There is a beautiful serendipitous thing about Bengalis getting together anytime after Mahalaya. The discussion invariably becomes about Durga Pujo and steadily and surely finds its way towards bhog. One such animated discussion a couple of weeks ago, among friends, who are all food enthusiasts, led to us sharing the nitty-gritties of bhog offered to Durga and ritualistic feasts eaten in our families during the five days of pujo. The variations are mind boggling. It is not for nothing that it is called the ‘Maha Puja’, the most complex of them all.
An interesting detail that emerged was that in a lot of Bengali families, particularly those who trace their origin to erstwhile East Bengal or Bangladesh, it is customary to offer a bhog of fish to the Goddess on Dashami, the last day of the festival. The same can be seen in some Shakta sects in Assam and Odisha. The presiding goddess, Vimala, of the Vimala Temple located within the Jagannath Temple complex in Puri too is offered fish from the sacred Markanda temple tank, cooked and offered, as per Tantric rituals during Durga Puja.
Besides the glistening silver hilsa or the rohu, it is mostly scaleless, dark-skinned bottom feeders such as the snakehead murrel (shol in Bengali), spotted snakehead (chang/taki), and wallago catfish (boal) that are offered. Dashami is traditionally the last day of the hilsa-eating season and Bengalis sign off on their favourite fish with an offering to their favourite goddess. They send off both on the same day with the hope of 'ashchhe bochor agar hobe' or 'till next year'. To find an answer to why the dark-skinned bottom feeders are offered, we will have to understand the origins of both the myth of Durga and that of the significance of fish in Bengal.
Durga’s origins are embedded in the indigenous pre-Aryan cultures of India. The Vedas or Vedic traditions have no mention of her; neither does the Ramayana or the Manusmriti. In fact there is no mention of the warrior goddess in any literature or epigraphic writing till 5th century A.D., except for two mentions in the Mahabharata, where she is described as the dark-skinned, four-headed, four-handed maiden from the Savara tribe from Vindhya mountains (Vindhyavasini), who slayed the demon Mahisasura.
The Savara are an ancient indigenous tribe from eastern India, now mostly found in Odisha. It is only towards the end of 7th century or beginning of the 8th century A.D. that poet Vakapati in his poem Gaudavaho Kavya describe Vindhyavasini in a dual form—the dark-skinned, wine and blood-loving, non-Aryan Kali and the Vedic Parvati. So, along the process of evolution, assertion and assimilation, the maiden warrior Durga of the hill tribes became the Vedic Durga, married off to Shiva and made a mother of four by the Brahminic order.
As we are aware, while new religions and religious orders develop and grow, they assimilate and rework the existing symbols and pictures of an older historical period of religion. As the Vedic Durga emerged from the Savara Vindhyavasini, she carried with her the pre-Vedic spiritual significance that indigenous cultures in Bengal and other Eastern states attached to the fish.
Socio-anthropological evidence as old as the ones from various pre-Dravidians, indigenous tribes suggest that fish, which was an important article of diet, formed an important totem in these indigenous cultures. It was considered a temporary seat for the departed soul before it attained release from the mortal realms. This symbolism was assimilated by Vedic traditions, and thus scaled, surface or middle-dwelling fish became an important symbol of life and fertility; and scaleless bottom feeders became associated with departed souls.
Even in the tantric practice, fish (matsya) is considered one of the five panchakaras, and the two above mentioned varieties are considered to be a favourite of the Devi. In a more allegorical way, the twin fish represents the channel through which life flows.
It is in an amalgamation of this symbolism that fish ended up becoming a bhog offering to Durga during the pujo rituals. While the silver, scaled fishes are said to be a favourite of Gauri, the scaleless ones are favoured by Kali. Durga as we now know is an assertion of these dual forms.
While a hilsa or rohu is offered as curry or in fried form, the bottom-feeding, single boned fish are roasted over the fire in a mud oven or chulha and offered as bhog. In some families, the chulha is made in a corner of the pandal or thakurdalan (the courtyard where the deity resides) where the fish is roasted and offered to the Goddess before the idol is taken for submersion on Dashami. In a folkloric symbolism, married women who represent the mortal mothers, eat the fish bhog and do the 'baran' before sending off the daughter to her husband Shiva, at the end of five days of festivities. The roasted fish here is believed to keep all evil eyes at bay and keep the daughter safe in her journey back to Kailasha.
In its spiritual allegory, the goddess, who is invited to take on her 'mrittika' form for the five days of workshop, is released from it to her spiritual sphere by an offering of fish that is symbolic of a seat of the soul—the conduit between the mortal and the spiritual.
Shol Maachh Pora
Whole snakehead murrel (cleaned, gutted and without head) 250 gms
Finely julienned young ginger 1 tbsp
Freshly cracked black pepper 1/2 tsp
Rock salt, to taste
Juice of one small lime
Mustard oil, 2 tbsp and 1 tsp
Wash and pat the fish dry. Smear it with 1 teaspoon of mustard oil.
Roast over a grill or open fire till both sides are evenly cooked through and the skin is charred.
Scrape off the skin as much as possible, debone and flake the fish.
Mix the rest of the ingredients and toss well.
Serve with hot, steamed rice, or add some fresh cilantro and serve over crackers, or between tacos.