The three edibles offered to Goddess Durga as part of the conventional shodashopachara (16-step) puja are Paramanna (supreme food), described in ritualistic incantations as cow milk mixed with ghee and assorted sweeteners, pishtaka, or sweet cakes and modaka, sweet balls made of assorted ingredients followed by paniyam jalam (drinking water). But the role of sweets or mishti in Durga Puja goes beyond ritual offering.
In pujo pandals, hundreds of sweet boxes are piled high in front of the goddess brought as offering by devotees. At the community bhog tables, the thin paayesh runs wild on sal-leaf plates. During the poignant Baran, or farewell, rituals, a morsel of sandesh is pressed against the lips of the idols to mark a moment of bitter-sweet goodbye. And, later, after immersion festivities, there’s the ritual of mishti mukh (sweetening of the mouth) on Vijaya Dashami (Dussehra). It is safe to say that sweet is the dominant note of pujo festivities.
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Bengal has an age-old tradition of making sugar candy lumps, famously called monda (from mondo or mound) of different kinds, and sugar confections like batasha and kodma. At home, simple sweets are prepared with easily available ingredients like coconut, jaggery or sugar, legumes, flaked, puffed and popped rice, as well as rice flour. They are shaped into nadu (round confections), takti (fudge) deep-fried pastries like khaja and goja, to offer to the goddess.
In Kolkata, aristocratic households known as bonedi baris, organise pujo for public viewing, and Durga is treated to an exciting array of sweets. At Pathuriaghata’s illustrious Ghosh household, curious sugar structures called Mata Chini are brought in from Varanasi and are ritually sacrificed on Ashtami, the eighth and most significant day of Durga Puja. The sweets made at home as offering to the Goddess also use mata chini (course unrefined sugar), instead of regular refined sugar.
At the Moulik household in North Kolkata’s Bangur area, pithey (rice cakes) is mandatory on Saptami (seventh day of Durga Puja) and Ashtami. The tradition at the Mouliks’ two-centuries-old Durga Puja is perhaps rooted in its erstwhile East Bengali heritage. Originally from Faridpur in present-day Bangladesh, the Mouliks arrived in Kolkata as refugees, in 1971. “But my grandfather-in-law continued the family’s tradition of performing Durga Puja here,” says Showli Chakraborty, a daughter-in-law of the house. “We make Dudh Chitoi Pitha, or steamed rice pancakes stew in sweetened milk, on Saptami. On Ashtami there’s Dudh Puli, rice-flour dumplings with coconut and jaggery filling, in sweet thickened milk,” she adds.
On the other hand, 99-year-old Ava Rani Ghosh who married into the famed Ghosh Bari of Karanjali in South 24 Parganas still remembers spending hours making narkel chhapa and kheerer takti. These are sweetmeats laced with coconut and sweetened condensed milk and made in intricately carved, burnt clay molds. “Each chhaach or mold is unique. My grandmother designed them personally decades ago,” says Ghosh’s granddaughter Mandira Mitra, who has inherited some of them.
Sweets often takes centre stage at some of the old aristocratic households of Calcutta, where cooked food is not-offered to the Goddess in accordance with age-old caste diktats that accords the right to ritualistic offering cooked rice only to Brahmins. Tirthankar Krishna Deb, of the Shovabazar’s illustrious Deb family, Kayastha by caste, tells me about a unique motichoor, which unlike the usual saffron motichoor are white (like a pearl) and a vast array of deep-fried sweet pastries like peraki stuffed with cinnamon-scented kheer, brick-shaped chouko gaja, small stick-like katkati, sweet mithey gaja and more that are offered to the Goddess at Sovabazar Rajbari.
At the Laha Bari, another famous North Calcutta bonedi household, a range of nadu made with sesame seeds, coconut, semolina, refined flour and moong dal are prepared in addition to other ghee-leavened, deep-fried pastries like the betel-leaf shaped paan gaja, the tongue-shaped jibey gaja, and more.
Luxurious sweets infused with premium ingredients were once also a display of wealth and prosperity at these erstwhile aristocratic families. Some of their past glory still shines through the special treats they offer to the mother goddess. For instance, at Pathuriaghata’s Ghosh Bari, a delicate kheer or runny milk pudding laced with expensive sandalwood, called Chandana Kheer, is offered to the Goddess. On certain days saffron-tinged rabdi, another indulgent dessert, is prepared during Durga puja.
"Rabdi is an almost mandatory offering, on Ashtami and Navami, in most bonedi households, especially among the Survarnabanik (gold merchants) community in Kolkata,” says Sudipta Dhar whose family’s Durga Puja, started by his forefather Purnenduchandra Dhar, a nineteenth-century salt merchant, turns 160 years old this year. At the Dhar residence in central Kolkata, sweets like the bonder laddoo with a sugary crust, gaja and malpua were made at home, till about a decade ago, by professional confectioners. Nowadays, the sweets are supplied by different North Kolkata sweet shops. “In fact, quite a few families now source their sweetmeats, made to order, from Kolkata’s old sweet shops like Makhanlal and Nalin Chandra Das Sweets,” says Dhar.
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“Bonedi households have been ordering from us for a long time,” says Sayan Das, the sixth-generation owner of the nearly two centuries old Makhanlal Das & Sons Sweets. “We ensure ritual purity in our kitchen, not even alliums (considered non-vegetarian) are allowed inside,” adds Das. Makhanlal rides on the strength of old-school mishti, some of which are as old as the shop itself.
“Talshash (chhena-based sandesh shaped like palm hearts) or jalbhara (talshash with a liquid syrup or jaggery centre) and chandrapuli, delicate crescent-shaped sweet made with coconut and khoya (milk solids) and stamped with ornamental design, are two mandatory sweetmeats that are a part of the Bhog offerings in most Bonedi households we cater to,” says Das. Besides, Makhanlal’s signature chhena-based sandesh, like the chironji seed-infused Parijat, saffron-flavoured Dilkhush and the delicate Rose Cream sandesh are other favourites, usually served to the scores of guests who partake in the lavish meals in these homes during the pujas. “We send out a special order of our shawrer roll for the famous Roys of Behala where Durga is being worshipped since 1756. These mishtis are saffron-tinged rolls made with shawr (milk skin) piled in layers and allowed to rest until firm,” says Das.
Sudip Mullick, owner of Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mallick sweet shop, another Durga Puja favourite, says the kheer kodom– tiny dense balls of cottage cheese oozing golden, caramelized syrup, encased in a sweetened condensed milk dough and rolled in grated khoya—is made to resemble the bulbous inflorescence of the Kadam tree. “We also make Chandrapuli and Khaja (layered, ghee-leavened pastries) only during this time,” says Mullick. This year, their Pujo offerings include the saffron-flavoured Agomoni sandesh stamped with the impression of a rising sun and Benarasi paan-flavoured fudge sandesh.
At another famous sweet shop named Girish Ch Dey & Nakur Ch. Nandy, this year’s Pujo specials are the seasonal custard apple sandesh and saffron kanchagolla (soft, chhena-based sandesh). While traditional sweets are in great demand during Pujo, their new age fusion and flavoured sandesh are equally popular. Proprietor Rana Nandy says, “People want to offer their personal favourites to Maa Durga,” which underscores a sentiment that is central to Durga Puja in Bengal: one of deep familial affection for a beloved daughter who comes to her parental home only once a year. She must be treated to the best this land has to offer—from age-old monda mithai to sassy, new age fusion mishtis.
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Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.