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Where fish is the food of the gods

In temples across Odisha, Bengal, Maharashtra and Kerala, fish is served as a ritualistic offering to please the gods

Some temples, like Kamakhya in Assam, have a tradition of matsya bali, ritualistic sacrifice of fish. (Istockphoto)
Some temples, like Kamakhya in Assam, have a tradition of matsya bali, ritualistic sacrifice of fish. (Istockphoto)

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In West Bengal, where the fierce tantric deity Kali is worshipped as the benevolent mother goddess, familial sentiments often sneak into the scheme of ritualistic mandates. So she is often fed, just like a dear one would be, dishes that reflect the food of her devotees. That includes fish, prawn and crab.

In Maharashtra, the Kolis, a traditional fishing community, particularly in the Panchpandhari area, offer rawas (Indian salmon) at the shrines of their guardian deity, Khem, on Shimga (Holi of the Konkans), writes researcher Anuja Patwardhan in her 2020 essay, Deities Of Child-Birth From Dapoli Tehsil, Ratnagiri District.

At the Parassinikadavu Madappura Muthappan Temple in Kerala’s Kannur district, the edibles offered to Lord Muthappan, the hunter god, include toddy, arrack and dried fish burnt on coconut leaves—food associated with the marginalised indigenous communities and a marked departure from Brahmanical diets. Here, fish and liquor underscore the temple’s anti-caste ethos.

Fish, indeed seafood, has been an integral part of ritualistic cuisine for eons. Within the Hindu belief system, fish has been accorded immense symbolic significance, with origins in pre-Hindu totemic systems of beliefs. In the tantric tradition, matsya is one of the panchamakara, or five sacraments, starting with the letter “ma” used in tantric practices—the others being mamsa (meat), madya (alcohol), mudra (parched grains) and maithuna (coition).

At the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, Odisha, fish from the sacred Markanda temple tank is offered to the presiding goddess, Vimala, on Durga ashtami. This ritual is rooted in the temple’s lesser-known history as a sacred seat of tantric tradition.

Bapi Mudali, a priest at the Jagannatha Temple, says, “The fish is not brought into the temple through the temple’s main four dwaras (gateways) but through a smaller gateway designated for the purpose.” These stipulations are clearly incorporated to align the tantric rite with the Vaishnav insistence on vegetarianism. The fish—khoinga, or flathead grey mullet—is prepared without onion and garlic into a besara, a dish cooked with mustard paste, adds Mudali.

At the Chausath Yogini Temple in Hirapur, near Bhubaneswar, daily offerings comprise rice, fruits and khoya. “However, on Durga ashtami, incinerated fish is a mandatory offering,” says Sujata Shukla Rajan, author of Bhog Naivedya: Food Offerings To The Gods. “The fish is roasted on an open flame till it is charred/burnt. The skin is then peeled away and the flesh is mashed, mixed with mustard oil, chilli and salt,” adds Rajan. The technique of roasting may be a pointer to the antiquity of these rituals and their tribal origins.

At the Varahi Temple at Bali Sahi, Puri, the presiding deity is a four-armed goddess with a fish in one hand. She is worshipped by Brahmin priests but with non-vegetarian food, particularly fish. At the Baliharchandi Temple in Brahmagiri, fish from Chilika Lake, cooked in mustard gravy, is part of daily offerings.

Some temples have a tradition of matsya bali, ritualistic sacrifice of fish. At the Kamakhya Temple in Assam, one of the most important seats of shakta tantrism, magura (catfish) is one of the five stipulated as part of panchabali (five sacrifices) ritual. The Kalika Purana says Kali is fond of the silver-scaled rohita/rohu (Labeo rohita, also considered a fertility symbol), which will delight her “for three hundred years”, though the mother goddess is typically associated with dark-skinned bottom feeders like sole, lata (spotted snakehead), magura and boal (wallago attu).

At the five-century-old temple of Raghu Dakat, the notorious robber turned devotee, in Bengal’s Bansberia, he is said to have offered roasted lata maach to the goddess, a tradition that carries on. Incinerated fish, especially shol (striped snakehead), is offered in temples like Tarapith in Birbhum district, while in Bishnupur, the ancient tantric deity Mrinmoyee is honoured with a mandatory daily offering of snakeheads, locally called chang, in a pot of yogurt.

As Andrea Gutiérrez writes in the essay Medieval Food As Deity Worship, published in The Routledge Handbook Of Hindu Temples, “Hindu deities were always considered to be reigning sovereigns and persons, ‘both sensual and corporeal’, eligible for marriage and requiring food, sustenance and nurture, just as family members are,” through the gifting of food.

So, at the 16th century shrine of Rajballavi—the white-skinned incarnation of Kali—in Rajbalhat town in Bengal’s Hooghly district, the goddess is mandatorily offered ghanto, or a mishmash of leafy greens and vegetables with tiny prawns locally called ghusho chingri—it’s believed to be her favourite food.

At the Chuno-Biley Kali Temple in Bardhaman, the goddess is worshipped as the protector of small fish, chuno maach. A mix of 12 kinds of small fish, like khoira, sona khorke and mourola, is deep-fried, curried or cooked in tart sauce and offered at bhog, to solicit the goddess’ protection.

Fish is also offered to Shiva, usually in temples dedicated to Bhairav, the terrifying form of Shiva whose imagery bears clear signs of the deity’s tribal origins. “At the Laat Bhairo Temple in Kashi (Uttar Pradesh), on some days, fried fish is offered to the deity (Shiva) in addition to curd, jaggery and horse beans fried in oil, a substitute for meat in the mortuary rites,” write Sunthar and Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam in Bhairava In Banaras: Negotiating Sacred Space And Religious Identity (2006).

The Kularnava Tantra says, “Matsamana sarva bhute sukha duhkhamidam priye iti yat sattvika jnanam tan matsya parikirtitam (To offer fish in worship means to perceive Me (Shiva) equally in all and accept the duality of life like pleasure and pain with equanimity, by being established in pure knowledge).”

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.

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