Each year, at the onset of Sharad Ritu (Autumn), every Bengali is preparing for ‘Ma’ to come home. Ma, in this case, is Goddess Durga, the beloved daughter and mother who travels to her maternal home with all her four children. Durga Puja pandals have, over the last century, become a mainstay of the festivities. The puja is focused on the Goddess’ annual return and her savage battle against asura Mahishasura, which symbolises the triumph of good over evil.
A true-blue Bengali cannot but help get excited for Durga Puja—to seek strength from the Mother, to be close to family and friends and be swayed by this giant groundswell of devotion. Preparation for the week-long Durga Puja includes brand new clothes, planning holidays and inevitably, good food!
The soul satisfying bhog at a Durga Puja pandal, especially the Maha Ashtami khichuri bhog, has developed a fan following of its own. But did you know, this communal eating ritual started at the bonedi bari (aristocratic homes) across Bengal as a way to thank and appreciate the labours of the taxpaying common folk! The communal meals are still a highlight of these Durga Puja.
Also Read: 10 Must-Have Durga Puja Bhogs in Kolkata
Back in the kitchen, the feast being prepared for the Goddess is completely different. The meal draws heavily from socio-economic-cultural past of the region. The foods are also dependent on the streams of devotion, Shakto and Vaishnav. Shakto tradition (Shaktism), is where the feminine divinity is supreme, and the female goddesses are revered more than the male counterparts. And as per the sect’s tradition, non-vegetarian inclusions in the Goddess’s bhog is normal. Accordingly offering maach bhaja (fried fish) to the Goddess isn’t unheard of.
As per tradition, animal sacrifices were a regular affair on the eighth and ninth day of Durga Puja. This was for Goddess Durga to be able to gain strength from, for the final battle with Mahishasura. The sacrificed goat was then cooked without onions and garlic (hence the concept of vegetarian mutton curry) and offered to her. The offering was then shared among devotees as Prasad. Thankfully, the tradition has come to an end in most places replacing the mute mammal with pumpkin and bananas.
In contrast, Vaishnav tradition (followers of Vishnu) sticks to a pure vegetarian diet for the Goddess Durga and her devotees. But in either case, Durga, the daughter, is always treated with her favourite foods. “There are no written rules as to what should or should not be offered to Ma Durga. Most of it is based on what a family who is conducting the Durga Puja,” says Kolkata-based renowned home chef and food consultant Iti Misra. Her family’s annual Durga Puja is conducted in Bardhaman.
“At the Pujo in our ancestral home, Goddess Durga is offered luchi and bhaja on most days, and not just one, but 5 types of bhaja or fries. These could be anything from begun (brinjal), cauliflower to pumpkin and potol (pointed gourd). This offering is devoid of salt, since it is prasad,” she says. This is a fairly simple meal, she explains while drawing comparison to the Anna Bhog offered at by Brahmin families on Durga Puja. “Therefore, payesh, pulao and even khichuri is a common find in these pujas, but without salt.” Anna refers to rice, the cereal of choice in Bengal.
There is also Naivedya, where raw, soaked Gobindobhog rice is mixed with ghee, milk, bananas, and other fruits and sweets. Some versions also include soaked raw moong dal. Naivedya is a must and has to be offered to the Goddess on all the five days of Durga Puja. Similarly, Dadhikarma, made with khoi (popped rice) and curd, is served to Durga on Vijaya Dashami.
Also Read: Charnamrit-The Nectar of the Gods
Durga Ma is also offered a vast array of fruits and sweets. Gods in the Hindu pantheon have a very discernible sweet tooth that the mortal devotees try very hard to satisfy. A lot of India’s sweets have roots in this need to offer the gods something really distinct. Kolkata’s bonedi bari is known to bring in master sweet makers for the duration of Durga Puja to make sweetmeats, especially for the puja.
In a time when food and its role in cultural integration are skirting controversies, Durga comes home to her devotees with an open mind, a diverse palate and a distinct love for local foods and flavours. Everyone is invited!
Featured image conceptualised: Vartika Pahuja
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