It’s that time of the year. The fragrance of ‘shiuli’, the delicate orange and white flowers that blossom right about now, mingles with the autumn breeze to herald Durga Puja but the frankincense is missing and a wary quiet has overtaken the sound of festivities.

In the air there is the virus and the fear of it.

The Bengali community in the Delhi-NCR region is staying away from Durga Puja festivities, a community affair in parks and other open spaces. And nowhere is this more evident than in Chittaranjan Park, often known as ‘mini Bengal’.. It’s two days before Durga Puja begins and Delhi’s predominantly Bengali neighbourhood has never been quieter.

The parks that have for decades served as venues for larger than life themed pandals housing ornately decked Durga idols for five days every year are deserted.

Keeping in mind the Covid-19 scare, puja committees in C R park, as the south Delhi locality is known, and elsewhere in Delhi-NCR have decided to keep celebrations low key, hosting rituals online, sans idols, cultural programmes, ‘bhog’ and in several places even the customary floral offerings.

On Monday,12 Durga Puja Committees of Chittaranjan Park, Greater Kailash 1 and 2, Alaknanda, and Kalkaji met at a temple and unanimously decided that the puja celebrations this year would be suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The meeting was convened by Greater Kailash MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj and attended by the sub-divisional magistrate, police officials and other agencies.

“Most of the population of C R Park and members of puja committees are senior citizens and it is important they remain indoors and avoid contact with unknown people in pandals,” Bharadwaj, a legislator of Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party, said.

But almost all the committees will host a small “kalash puja/ ghat puja” to “ensure continuity of puja by these samitis”, according to a statement issued after the meeting. C R Park’s Mela Ground Committee, which is known for organising grand celebrations, featuring not just unique puja themes but also cultural performances by leading artists from Bengal, is one of them.

“Unfortunately this year we are not organising Durga Puja on a large scale considering the unprecedented situation. No ‘mandap’ or ‘pandal’ will be installed to prevent large gatherings to keep the public safe from this contagious disease. “No activity will be organised except a ceremony called ‘ghot pujo’ which will be performed every day with limited visitors or committee members and a priest during ‘saptami’, ‘ashtami’ and ‘navami’ at our Mela Ground park,” Avik Mitra, a member of the organising committee, told PTI.

Durga Puja is celebrated over four days — sashti, saptami, ashthami and navami which this year fall from October 22 to 24. On the fifth day, dashami, devotees bid adieu to the goddess and the idol is immersed. In line with the Delhi government’s guidelines, 15 committee members, including two priests, will be allowed to attend the rituals physically within the park precincts, the final list for which has to be submitted to the police. For others, the ‘ghot pujo’ will be streamed live on the committee’s Facebook page.

“All those who enter the premises will have to submit a self-attested declaration stating that they have not come in direct contact with any Covid positive patient in the last 48 hours.

“The Arogya Setu app will be mandatory for 15 members. Hand sanitisation, wearing of masks and maintaining social distance will be of utmost priority for all the members attending the ‘ghot pujo’,” Mitra said.

C R Park’s B-Block puja committee has reduced the annual five-day affair to a single day celebration with a ‘ghot pujo’ on October 24 from 7 am onwards. Only the priest and two helpers will be allowed to participate in the rituals.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action, said Suprakash Majumdar, general secretary of the committee.

“This year, the committee has decided that flowers, sweets, and fruits from individual homes cannot be offered. Nothing will be accepted by the priest due to Covid-19 restrictions. There won’t be any ‘pandal’, idol , entertainment/cultural events, sports events, ‘bhog’ distribution at our ground either,” Majumdar said. The B Block committee is, however, accepting donations in cash as well as online and via cheque, all exempt from income tax.

Puja spirits are running low even beyond Delhi’s ‘mini-Bengal’. Covid on their mind, Green Park’s Matri Mandir society also has chosen to go the ‘ghot pujo’ way despite the state government’s nod for small scale celebrations.

“It would have been very difficult to restart after the government allowed puja celebrations. We will stick to our plan of performing ‘ghot pujo’. We will follow all rituals and no short cuts as far as the puja is concerned,” said Debashis Saha, chief coordinator of the Matri Mandir Sarbojanin Durga Puja Samiti.

While members of the committee will be paying their respects to the deity from their respective homes, the committee has decided to send money to all the workers associated with the celebrations every year.

“We have decided to pay needy workers who were associated with our puja like the ‘dhaki’ (drummers), cooks, and security personnel. Also, we will donate to the PM’s relief fund,” Saha said.

Caution is key in the suburban town of Gurgaon that falls in Haryana.

Gurgaon’s DLF5 Durga Puja committee has capped the number of people present within the pandal at any point of time at 45. “We will keep it as simple as possible… minimalistic, functional set up for pandal decorations. Our theme this year is about embracing minimalism, acknowledging the power of nature and appreciating the value of life, people and our society. “Apart from keeping all rituals and activities of the puja at a minimum, we also intend to cut down all costs wherever possible, and use part of the savings from the funds raised to help people impacted during this time,” a committee spokesperson said.

While individuals will be allowed to attend rituals physically, for those not keen to come to the pandal, especially the elderly and other vulnerable communities, celebrations will be telecast online on the committee website and its social media handles.

“We have built a website for puja visit slot booking — 30 minute slots each, allowing 25 visitors in each slot and volunteers, security and sanitisation staff up to 20. No overlaps, or cross directional movement will be allowed. Attendees would be socially distanced once they are inside the venue. There will be flowerless ‘pushpanjali’ to avoid any common touch points,” the committee member said.

The website will also be used to coordinate food distribution to minimise crowding.

“There will be pre-packaged takeaway ‘bhog’ on one of the days. People will not be allowed to sit down and consume food. Just a clean handover of takeaway packages booked through the website,” the spokesperson said.

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