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  Festive feasts in India – a closer look into Bengal
 With the onset of the autumn, the festive season in India and especially Bengal starts. And with festivals come food and delicacies in their most traditional forms.
Festivals in Bengal are marked with eating and not by restraint like most of its counterparts around India. They are a time of boundless enthusiasm and community participation. Whether it is a harvest festival like Nabanna, a form of thanksgiving for the bountiful produce or bigger festivals like the Durga Puja, the enthusiasm is at all times matched with beaming faces and a platter full of time-honored fare.
In Bengal, almost always the festivities are associated with the aroma of food whether it is that of puffy luchis and fragrant chholar dal (split peas) spiced with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cardamom or the sweet-scented rice pudding with its pink-brown creaminess that melts in the mouth. Offerings made to the gods and referred to as bhog are an important part of all pujas and more so in those with large scale community involvement like the Durga Puja of Bengal. A typical Bengali bhog comprises of delicious Bengali preparations like khichuri, chorchori, chutney, beguni/begun bhaja, luchi, payesh, mishti doi or roshogolla. Apart from the customary vegetarian fare even meat is offered to the goddess. Once the food is ritually offered and supposedly accepted by her, the very nature of the offering is transformed. This in turn is distributed to the devotees thereby serving its dual purpose.
Besides the traditional fare, the rich spread of Kolkata’s street food becomes visible in all its glory during the festivities. Whether it be the alur chop (potato cutlets), Mughlai porota, fish fry or the omnipresent ghoogni, the areas adjoining the pandals are chock-a-block with temporary outlets rustling up a quick meal for the onlookers. Another common sight during the annual Durga puja celebrations is the colourful dresses and roads and by lanes teeming with pandal hoppers. People throng the temporary enclosures where the Goddess is enshrined i.e the pandals round the clock. The celebration is inevitably noisy, chaotic and above all public.
The long standing attachment to food does not end with that of Vijaya Dashami that marks the end of the Durga Puja celebrations in Bengal. What follows immediately afterwards is the tradition of Bijoya, which stretches up to the next fortnight up to Diwali. “Bijoya” literally means victory, that of the Mother Goddess over the demon king Mahishasura.
Subhashree Ray, Sr. Executive/Tourism/CO
People visit the houses of their neighbours, friends, next to kin and family to offer respect and exchange Subho Bijoya greetings. While men hug men (Kolakuli), juniors touch the feet of adults but most importantly people eat homemade sweets like naaru (grated coconut laddoos), moa (jaggery and puffed rice balls) and savouries like ghoogni (white peas in gravy), nimki (salty deep fried munchies), vegetable chop (cutlets) and make merry. Beyond these individual exchanges of pleasantries are the community get-togethers and meals also known as “Bijoya Sammelani”. The spread includes decadent regional culinary fare like Kosha Mangsho (slow cooked meat), luchi and so on. A whole community bonds over food.
Lakshmi puja follows shortly after five days after Vijaya Dashami on the full moon night of the Sharad (Autumn). The day is also known as Kojagori Purnima. It is celebrated across households in Bengal with floors decorated with alpona (ritualistic art of Bengal akin to rangoli) and the aroma of freshly grated coconut based sweets with which the devotees welcome Kojagori Lakshmi into their homes. While khichuri, labra, beguni, paanch rokom bhaja, chutney are the classic puja offerings in a Ghoti (original inhabitants of West Bengal) household, hilsa is the savior for the Bangals (East Bengal).
The new moon night after the Lakshmi puja, is the Kali puja in Bengal. This coincides with Diwali – the festival of lights when the entire nation gets into a celebratory mood yet again. With fairy lights and diyas in the backdrop, Goddess Kali is worshipped in the dead of the night. And like any other Bengali festival, food is an inseparable part of the worship. Alongside traditional bhog, niramish (vegetarian) mutton curry is a unique part of the offering. The meat of the sacrificial goat is cooked without using onion and garlic but in a traditional spice mix comprising of coriander – cumin – chilli – turmeric– ginger and garam masala. This forms a distinctive aspect of the Kali Puja.
The Bengali saying of “Baro Mashe tero parbon” meaning 12 months with 13 festivals only indicates the abundance of festivities in the state. However, the Kali Puja marks the closure of the major festive season for the year as the countdown for the New Year starts. Nonetheless with an undying spirit that is so characteristic of the state and a “asche bochor abar hobe” the Bengalis move on with a hope of celebrating the year ahead with a even larger gusto.
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