Intrigued by the abrupt end to the much-awaited, five-day Durga puja in West Bengal, the tourists had arrived from the UK, the US and some European countries, and lined up near the Princep Ghat along the bank of the Hooghly to watch the spectacle unfold.
The immersion ceremony symbolises the end of the goddess's annual sojourn to her paternal home. She is now believed to return to her husband Lord Shiva, and their heavenly abode in Mount Kailash.
Hundreds of devotees joined hands in gently lowering the idols into the river. Sadness writ on their faces, old and young people alike touched the idol's feet one last time before the immersion.
Chants of "Bolo Durga Mai Ki Jai" resonated across the riverfront.
There were also shouts of "Asche bochor abar hobe" ("Next year, again!) as the devotees looked forward to a new year.
Equally aggrieved were travellers from France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US, some of who joined the chants.
"It is a sad event ... after all the fervour and fiesta in the last few days, we hate to see this," said Beatrice, a volunteer worker from Italy, as she followed the progress of a floating idol.
Watching the entire episode -- from the moment the goddess and her clan is brought atop trucks to the ghat -- the tourists made sure every moment was faithfully captured on camera.
Helping the idols to the river, several well-built men carry them on their shoulders, as dhaakis (drummers) beat a rhythm for the swan song.
Women dressed in customary red-and-white sarees dance all the way with the idols as priests lead the way with incense and diyas.
However, minute changes have been made to the process over the last two years to facilitate a pollution-free immersion.
Midway to the bank, the idols are stripped of adornments and accessories to ensure no non-biodegradable materials go into the river. These are put into a vat, and rag-pickers immediately descend on them.
"This is brutal, the way the fantastic decorations are stripped-off from Durga. This is totally in contrast from the way she was brought to the pandals," said Harlene from Germany.
That is not all. Once the idols are in the river, they are brought back to the bank, either with the help of a crane on a barge or by workmen of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC). The remnants are then dumped at a specific spot.
"The idols are not allowed to sink, our men bring them back onto the ground. This way the river is not polluted," a KMC employee said.
At the riverfront, more than 30 KMC employees busily lugged partly-submerged remains back onto the bank, sweeping the riverfront.
Aiding them were officers of the Kolkata Police.
The elaborate security arrangements included a watch tower near the bank as well as rows of officers who prevented onlookers from going too far into the river.
"I am coming here for the second time and the crowd control is definitely better. The ghat is cleaner and though the immersion is a bit heart-wrenching, the measures these guys have taken are good," Celestine Andre, from the US, told IANS.
Andre and her friends from America looked dumbstruck as the figures came apart -- after being lifted from the river by the crane -- to reveal a mess of straw and clay.
"Though it is a pity to watch the beautiful idols become such a soggy mess, it is good to see the administration take strong steps to protect the river ecosystem," said Mark Salessa, who works at the French consulate here.
--IANS (Posted on 14-10-2013)