DURGA PUJA celebrations in Leicester, England

  • By Nivedita Choudhuri
  • February 6, 2024
  • Know about the celebration of Durga Puja in Leicester, England.

Durga Puja is celebrated with a great deal of pomp and circumstance in the UK every year. The burgeoning Bengali community in the country, mainly comprising medics working for the National Health Service or techies, celebrate the festival with gusto over five days every autumn. I have been fortunate to have been part of every such puja in Leicester from 2005 to 2022. We only took a two-year break due to Covid in 2020 and 2021. We could not celebrate puja last year due to some unforeseen circumstances, but we hope to be back with a bang in 2024.  


The puja I am associated with is celebrated by a cultural club called Ankur in Leicester. Leicester is a city in the Midlands region of England, and it is perhaps one of the most multicultural places in Great Britain. Apparently, more than 50 per cent of the people living in the city are from ethnic minority communities and more than 40 per cent were born outside the UK. There was an influx of people from the Caribbean Islands in the 1950s and migrants from the Indian subcontinent began to pour in in the 1960s. East African Asians fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972 came and settled in Leicester in large numbers, adding to the Asian population in the city.


Other pujas in the UK are mainly Bengali affairs, but our puja in Leicester is very different as people from various communities take part in the proceedings. The celebrations are helmed by an English lady whose parents had their roots in Austria and who was once married to a Bengali gentleman before he passed away around three decades ago. Joan Chatterjee Cooper (pic below) remarried around two decades ago and soon introduced her English husband to the world of dhak (traditional drum) and dhunuchi naach (dance performed during Durga puja).


“From the 1970s or even earlier, Durga puja was celebrated in many towns and cities across the UK such as Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Liverpool, Worcester, and Wolverhampton, besides London of course. These were grand affairs attended by hundreds of people from all over the country. The men used to do the cooking in some places while the women took a back seat. Around 1997 or 1998, a few families in Leicester came together and decided to have their own puja. We took time off work and decided to rent a church hall for the purpose,” said Joan.


I have been witnessing Durga puja in Leicester since 2005. In those days, our puja was funded generously by a local Asian doctors’ forum and by the city council. Funds were also provided by local businesses and traders who advertised in the brochure printed every year on the occasion of Durga puja. Club members too contributed what they could. 

As the years went by, the funds dried up and it became increasingly difficult to sustain the puja though ours was always a three-day affair instead of it being the normal five-day affair. In the earlier days, the pujas were big-budget events. I remember in 2005, a maths teacher officiated as priest at our puja. He was very strict and would turn around and glare at us ever so often if he heard murmurs from the crowd. Next year, a priest was flown down from Assam with our club paying for his air fare and hotel stay. Funds were not an issue in those days.


I still remember the excitement among club members as we approached autumn. We would have a couple of pre-puja meetings during which rotas were made and duties allocated to the ladies. Someone had to stay near the priest and help him if required as he performed the puja. One person had to make the bhog – prasad. This was not a task we readily wanted to do for it meant getting up early in the morning to cook the bhog, comprising khichdi, five kinds of fried vegetables, chutney and payasam.


There were other jobs that were popular, such as making the garlands for the goddesses or cutting fruit for prasad. We chatted away merrily while cutting fruit with members often reminiscing about the days gone by. One lady once told me how she used to get vegetables such as lauki and drumsticks in her suitcase every time she went to Kolkata in the 1960s as these were not readily available in England then. The English daughter-in-law of a member used to organise a craft session for young children so that their parents could watch the puja undisturbed.


Setting up the hall for Durga puja was fun. We would meet for a couple of hours the day before the festivities began. The puja was held on a weekend closest to the actual dates. One member would usually be tasked with getting piping hot samosas and jalebis for the rest of us. We got the stage ready, and murtis dressed with new clothes that someone had brought from Kolkata. 


A minor crisis was always at hand. The murtis that we worshipped were made of fibre glass and they had been shipped to the UK in 1998. Over time, there had been a lot of wear and tear. A couple of years ago, we had just put the murti of Kartik on stage when one hand fell off. An emergency meeting was held as we dropped all that we were doing to salvage the situation. Ma Durga’s weapons invariably caused confusion as we did not know which weapon went in which hand. We would look at photos on the Net to make sure we were doing things right!


As the years went by and funds dwindled up, we had to learn to operate on a tight budget. Pre-puja meetings turned into debating sessions as we pondered whether to introduce food coupons so that all those who came to our puja would have to pay to eat. Others spoke in hushed tones how a family of five had come and eaten but paid a measly £5 in donation!

Our pujas were truly affairs involving the entire community and not just Bengalis. We put our heart and soul in the festivities. Every puja was a rewarding and enriching experience, especially for the youngsters who learnt so much about Hindu culture and customs staying away from India.


Author Nivedita, a former journalist, is now based in England. All pictures by author.


To read all articles on Indian Festivals


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