A Hindu Christmas: Celebrating Puja in Dhaka

One nice thing about my office is that it’s accepting of different religions. Although over 90% of Bangladesh is Muslim, our office has employees who are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist (and maybe more). In Canada I would never really ask someone their religion or talk about it openly unless it came up in conversation. In Bangladesh everyone needs to know what religion you are. In fact, the way you greet people and other words you use can change based on someone’s religion.

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This also means that I get the opportunity to learn about the different religions and the holidays they observe. In Bangladesh there are national holidays for at least 3 different religions (such as Eid, Puja, and Christmas) though they’re usually only a day or two instead of the entire festival.  At the end of October was Puja, a Hindu festival.  According to Wikipedia,

“Puja is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals. An essential part of puja for the Hindu devotee is making a spiritual connection with the divine.”

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A few weeks ago was Durga Puja (the Hindu celebration of good over evil) which is sort of like Christmas. As far as I know, the holiday celebrates the goddess (Durga) who comes down from heaven to fight evil from various demons (on the last day, Durga defeats the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura).  The goddess has two daughters and two sons (one is an elephant), which are usually all represented as statues at the front of the temple.   The festival lasts 10 days, and each day has different activities. Some activities include dances, drumming, putting red powder on each other, and putting statues in the river.  In some places, temporary temples are created in open fields for the festival. People gather to see the statues, eat, pray, dance, and celebrate. There are also gifts given on the last day and lots of twinkly lights everywhere (especially in strings over the streets surrounding a temple).  Hindus make up about 8% of the population in Bangladesh, and this is the most important festival of the Hindu year.

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Due to the security situation, I haven’t really been able to attend any social events recently.  However, one of my coworkers was able to convince my boss to let him take Sharna and I to visit three temples on the Tuesday night.  It was great.  The first temple was really colourful, with lots of lit up signs outside.  It wasn’t too far from our house.  We only stayed a few minutes.  Some boys tried to paint crazy things on our hands and then asked for money, but unfortunately they weren’t even nice designs and later smeared off.  We left soon after to go to a bigger temple.

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Some temples are permanent, while others are erected solely for the holiday.  The first and second temples were both constructed just for this holiday.  It took us a long time to get downtown, and we had to wait in line before entering.  The lines are split up into girls and guys. The second temple was quite big.  All of the temples have statues at the front that people can pray to.  The center statue is Durga, and the 4 other statues are her daughters and sons.  You can find different versions of these statues in every temple, though some are fancier than others.  At the second temple we saw the statues and then got some snacks.  Sharna had something spicy inside a crispy chip shell, so I ask for just the crispy chip bowl and they looked at me like I was in insane (though it tasted pretty good).  We also got some ice cream before heading to our third and final destination.

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We drove through some pretty narrow streets that the car could barely fit down.  Eventually Miraz (our driver at TARANGO) found a place to park and we went in my colleagues house.  We met his 2 daughters and wife, and they had a delicious spread of fruit and sweets.  After eating we headed out with the whole family down the street to their local (permanent) temple.  On the way there I got hit by a rickshaw!  It didn’t hurt (the tire just hit my leg), but I was super surprised and everyone was concerned.  No damage though, just some dirt on my pants. 🙂

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There were so many lights strung over the street, it was pretty beautiful.  Of course everyone stared at me the whole time (story of a white girl in Dhaka), but generally people are pretty nice and don’t do anything mean, just staring.  So after entering the temple we saw the statues and took some pictures.  I loved watching the drummers, and the kids were having fun dancing.  Thankfully, in Bangladesh, I’m considered tall (I’m only 5’3 – so in Canada I’m pretty short) and I could see over the crowd.  After watching for awhile we made our way back to the car (since it was getting late).  We said our goodbyes, and spent over an hour getting home (Dhaka is a nightmare to get around).  But it was totally worth it!

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On Thursday afternoon around 4pm, my boss (Kohinoor) and a few others (her husband, and the 2 girls who work in her house) showed up in the work car at my house.  We drove for about an hour (and got lost a bit on some very bumpy roads) before we made it to Roni’s house.  Roni also works at TARANGO, and is the lead designer for the products made by the handicrafts program.  He is also Hindu.  After arriving at this house, we met his wife, 2 high-school aged daughters, and young son.  Their house was full of beautiful paintings that Roni had done.  They served us food and coffee until we were bursting.   During our visit we could hear the drums from the temple next door (which was temporarily installed for puja).

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After we had finished visiting at the house, we all left his apartment building and headed down the street.  Because everyone is very protective of me, they stayed close and even held my hand so I wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.  Colourful lights were hung across the street and there was so many vendors selling things like snacks, balloons, and decorations.  We didn’t wait in line long, and entered through a gate with metal detectors.  Once inside, we could see the temple which was all lit up, and we quickly tried to make our way inside.  It was pretty busy, so we waited until another group was ushered out, and we were ushered inside.  We were able to see the statues again (pretty similar to the statues from the other temples).  People were in a hurry to get home, so we said our goodbyes and took about an hour in the car getting home.

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Overall, I’m glad I was here to experience the holiday.  I wish I could have had the opportunity to see all of the various events (such as dancing and the colours), but I’m glad I at least got to experience a small amount of the festival and feel a bit of the energy.  Due to the ongoing security situation, I’m lucky to even be able to do what I did, so I’m finding it easy these days to be grateful for the small things.


About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
This entry was posted in Bangladesh/Nepal (2015/2016) - IYIP, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A Hindu Christmas: Celebrating Puja in Dhaka

  1. Aishwarya says:

    Great pics, hope you had a fab time celebrating Durga Puja 🙂


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