Category: Festival

Chhath Puja – the desi Thanksgiving! With inputs from Puja

Puja celebrating Chhath

To me, for a long time, Chhath was a religious festival largely celebrated in Bihar, they worshipped Sun, had something to do with river, as I would see a lot of people walking to Yamuna on those days. I didn’t know much about Chhath or didn’t bother to find out till Puja joined my team and came to office after the Diwali break with so many goodies – Thekua and sweets – prashad from Chhath Puja. Every year, since then, she would go home for Chhath and come back with delicious Thekua that her mother made at home for the Puja. Missing it this year as Puja has decided to extend her stay in Patna due to her impending wedding. Happy occasion indeed!   

Puja’s mom in a traditional attire performing Chhath Puja

Chhath Puja is a festival that falls in the fag-end of the Indian month of Kartik (late October/early November), after Durga Puja and Diwali.   Since it commences on the 4th day of Shukal Paksh and culminates on the 6th day of Shukal Paksh it is called Chhath Puja. Surya Dev or Sun God is worshipped for granting the gift of life to us on earth. Unlike Durga Puja and Diwali, this festival does not involve idolatry and is dedicated to the worship the Chhathi Maiya (Shashthi Mata) and sun God Surya along with his wives Usha and Pratyusha, the Vedic Goddess of Dawn and Dusk, respectively. It is believed that the main sources of Sun’s power are his consorts Usha and Pratyusha. Therefore, during Chhath, both his wives are worshipped along with Sun. In the morning, we worship the first ray of Sun, Usha, and in the evening the last ray of Sun, Pratyusha. This is the only festival where the sister of Sun, Chhathi Maiya, is worshipped and offered an Arghya or Prashad.

The festival is largely celebrated in Bihar, Jharkhand, UP and Madhesh region of Nepal, and of course now, owing to globalization, the residents of these states scattered all over the world celebrate Chhath. Celebrating the power of Sun, or oneness with nature, this is considered to be one of the most eco-friendly festivals. If we were to truly embrace the spirit of festivals like Chhath, most of our environmental woes would probably be addressed and the pollution wouldn’t be choking us every year.

The festival doesn’t distinguish between caste and class. Every devotee, rich or poor, offer the same Prashad to Sun God and follow the same rituals. A reminder that Nature or higher power doesn’t distinguish basis our birth or social status. Though a gender neutral festival it is largely celebrated by women and the rituals are to be strictly adhered to

The four-day festival, that comes six days after Diwali, starts with Nahaye Khaye (first day) when every member of the family along with the pavnitan (the one who performs this puja or devotees) have their food after taking bath.

Kharna (Second Day), is the second day of Chhath Puja. Kharna means fast the whole day, and on this day the devotees don’t drink even a single drop of water. In the evening, they can eat gur ki kheer (jaggery kheer), fruits and chapati loaded with ghee.

Sandhya Arghya (Third Day) falls on Kartik Shukla Shashthi and an Arghya is offered to Sun god on this day. Devotees stand in the river/ pond or a water body to offer Arghya to the setting Sun after fasting through the day.

Usha Arghya (Fourth Day) – On the last day of Chhath puja, in the morning, an Arghya is offered to the rising Sun. After the worship, devotees drink sharbat and raw milk, and eat a little prashad to break the fast, traditionally termed as Paran or Parana.

Thekua being fried on a traditional chulha at Puja’s place

Thekua and Kheer made of rice and jaggary are the main prashad of this festival. Delicious Thekua is made out of wheat flour, chasni (melted sugar) and ghee. Jaggery can sometimes be used as an alternative to sugar. Dough is prepared using these four main ingredients and cardamom can be added to enhance the flavour. The oval shaped dough is then deep fried in ghee or vegetable oil till it turns reddish brown. It is soft when hot but hardens after it cools. It is absolutely preservative free and lasts for days.

Chhath is a post-harvest festival and is celebrated after many agricultural produces like wheat, rice, sugarcane and so many fruits and vegetables, have been reaped. Devotees offer all these to Sun God, as according to them, without the benevolent rays of Sun cultivation and harvesting would not be possible. Hence, it is our very own thanksgiving festival, thanking the all mighty Sun God for bestowing and nurturing life!

Light and Darkness

We celebrate the Festival of Light on a new moon autumn night that falls on the Hindu month of Kartik to drive the darkness away. Anything that is dark is somehow associated with evil in our culture. We light lamps or diyas on Deepavali to celebrate the victory of good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, Deepavali marks the day when Lord Rama returned home after vanquishing Ravana, the asura king. The golden Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped across North India to usher wealth and prosperity on that night. Homecoming of Lord Rama did mark the beginning to happy days for his subject in Ayodhya. In Bengal and east, however, we worship Goddess Kali on Deepavali night. Fearsome Kali with open hair, bloodshot eyes, garlanded with skulls is considered to be the vanquisher of evil – the dark Kali violently and uprooting the dark evil. 

The image of Kali has always evoked a mixed response in me. The bloodthirsty semi-naked dark blue Goddess adorned with a garland of skulls of the demons she has crushed, holding a severed head dripping blood, wearing a skirt of severed limbs, her bloody tongue jutting out as she steps on to her consort, Lord Shiva. Yes, Shiva needed to fall on her feet to calm her down. I have sometimes wondered how or why our patriarchal society conceived of female power so ferocious so, so untamed? On the night of Deepavali, Kali bhakts in Bengal stay up the whole night and worships Goddess Kali who used her darkness to annihilate darkness. Though, having grown up as a Bengali, with images and pictures of Kali all around, one can sometimes take this enigmatic Goddess for granted. I have always felt there is more to her than meets the eye. And the more I read about her, the more questions she evokes.

Kali’s blackness is associated with the eternal darkness that can destroy and create. As Shamsana Kali she presides over the crematorium, the land between the living and the dead. She is associated with death and dark magic or Tantra. Kali is central to Tantra Sadhna in Bengal, a spiritual practice that involves the dead. Though she is much revered, this dark blue Goddess is never worshipped at home. Her wildness and untamed spirit inspire awe, her raw feminine energy refuses to be domesticated. She effortlessly dwells in the realms of life and death. Kali has always reminded me of the darkness that lurks under the flickering flame, the opposites that embrace each other to create harmony. She lends deeper appeal to celebrations of light.

Not many of us are aware that this wild Goddess manifests herself in 10 different forms. In one such forms, Kamala Kali, she is a tantric form of the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi. This form of Goddess Kali is worshipped as ‘Gaja Lakshmi’, as she has two elephants by her side, the southern states.

 Interestingly, Kali Pujo is preceded by Bhoot Chaturdashi or Bengal’s own Halloween. On Bhoot Chaturdashi our 14 forefathers are called upon and warded off on the same day. Choddo Prodip or 14 candles are lit in 14 corners of the house, a practice that I follow even in Gurgaon. According to folklore, the spirits of ancestors come back to us on this night and these diyas help them find their homes. It is believed that our Choddo Purush or fourteen ancestors descend to bless us and ward off evil spirits and ghosts. But they are spirits too, so we need to ward them off after being blessed. What a strange practise that challenges the opposites and the barriers that we carefully construct.

Kali, also known as Adishakti or Kundalini Shakti, is the divine feminine energy or the light that makes the Universe live, but she can also burn it. Therefore, when we worship Kali, we celebrate these very opposites, revere her, fear her. The darkness that our society looks down upon is adulated. The dark blue Goddess who effortlessly embodies the contradictions is probably mocking at the futility of all boundaries – the good and the bad, the black and the white, of the different compartments that we have carefully built over the years. For, Kali’s darkness brings light and under the flames of every lamp plays the dark shadow!

Festive fun with COVID twist!

Aoshtomi fun on Titas’s terrace garden

The festivities arrived with the cool autumn breeze, clear blue sky and Corona Virus still hanging in the air. The fact that there would be no pandal hopping this year did dampen my spirit initially. But surprisingly this Pujo turned out to be one of the best for me. As going out was not an option, we looked inwards and planned to organize small get-togethers at home, with close friends and neighbours in the safe zone of course. For when you are eating and drinking mask is not an option.

First the double whammy! As my birthday this year coincided with Saptomi I called everyone over to my place. Being the Birthday Girl, I decided to take it easy and gave my friend Sanjay charge of the party. Sanjay gladly agreed and delighted us with grilled chicken breast, paneer in mushroom sauce, prawns, garlic bread, spring rolls and more. I got a pink cake that I have been craving for since I was a girl and was showered with gifts, feeling like a young girl. Age is a number indeed!

Aoshtomi, so much fun making khichudi and labra on Titas’s terrace garden, reminded me of the long-forgotten picnics when we would go to someplace like riverbank or tea garden and cook. Years back, the whole extended family and friends would embark on a picnic or chorui bhati early morning in a bus loaded with all the utensils and ingredients. After reaching the picnic spot, men would dig a hole in the soft mud and make a chulha. Women would start cooking – daalchawal, veggies and mutton for a mouth-watering late afternoon lunch. We kids’ would just run around and have fun.

On Titas’s terrace garden kichudi  and labra were cooked on a gas stove, in huge utensils that belonged to Sanjay’s dad. Some people helped chopped veggies, some like me cheered and took photographs. Titas nervously stirred the labra as Roy Meshomoshai is not easy to please when it comes to authentic bong food. Men helped stir the huge pot and finally, we had the perfect labra. Arpan was in charge of khichudi that turned out to be delicious. The late afternoon meal with begun bhajachatni and of course kichudi and ladra was very satisfying. Titas’s special dessert, kheer from Manipur (Chak-Hao Amubi Kheer) made with black rice (that lent a blueberry colour to the desi kheer), brought the meal to a perfect end. We were so full that we had to cancel the drinks and snacks that we had planned for the evening.

Pujo was a three-day affair this time and day three was again a blast for me, first rushing to Sanjay’s parent’s place to sample the Vijaya Doshomi fish and mutton then heading to my colleague Lovina’s place for lunch. A bachelorette for our colleague Puja who’s soon to get married, Lovina made the juiciest pork chops and pork ribs and a whole lot of other things while I sipped white wine. I came back to Sanjay’s parent’s place again in the evening for my share of dessert. 

The celebrations came to a perfect end (for now) with Lokkhi Pujo at Sanjay’s parent’s place. We bowed before the golden goddess that Mashima worshipped in the puja room for peace, prosperity, and a vaccine for COVID and some magic remedy for the rising pollution. Prasad was elaborate, from fruits and shinni to Kochuri, Potoler torkari, Ghugni, chatni, payesh, mishti and more.

A good festive season indeed though rising pollution is proving to be damper, giving us itchy eyes and sore throats even though we are mostly indoors. So much has changed this year, and not everything about that change has been bad. We have made new friends, learnt to make do with what we have, connected with people around us and realized the value human touch in an increasingly virtual world. I had hoped that the air would be cleaner this winter, but it seems we have a lot more to learn! 

Sharing the quick Recipe of Chak-Hao Amubi Kheer, Manipuri Black Rice Pudding-

  1. Wash the Black rice multiple times till you get almost clean water.
  2. Soak the rice for 2 to 3 hrs
  3. Boil milk on slow heat in a stove, add bay leaves, cardamom.
  4. Add the soaked rice and let it boil, keep adding milk if it thickens.
  5. Once the rice is cooked, you will get a creamy purple kheer, add sugar as per your taste, add some dry fruits if you like.
  6. Serve with LOVE, the most important ingredient.

Mahalaya

By Heema Roy Choudhury

Mahalaya is widely celebrated as the day when Goddess Durga begins her descend to earth, to grace us with her presence for those five much awaited days of Durga Pujo. As a girl I would wake up in the wee hours of Mahalaya morning to listen to the recital of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The whole family would gather around the radio to listen to him, invoking the Goddess in his sonorous voice.

There was so much excitement around Mahalaya. I would spend an almost sleepless night lest I missed the recitals, what if mom forgot to wake me up. The medium was audio, but the lyrics, the voice, the songs, and our imagination would bring Devi Durga alive. I could almost visualize her stepping out from her heavenly abode to begin her journey to earth.

Mahalaya also marks the end of Pitri Paksha and the beginning of Devi Paksha (though this year it will be delayed by about a month due to the Adhik Maas (leap month in the Hindu calendar). Like the soft glow of Devi, the golden sun soothes our eyes, the clear blue sky, the cottony white clouds, the cool breeze usher pleasant autumn. The sweet fragrance of Shiuli Phool (a kind of jasmine) and the sound of dhak would add to the magic once, reminding us that Durga Pujo’s round the corner. We could feel the morning dew, the harsh summer giving in to cooler climes. Somehow, though I still feel the season changing, the old excitement is gone. Maybe it’s me growing up, maybe it’s staying away from home so long, sometimes I forget to miss Shiuli flower that would be strewn under the tree in our courtyard. As girl I would string these sweet-smelling flowers into garlands or bracelets. My ears still strain for the sound of dhak, brings back memories, though my heart doesn’t flutter like it used to once.

Mahalaya would also mean rushing to the market to buy new clothes and shoes, badgering mom to finish stitching our dresses soon, planning our outfits for each day, waiting eagerly for four days of pandal hopping and festivities. As a child Durga Pujo also meant holidays and no studies. Now, it’s work as usual, though I make it a point to wear sari and go to the nearby Pujo pandal in the evening. The pandals in Gurgaon do a good job of presenting Devi Durga in all her glory, with dhak and dhunochi dance, yet something’s missing. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe the times have changed!

Colours of life!

There’s a reason why we hail spring, why it’s so widely celebrated, odes written about its youthful exuberance. Spring is the season of hope, it’s all about celebrating rebirth or rejuvenation. Spring celebrates life. The fresh green leaves shooting out of branch browned by harsh winter, the colourful flowers blooming all over, the singing birds – the world seems to have awakened from the winter hibernation. Song of Spring is a colourful melody expressed so beautifully by none other than John Keats: 

And O and O,/ The daisies blow, / And the primroses are wakened;/ And the violets white/ Sit in silver light,/ And in the green buds are long in the spike end.

No wonder then Spring is blithely followed by lovingly playful Cupid. First, comes visiting Saint Valentine from the far West and we Indians paint the town red and pink to welcome him. Though many may not know who Saint Valentine is, Valentine’s Day has become the most important day on desi lovers’ calendar. It’s all about red roses and pink hearts or rather pink heart-shaped pastries and chocolates and trinkets and gifts followed by expensive dinners. Those already in love take a lot of pain to make their cherished one feel special. Those yearning for love, hope to find that special someone on Valentine’s day. While the florists and the bakers make hay, we are or imagine ourselves to be Cupid struck! Naysayers may cynically nod their head, but I feel great about dedicating a day to love. After all, love does make the world go around! 

Image courtesy Deccan Chronicle

Then comes our very own Holi that encapsulates the fun and frolic of Lord Krishna with his beloved Radha and his favourite Gopis. Though Holi also signifies the victory of good over evil, the triumph of Prahlada over the evil king Hiranyakashipu, it is the image of fair Radha playing with colours of love and passion with her dark mischievous lover Krishna in Braj Bhoomi (Vrindavan) that captures the popular imagination. Holi celebrates the many colours of love, the divine love of Radha Krishna – love of Krishna for his married distant relative Radha that is considered to be the epitome of love and adoration. Ironically, our society that frowns upon love that doesn’t fit into its narrow norm of caste, creed and morality, celebrates and embraces the divine love of Radha Krishna.

Even today, Holi in Vrindavan reflects the amorous love of Radha Krishna. It could be the Raslila’s being performed in every corner, the songs celebrating the Divine Love or gulal in so many colours, Vrindavan’s Holi does create an aura of mischievous, defiant love. Red, yellow, pink, purple and green gulal floating in the air create their magic. For Holi is all about celebrating love, the many colours of love and the many hues of life, shades that often leave us confounded. We so often witness during Holi red, yellow, green and purple coming together to create a hue that flouts all definition. Holi, the Spring festival, the festival of colours celebrates these varied defiant shades of love and life!

Food trails & many tales: Intriguing flavours of Bohra Thaal

Food does so much more than just satiating our hunger. From a basic need that nurtures life, what we eat and how we eat has become an integral part of our culture and tradition. As civilizations evolved, and looking for food was no longer an everyday struggle, meals, at least on occasions, transformed into an art reflecting the very essence of a community and a region. Every cuisine is blended with history, values that our forefathers held dear and our own memories. Bohra Thaal or Bohri Thaal that offers an aromatic journey through Arab, Yemen and Africa blended with the spices from India, especially Gujarat, is a case in point. A part of Shiitism of Islam called Dawoodi, Bohras or Bohris in India are an affluent community residing mostly in Gujarat and Mumbai. The community is said to have arrived at the port of Cambay in Gujarat, from Egypt via Yemen. Their cuisine, and way it’s presented, canvases their diverse cultural heritage.

Thaal: image courtesy The Bohri Kitchen

Firm believer in the maxim, “The family that eats together, stays together” Bohras eat out of a thaal – one big platter with several dishes spread out that typically accommodates 8 people. “At one time the whole family would share a meal from one thaal, now it’s only during weddings and special occasions,” says my colleague and friend Dinaz who hails from the community.

Thaal is put on a tarakti (an elevated stand) placed on a square piece of cloth called a safra, laid out on the floor. Thaal should not be left unattended, so during a community meal, food is not served till all eight diners are seated. The portions served are just right for eight. Each dish is placed in the centre of the thaal and every member pulls his or her share. “During weddings we sometimes share a thaal with a complete stranger,” says Dinaz.

Image courtesy Indpaedia

“For us it’s very important to have our heads covered and hands washed both before and after the meal. During any festivities or when guests are invited home, once everyone is seated, the host goes around with a chelamchi lota (basin and jug) and washes the guests’ hands,” adds Dinaz.

While researching about this unique style of sharing meals I came across an interesting blog post by Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom. Hailing thaal as the nucleus of Bohra community the post states that this style of eating traces back to the very origin of Islam, exemplifying human equality. The round shape of the thaal is significant as each person who sits around it, is equidistant from the food that is placed in the centre, that would be difficult to achieve in rectangular or square shape dining table.

Thaal is much more than a meal for the Dawoodi Bohra community. Dawoodi Bohras are believed to be an ethnic blend of Arabic, Persian, Yemeni, Egyptian, African Pakistani and Indian cultures and the cultural diversity is reflected in their exotic cuisines and flavours. “Our food will take you through the streets of Sana’a and Aden and give you an aroma of the Yemeni countryside. It will give you a glimpse of the indigenous rainbow cuisine that colours the streets of Africa, it will walk you through the fragrant Arabic, Persian and Egyptian suqs and snare your palette and back home it will capture the rich spices and tadkas that linger in every corner of India and Pakistan,” states the blog.

There’s something unique about the way Bohra’s serve the food. The meal begins with salt – a taste cleanser that activates all taste buds. “Salt is usually served by the youngest member of group,” says Dinaz. “Interestingly the first course that is served is a dessert, that we call mithaas.” Bohras consider it auspicious to begin their meal with a sweet dish. As they love ice cream it is served first, unless it’s celebration time, when the sodannu (cooked rice with ghee and sugar) comes first. Mithaas is followed by meat preparation called khaaraas or savoury dish.

In Bohra weddings, several courses of kharaas and mithaas are served alternately. On an ordinary day however, one round of starters and two desserts is the norm before the main course, or jaman is served. Jaman can include a meat dish, which is eaten with chapattis or parathas, and a rice dish that could be anything from a biriyani to kaari chaawal to dal chaawal palidu (lentil rice with curry). The usual accompaniment of a raita or soup could also be served with the rice. The jaman ends with another round of dessert. Dry fruits and paan (betel leaves) are a must. Salt is served again at the end of the meal to cleanse their tongues. Bohras believe salt can cure 72 diseases. “The last salt is served by the oldest member of the group,” says Dinaz.

Some signature mithaas are the malida, kharak halwa, thooli to name a few. While khaaraas comprises meat preparations which are fried or roasted rice dishes and more. A good thaal offers a combination of meat and rice.

Popularly served rice dishes are Bohra khichidi, kheema khichidi, Bohra biriyani, and of course dal chawal palidu, that draws on the Bohra’s exposure to Gujarati cuisine. Mughlai dishes like kebabs are also served at Dawoodi Bohra feast.

Bohra Khichda: Image courtesy Pinterest

Bohra khichda, another authentic dish, is a fusion of flavours from the Hyderabad-i halem in which the broken wheat is cooked with meat and lentils. 

Pehli Raat Thaal (New Years’ Eve Feast), served on the first day of Muharram, comes with 28 to 52 dishes. Bohra’s believe this distinctive tradition will ensure abundance in the following year.

Mumbai, home to many Bohras, has restaurants and food joints that have been developed around that concept of Thaal. The Bohri Kitchen (TBK) is the most famous one I am told.  I plan to check out the place when I am in Mumbai next.

My Christmas Cake 😊

It’s Christmas time! There’s a Christmas tree everywhere – in malls, offices, even in our living rooms. December chill is succumbing to the fervor of festivities, parties are being planned, excitement around Santa or secret Santa – there’s something magical about Christmas!

And Christmas is not complete without cakes. When I was girl in Agartala, we would pick Christmas cakes from local bakeries, Laxmi Bakery and Sudipto Bakery, the leading bakeries then. The Christmas cakes were pretty basic, with some candied fruits and peanuts and a(supposedly) red cherry on top. The so-called cherry was Karamcha or Bengal Current sweetened in sugar syrup. I would go for that cherry (to my mom’s great displeasure) moment the cake was unwrapped. Both the bakeries are still thriving and have introduced many innovations in their cakes & pastries since.

Once I started baking, I would bake rich fruit cakes for Christmas. But this year I decided to bake a proper boozy Christmas cake. As I don’t like rum, I decided to replace it with brandy. The liquor shop guy suggested that I use Morpheus. As the name sounded grand and bottle looked fancy, I decided to go for it. It tasted quite good with hot water, honey and few drops of lemon juice (I had to sample it first before using it in the cake 😊).

Brandy soaked fruits

Next step dry fruits. I ordered raisins, broken cashews, walnuts and cherries online. I had some fruit candies (tuty fruity) lying at home. I chopped the cherries, crushed the walnuts and cashews, put raisins, tuty fruity and all the other dried fruits in a flat bowl and soaked them in brandy, just enough to lightly soak the fruit. I also added a heaped spoon full of apricot jam to the mixture. When I opened the lid of the bowl next morning, I found the dizzy fruits nicely soaked in brandy. I added a little more brandy to the fruits that evening and let it rest. The dry fruits should be left in liquor ideally for a week, I could manage only five days. Each evening I would check the fruits eagerly as they were swelling up in warm brandy happiness.

Though I came across many recipes, where they just simmer the dry fruits with booze, butter and sugar, pre-soaking the fruits for 5 to 7 days or more gives a better flavor.

On D day, Sunday the 22nd I embarked upon the task of baking Christmas cakes. I was little nervous, but the end result was quite satisfying. Here’s how I baked my Christmas cake…

Oven ready batter
  • Steps
  • Chop all the dry fruits and soak them in brandy or rum. Mix a heaped spoon apricot jam to it. Leave it for a week or more. Add some more after a few days as the fruits will soak up the booze.
  • Preheat the oven to gas mark 2/150°C/130°C Fan/300°F). Line the sides and bottom of a deep round cake tin with a double layer of greaseproof paper (parchment paper) or foil paper. The greaseproof should be higher than the sides of the tin. It will keep the cake from becoming too dark around the sides and top. You can use deep cake moulds as well
  • Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda and the spices. Sift the mixture
  • In a saucepan add softened butter and sugar (You may want to melt the butter & sugar and allow it to cool as it’s difficult to soften butter in winter). In a separate bowl beat 3 eggs. Now, add the beaten eggs to butter & sugar and beat till fluffy. Fold in soaked dry fruits and flour. Add lemon juice and honey.
  • Pour the fruit cake mixture very carefully into the prepared cake tin or cake moulds.
  • Place in the oven and bake for 1 hour 10 mins, by which time the top of the cake should be firm and dry and will have cracked a little. If you insert a cake tester into the middle of the cake it will still come out a little sticky.
  • Put the cake on a cooling rack Unmould it from the tin and wrap the cake well in a layer of greaseproof paper and then foil
  • You can store the cake for a couple of months well wrapped and in a cool dark place. If you want more boozy flavour you can feed the cake with 3 tablespoons more brandy/rum as soon as it gets out of the oven. Just pierce the top of the cake several times with a fine skewer, spoon over the rum and let it sink in.

The cake was quite a hit and there was complete Christmas spirit in the office. Abhishek baked red velvet muffins whole Manaswi surprised us with chocolate muffins.

Abhishek & Manaswi with red velvet & chocolate muffin

The Diwali Hangover

Delhi and most of North India is still hung over from the Diwali revelries. The end of four-day partying, drinking and other festivities does leave a vacuum, on top of it the trauma of returning to work. The depressing fog caused by post Diwali pollution and crop burning doesn’t make things any easier.

Diwali in Jaipur
Photo courtesy Riti Chakraborty

Diwali or Deepavali or the Festival of Light is the most important festival in India, celebrated across the country with much pomp and show. According to Hindu mythology, Diwali is celebrated to commemorate the homecoming of Lord Rama after vanquishing Ravana. To celebrate the victory of Rama over Ravana and welcome their king back home along with Lakshmana and Sita, people of Ayodhya lit up the city with earthen lamps, diyas

As per another popular belief, Lord Krishna killed the Demon Narakasura, the evil king of Pragjyotishapura, near present-day Assam and released 16000 girls captivated by Narakasura. In Karnataka Diwali is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdasi, triumph of good over evil, observing Lord Krishna’s victory over Narakasura. Interestingly, both Rama and Krishna are incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

Across north India, Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha are worshipped on the night of Diwali. Houses are cleaned and lit up. Though artificial lights are more popular nowadays, people still light diyas. New clothes, feasts, card parties, rangoli, flower decoration, crackers are important part of Diwali celebrations. However, there are lot of variations even here. For Marwaris it’s not just Lakshmi and Ganesha, they worship gold and silver coins on the night of Diwali. “Every Dhanteras we buy coins and add to our existing collection that are kept in the puja room or asana along with the deities. We worship Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha, and these coins on Diwali night,” says my Marwari friend Poonam. Largely a trader community, Marwari’s observe Bahi Khata Visarjan on Diwali (closing the old ledger and opening a new one). Thus, Diwali marks the beginning of a new financial year for this community. Marwaris also light up diyas with different oils on each day. “On Dhanteras we light up diyas with ghee, on Choti Diwali sarso ke tel ke diya and on the day of Diwali we light up diyas with teel tel.” says Poonam.

For us Bengalis, Diwali is about Kali Pujo. We worship the fearsome incarnation of Durga on the dark Diwali night. We do follow the tradition of decorating the house with diyas and lighting crackers. After moving to Delhi, I started buying clay idols of Lakshmi and Ganesh and decorating the house with flowers on Diwali. Assimilating whatever appeals to us, brings about a feeling of positivity, that’s the beauty of our traditions!

Jaisalmer

In Rajasthan, Diwali is a five day affair that starts with Dhanteras and ends with Bhai Dooj. Diwali in the cities of Rajasthan is an unforgettable experience. I was in Jaisalmer this Diwali, the golden city lit up with diyas was a sight to see. Diwali in Jaipur is a grand affair.

City Palace Jaipur
Photo courtesy Riti Chakraborty

The appeal of Diwali goes beyond religion. It’s a festival which has different cultural connotations, yet the spirit of festivity and optimism is something that is celebrated across the country, amongst different communities, a festival that is eagerly awaited each year!!

Ma Lokkhi: Worshipping the Golden Goddess on Sharad Purnima or Kojagari Purnima

Ma Lokkhi
Image courtesy http://www.kumartuli.com

Goddess Lakshmi, is she the milder manifestation of Durga or is she her daughter? There are various interpretations in Hinduism. Durga – also knowns as Parvati or Kali (in more awe-inspiring form) and, Lakshmi & Saraswathi are considered to be Tridevi in Shaktism. They are the consorts of the Trimurti – Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and Saraswathi the goddess of learning, are the milder manifestations of Adi Parashakti, Devi. We Bengali’s however consider Lakshmi and Saraswathi to be daughters of Durga. Daughters are manifestations of their mothers anyway, so I don’t see a problem with either interpretation.

In Bengal and other eastern states Lakshmi or Kojagari Lokkhi is worshiped on the full moon night that falls after Dashami or Dussehra. On Diwali, when Lakshmi and Ganesha are worshipped in North India, we worship the formidable Kali on Amavasya – the night of the new moon. Since this is the month of the Goddesses, Shakti or women power, I decided to pen a post on the apparently mild and quiet Goddess Lakshmi or Ma Lokkhi.

She is the goddess of wealth and prosperity, hence she is worshipped and sought after by all. Traditions may be different, rituals may vary, but Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped by Hindus, Buddhist and Jains across India. And don’t go by her benign smile and her quiet grace, she is one of the most whimsical goddesses’. Known as chanchala she doesn’t reside is one place for long. She needs to be constantly sought after, worshipped. She maybe seen sitting quietly at the feet of her consort Vishnu but don’t mistake her for an obedient wife. While Vishnu is all for Dharma, Lakshmi will grant her blessings on whoever she pleases. She doesn’t care if her devotee is an asura or a sinner. We all know that the demon king Ravana lived in a majestic palace made of solid gold.

Gachkouto

In Bengal, this whimsical Goddess is worshipped on the night of Sharad Purnima or Kojagari Purnima. Ma Lokkhi is worshipped in pandals that lie lonely after the departure of Ma Durga and in most Bengali households. Her presence brings back the festive cheer, fills the vacuum that we feel once the four-day Durgotsav comes to an end. Ma Lokkhi, we worship has two hands. Dressed in red, with a benevolent smile she comes riding an owl, holding a gachkouto (red coloured pot filled with sindoorand a silver coin) in one hand and blessing us with the other. The golden goddess is known for her beauty, her aura lights up the world.

Alpana
Image courtesy boldsky.com

Lokkhi Pujo was an important part of my growing up years. I remember going to the market with my uncle and cousins to pick up the most beautiful idol of the goddess. The house would be cleaned, we would put rangoli or alpana with rice powder paste all over the house. Feet of Ma Lokkhi would be drawn at each doorstep to ensure that the Goddess visits the household. The elaborate bhog would consist of nariyal naru, chirer moya, fruits, sweets, lucchi, khichdi, labra, chutney and kheer, and of course pan supuri (beetle leaves & nuts). Mom would decorate the vedi with flowers, a kalash with nariyal and amra pallab (nascent mango leaves) would be placed before the Goddess. The room would be decorated with alpana and flowers.

Mom and other aunts would wear fresh clothes, usually a red sari, comb their hair, put on sindoor, bindi and alta (red dye applied on the feet). Ma Lokkhi likes cleanliness, she likes well-dressed people, she likes peace and quiet. Fearing that the goddess may flee at the sight of anything untidy the whole house would be cleaned and decked up. As a little girl I would excitedly watch the preparations of the pujo, helping with the decorations and alpana. I would beg mom to put some alta on my feet and she would eventually oblige. Ladies of the house would observe fast on the day of the pujo that would be broken with Chipitak Bhakhan (coconut water and chire) after the pujo. Though the bhog laid out for the goddess is vegetarian, married women are supposed to eat fish after the pujo. According to Hindu mythology the goddess visits her devotes only very late at night, so we would wait up for her.

Though I have stayed away from home for a while, not been part of Lokkhi Pujo in years, I feel the same excitement on the day of the Pujo. I am not greedy for riches; I pray to Ma Lokkhi to bless me with enough wealth, wisdom and strength to take care of myself and those around me!

Shobho Bijoya Dhashami: Bidding Adieu to the Mother Goddess

Photo courtesey Sanjay Kumar Roy

Bijoya Dashami! Time to bid adieu to Goddess Durga, the all-powerful Mother. The day brings back memories of Dadur Barir Durga Pujo (Puja at my maternal grand father’s ancestral home). Ladies would gather before the Durga idol since morning, feeding her sweets, wiping her tears with pan (beetle leaves), trying to catch a glimpse of her feet in the water. This would be followed by Shidhur Khela – married women smearing each other with red sindoor. Once the rituals of Dhashami Pujo was complete the male members would get the Ek Chalar Durga Pratima out of the huge puja ghar. Every year the puja ghar would be decorated and a vedi would be made for Ma Durga and her children. Getting the idol down from the vedi and out of the puja ghar took a lot of maneuvering.

Ma Durga would be then placed in the huge courtyard. Sound of dhak, kashor, ghanta, conch, smell of dhoop would fill the atmosphere. The whole extended family danced around Durga, teary eyed – ‘Aami daaki ma ma, mai toh kane shone na’ (I keep calling out to Mother, but she has turned a deaf ear to me).

Finally, time to let go. The idol of the Goddess would be immersed in the pond that lay at the backside of the courtyard. Ma Durga along with her entourage being lifted deftly and carried to the pond, following the procession eagerly with a heavy heart, scampering for her jewelry and her weapons as the Goddess was immersed in the water, crying out loud as the Mother Goddess let herself be devoured by the water body…

Those were the pre-mobile camera days. Unfortunately, I have no photographs to share but the images are firmly etched in my memory…

Shobho Bijoya Dhashami, may Devi grant us wisdom and peace of mind!