Tritiya, the third day of Navaratri. For the rest of the days, the organisers say they would have a helpline number on which pet parents may contact them to inform them of their wish to visit the pandal. Pets may enter through the special entry gate, accompanied by one parent.

“This is happy news,” says pet parent Sonia Chadha. “My Shih Tzu, Pepper, has been to the gurudwara with us many times but never to a temple because I wasn’t confident about whether he will be allowed in. The pandal will be a novel experience for him, and he can get a darshan.”

Once avid pandal-hoppers, Chadha says that since adopting Pepper six-and-a-half years back, someone would have to wait with him in the car while the family visited pandals. Or else, they would leave him at home with an attendant.

Not all are ready to take their pets to the pandals, though.

“As a pet parent, I don’t think taking animals to pandals is a good idea. I would never do it to my canine kids,” says Kolkata-based pet parent Suvarghya Dutta.

For Dutta, who is a parent to three canines — Portia, Martini, and Coffee — the reluctance to take his ‘kids’ to the pandal stems from two factors.

“Kolkata puja pandals are crowded, noisy, and chaotic,” he explains. “It’s not the ideal outing for a pet. Also, there are many in India who are still not comfortable around animals. If they get scared or agitated seeing my dogs in the pandal and kick at them or throw something…I wouldn’t want to expose them to such a scenario.”

For him, a better way to promote an animal-friendly society would be if puja organisers restricted themselves to creating awareness about pets, especially Indie breeds and the need for their adoption.

A canine’s plea

Animals have always been a part of Durga Puja pandals, though in their clay avatars.

The deities, Durga and her family, are accompanied by their animal bahans or rides —  lion, mouse, peacock, owl, and duck. A slain buffalo, the asura’s alter ego, lies at the goddess’ feet. The Bidhan Sarani Atlas Club and Behala Club, are ensuring that human visitors need not leave behind their animal companions.

Young pet parents at the Behala club Durga puja under construction | Special arrangement
Young pet parents at the Behala club Durga puja pandal under construction | Special arrangement

The theme of the Bidhan Sarani Atlas Club puja this year is ‘Anant Ashray’, or the eternal shelter, says Raj, the planner of the theme.

“Every year, we seek ideas from artists for the theme of the celebration and pick the one we like. This time, this seemed like the most realistic idea,” says Surojit Mitra, a committee member.

Raj’s idea for the Bidhan Sarani pandal includes the installation of a dog sitting in front of the goddess. “A voiceover narrates the canine’s plea to the deity — if Durga can be worshipped with her four children, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik, and Ganesh, why can’t a street dog be allowed to coexist peacefully with her children?” asks Raj, a reference to impounding by civic authorities.

The idol is not adorned with the deity’s customary or traditional weapons, keeping with the homely atmosphere that Raj wants to create.

Doodles on the pandal walls also portray the theme.

“Most people in the country still prefer foreign breeds for pets. Our idea is to promote the adoption of Indie breeds,” says Raj.

Apart from the theme and the welcoming of pets to the pandals, the organisers are in talks with animal welfare organisations to ensure the presence of vets at the venue in case of emergencies. Separate feeding and littering areas have also been created, adds Raj.

The facilities for four-legged visitors are almost similar at the Behala Club pandal, to be inaugurated on 28 September.

“Our reason for opening our pandal to pets was to make sure that the entire family, pets included, can be a part of the celebration,” explains Sayantan Bhattacharjee. “Usually, in families with pets, at least one person has to stay back with the animals when members go out. In many families, members go for holidays separately to ensure that someone is always with the pet. It’s the same when it comes to pandal hopping during Durga Puja. We wanted to change that.”

According to Bhattacharjee, since their venue has a lot of open spaces, even those not comfortable around animals shouldn’t have a problem.

“We won’t have any special gates for entry of pets and their parents. But there are multiple entry-exit points to the pandal, and at any given time, if someone is nervous around animals, they can enter from a different gate and view the idol while maintaining a distance from the animals,” he says.

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Mirror to the times

For centuries, Kolkata’s Durga Puja celebrations have held a mirror to the times.

If Robert Clive’s presence at landlord Raja Nabakrishna Deb’s family puja in Kolkata’s Sovabazar area spoke of attempts made by 18th-century elite Bengalis to ingratiate themselves with the British, in the early 20th century, khadi-clad idols and the display of martial arts — Beerashtami — at some pandals were proof of efforts by freedom fighters to use the celebration to promote the Swadeshi movement.

More recently, as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) clinched power from the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) to form the government in the state in 2011, a shift was also visible at puja inaugurations — TMC leaders, especially Mamata Banerjee, replaced former CPI-M veterans as guests of honour.

Last year, two pandals in the city chose the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 and the 2020-21 farmers’ protest as the themes.

Not just political powerplay, but over the years, Kolkata’s Durga Puja celebrations — through pandals, lighting, and idols — have also depicted issues that have captivated the collective consciousness, including global warming, the Baahubali films franchise, floods, natural disasters, and Covid.

When the city’s ‘dada’, Sourav Ganguly, was dropped from the Indian cricket team in 2005 following differences with coach Greg Chappell, a puja committee in 2006 attempted to create the evil Mahisasura in the likeness of Chappell.

The pet-friendly pandals are the latest in this tradition.

Also read: BJP picks a woman, a non-Brahmin, to perform its Durga Puja in Bengal. What’s the message?

Always ‘pet puja’

There are some do’s and don’ts that pet parents are circulating now to prepare for the new pandal season.

“Pet parents should carry water and food for the pets and also poop scoopers in case of littering,” says Ravneet Kaur, who runs the Pawsome Paws chain of veterinary clinics in Kolkata. She says that small dogs can easily be carried in the arms of pet parents. “We need to keep in mind that at most pandals in Kolkata, entry is preceded by a long walk in very crowded conditions. Cars can’t be taken right up to the pandal entrance. This may cause distress to the pets,” she explains.

For now, the new idea is buzzing and bringing out jokes about ‘pet pujas’.

Somini Sen Dua is still unsure whether she would take her German Shepherd, Romeo, to a pet-friendly pandal.

“Kolkata Pujas have always been pet pujas,” Sen Dua says. “Pet in Bengali means stomach, and the festivities are an occasion for us to tuck in. This year, however, the phrase finds a new meaning.”

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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