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Diwali 2022: Do you know of the many forms of Lakshmi in Bengal?

In West Bengal, the goddess is worshipped at different times of the year, with each ritual closely related to the harvest of paddy

Detail from the Coin of Azilises showing Gaja Lakshmi standing on a lotus;  coins of Gandhara, 1st century BCE. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Detail from the Coin of Azilises showing Gaja Lakshmi standing on a lotus; coins of Gandhara, 1st century BCE. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Historian Niharanjan Ray wrote in Bangalir Itihaas (1949), "We know of a form of Lakshmi in our folkloric and popular culture, and her worship is widely prevalent amongst Bengali women. This form of Lakshmi stems from the agrarian society; she is the presiding deity of agricultural abundance and prosperity." In the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, especially in Bengal, the goddess is worshipped at different times of the year across the state, with each ritual closely related to the harvest of paddy. Her ways of worship change with the different regions that make up Bengal. At times, these ways bear the imprints of Brahminical rituals but the mythology and folklore unequivocally point towards an agrarian origin of the practice.

Kojagori Lokkhi Pujo

Among the Bengalis, who trace their origin to the erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Lakshmi or Lokkhi, as she is called, is worshipped during Kojagori Lokkhi Pujo on sharad purnima. Post the Partition of Bengal, with most Bengali Hindus shifting to India, Kohjagori Lokkhi Pujo gradually became a common festival across Hindu households in Bengal and Assam. Besides the eastern states, one also sees worship of Lakshmi in Maharashtra on sharad purnima. She is worshipped on the full moon night in the Hindu month of Ashwin, just when the autumn paddy, aus dhan, and the Rabi moong beans begin to turn golden.

Though commonly, she is considered synonymous with one of the forms of Ashtalakshmi, the Goddess Lokkhi Thakur is different from the Puranic Dhanyalakshmi. This is evident from the iconography. Puranic Dhanyalakshmi has eight hands and is clad in green unlike the two-armed, red saree-clad Bengali Lokkhi Thakur. Her agrarian origin is evident as unlike the codified rituals of Brahminical worship, vast differences exist in rituals across households and sub-regions. 

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Also, she is predominantly worshipped by women, often without Brahminical mediation. Her origin as symbol of agrarian fertility existed until recently in Bangladesh and was evident in rituals such as ‘Kojagorir Magon’, in which Hindu and Muslim children went from house to house’ singing rhymes and asking for grains and food’ on the night of Kojagori.

A closer look at the food or naivedyam offered to Ma Lokkhi further reveals her close links with the agrarian system. The prasad focuses heavily on popped rice, puffed rice, moong beans, sesame, five kinds of sprouted grains and legumes, among others. Two interesting offerings point towards Lokkhi Thakur’s association of fertility. In many households, she is offered silver-scaled freshwater fish, ideally 'pnuti' (pool barb) or rohu (labeo rohita). 

These fish are considered symbols of fertility. In most households, fish is no longer part of the naivedyam but women of the household eat fish as prasad with the other cooked bhog to complete the ritual of worship. The omission of fish from the main offering came about due to the spread of Vaishnavism in Bengal, which led to the rise of vegetarianism in ritualistic offerings. Lokkhi is also offered the sponge-like cotyledons of the Palmyra palm and coconut, called phopor. These are embryos found inside the matured fruits, symbolic of fertility and germination.

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Garui or Garsi Sankranti

Kojagori Purnima is not the only time when Ma Lokkhi is ritualistically welcomed into Bengali households. The last day of the Bengali month of Aashsin—‘Aashsiner Sankranti’—is when, women in erstwhile East Bengal or now Bangladesh, mostly from the districts of Sylhet, Comilla, Mymensingh and Chittagong, did the Garsi/Gaswi Brata or Garui Sankranti Brata. Anthropologists and folklorists say that Garui was done by women across religious lines, though it is now restricted to the rural Hindu community who trace their roots to erstwhile East Bengal. Garui Sankranti was essentially a fumigation ritual in the post-monsoon, humid landscape of Bengal to protect the autumn paddy. This later got merged with the worship of Ma Lokkhi.

At the crack of dawn women take bath with a paste of raw turmeric, neem, giloy and ivy gourd leaves mixed with mustard oil. An earthen pot full of water with a few drops of mustard oil is placed at the base of the holy basil. A bamboo ‘kulo’ or tray with homemade sweets, fruits, vermillion and pinch of salt is offered to Garsi. Women sing, “Let the evil go, let the good come; Let Lakshmi drive away Alakshmi / Go, flies and mosquitoes, fly away; Leave our home and go to whosoevers,” inviting Lakshmi into their homes while urging her antithesis, Alokkhi to leave. At dusk, the pot and the kulo with the salt is submerged in water. Bunches of twigs of jute or dry paddy are lit outside homes and in fields. Women sing, “Aashsin goes, Kartik (month) comes/Along comes Ma Lokkhi”.

Similar to Kojagori, the food offerings point towards an agrarian, pre-Puranic origin of Lokkhi. Legumes feature heavily in the offerings. The use of foraged vegetables and millets symbolise the ethos of letting mother nature rest before the winter paddy or amon dhan would be harvested.

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Deepannita Lokkhi Pujo

While East Bengal worships her on Kojagori, Bengalis with ancestral roots in West Bengal worship Ma Lokkhi on the night of Diwali, called the Deepannita (harbinger of light) Lokkhi Pujo. While the worship of Ma Lokkhi on this night, alongside Ganesh and Kuber, largely follows the Brahminical ritualistic worship in accordance with the Lakshmi Puja in the north and west of the country, her iconography is of the Bengali Dhanyalakhmi. The ritual, essential to Deepannita Lokkhi pujo, is ‘Alokkhi bidaay’ or ‘sending off Alokkhi’. Offerings are made to Alokkhi outside the premises of the house urging her to leave.

Interestingly, three mounds of rice flour dough, coloured green, yellow and red are placed on a layer of the banana pith. This is similar to the grain-filled boats, made of banana pith, during the Kojagori Lokkhi Pujo. This ritual still exists in other forms in various eastern states and points to its earlier folk origin. In Odisha, banana pith boats are put to sail in the wee hours of dawn on Kartika Purnima in rivers, lakes and ponds at home. This symbolises the maritime trade heritage and is called “Boita Bandana'' or sanctifying of boats. 

The coloured mounds are still prevalent as forms of Lokkhi in women-centric rituals of worship, weddings and birth. As Abanindranath Thakur wrote in Banglar Bratakatha, the colours are symbolic of the three stages of Dhanyalakshmi – green for freshly sown paddy; yellow for the ripening golden paddy; red for the abundance at the end of harvest — the three major events when Ma Lokkhi is worshipped by women in the eastern states, besides the household offerings every Thursday.

Lakhsmi, over time, has been assigned different stories of origin and different male gods as her consort, till people finally rested on Vishnu. In all probability, it came from an attempt to merge her into the Brahminical pantheon. Her origin, however, is given away by the folklore assigned to her, in which she has two sons—Chiklit and Kadarma—humidity and clay, two essentials of agriculture. That is why for women in the east, it is not an image or an idol but a rice/paddy filled wicker basket called ‘kunko’ in Bengali that is used to evoke her.

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