What’s in a bhog?
The tradition of bhog offered during Durga Puja is one that has evolved over the centuries
One of my earliest memories of eating bhog or food offered to the goddess was at our paarar (neighbourhood) Durga Puja in the early 90s. I remember my mother dragging me out of a serpentine queue outside the pandal on a sunny October afternoon. The crowd had swelled like never before, and I couldn’t push my way to devour the luchis. Hearing the servers screaming inside to fetch more luchis had me in tears. Seeing me cry, Ma took me home. Bhoger luchi is rubbery, she had said, and promised me hot, fluffy ones once we reached home. I knew that she was saying it in order to placate me and nothing would make up for missing the luchi at the pandal.
The tradition of bhog during Durga Puja is one that goes back over two centuries. The epic victory of the East India Company over Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah at the Battle of Plassey allowed the Company to expand their empire in India over the next 100 years. Soon after the British took over, an erudite gentleman named Naba Krishna Deb was appointed as the language interpreter to Lord Clive. The camaraderie between the two men was strong and it was upon Clive’s persuasion that Deb initiated the iconic Sovabajar Rajbari Puja at his mansion in north Calcutta in the same year.
“Lord Clive was familiar with Hindu festivals, and Durga Pujo was one such event that he wished to witness on a grand scale and Naba Krishna took up this suggestion, and the rest is history," says Tirthankar Krishna Deb, a member from the eighth generation of the family.
The Sovabajar Rajbari Durga Puja was the only gora-der pujo (one where the English were allowed). Yet, even though they were the special invitees, Lord Clive and Warren Hastings could watch the proceedings only from a distance. Unlike the neighbourhood puja of today, which is as much about fun as it is about faith, the puja of those days had strict protocols in place and very specific culinary rules. Bhog was sacred, and prepared only by designated men—typically Brahmins—called thakurs. Items offered varied from one family to the other and were influenced by caste and class. Fish and meat were offered to the goddess, a far cry from the bhog of today as we know it, which is typically vegetarian.
It’s been more than 250 years since Plassey—the East India Company has crumbled and the British have left—but the Deb family has still held on to its bhog traditions. The Debs are Kayastha by caste, and so the goddess has to make do without an anna bhog (rice-based offering).
“Only Brahmins were allowed to offer anna or rice to the gods due to their caste superiority," explains food researcher and historian Pritha Sen. The goddess instead is given monda mithai, a selection of gigantic sweetmeats prepared by Brahmin cooks. The offerings are served on huge trays of the size of the wheels of a tonga. Imagine big mounds of sweets made with refined flour, sugar and ghee each weighing at least a kilo. The bhog menu includes bhaja or fried mishti such as mithe gaja, chauko (square) gaja, peraki stuffed with cinnamon-flavoured kheer, katkati, hot shingara, or samosa stuffed with potatoes or lentils, nimki, and radha ballavi (deep-fried bread stuffed with lentils) each the size of a plate. What steals the show is the motichoor ladoo, a mammoth sweet which, unlike regular motichoor, is pristine white (imagine sago or sabudana) in colour. Deb also mentions kaath nimki, a brick-shaped savoury item almost 3 inches long and 1.5 inches wide, which takes several hours to fry in pure ghee.
But conspicuous by its absence is the star of Bengali confection—chhana, or cottage cheese. “It is possible that the first confectioners who experimented with cottage cheese were Muslim, so their sweets would never be part of a Hindu religious ceremony," points out Bengali-American food historian and author Chitrita Banerji. “However, eventually, it gained universal acceptance because it was such a versatile, malleable medium and being a dairy product, could be used in temples and shrines."
In keeping with an even older, 400-year-old tradition, the Roychowdhurys of Sarpi (a small town 186km from Kolkata) perform bolidaan, or animal sacrifice, even today. On Saptami and Ashtami, the family sacrifices a goat to the goddess, and on Nabami, the family slaughters a buffalo. The latter is symbolic as it is said that Durga slayed the buffalo-demon Mahishasura after an epic 10-day battle. The meat is not offered to the goddess except on Nabami when eight raw pieces of the goat meat (from the day before) is kept near the idol. The rest is distributed among the house staff or buried with salt in case of buffalo.
The Roychowhurys of Sarpi are Brahmins, and offer the goddess an elaborate anna as well as maacher (fish) bhog. The feast is prepared by the women of the family, and not by cooks. Sushanta Roychowdhury suggests there was a time when bhog would be offered in 72 thalas, or plates. With time, the number of plates has been brought down to 5, 10 or 15. The menu comprises seven types of fries that could include eggplants, potatoes or pointed gourd, three types of vegetables such as shukto (vegetables cooked in a milky gravy), cauliflower or kochu shaak (colocasia), moong dal, fish curry made with rohu, kaatla or hilsa, sweet chutney and payesh (rice kheer). The plate is arranged with salt, kagji lebu, a variety of lime widely available in the eastern states and shaada bhaat, or steamed rice. Around 1.5kg of rice is offered daily to the goddess as part of the bhog. What makes it special on the last day is chang maach pora—an almost-extinct variety of fish found in the nearby ponds that is smoked in hay and not in the traditional gas stove sans spices.
“Fish was offered to the goddess more commonly in East Bengali homes since the region had several rivers and fish was more plentiful there than in West Bengal," says Banerji.
Mumbai-based chef and cookbook author Ananya Banerjee has fond memories of her mamabaarir (maternal family) puja in Kolkata. Initiated by Manmohan Pande, a philanthropist from Jessore (now in Bangladesh) around 100 years ago, the puja has survived the Partition of India. The original puja, which was a big event in East Bengal, is nearly 300 years old. Although the family moved to Calcutta, celebrations continued with same devotion and fanfare. Today, nearly 7,000 people eat bhog every day, prepared duly by Brahmin cooks employed with the family for generations. It is open for all.
Bhog at the Pande baarir puja at Beadon Street is a huge affair. A typical day for the goddess starts with a bath followed by meals almost every hour. A breakfast of muri, or puffed rice, batasha (sugar drops) and fruits followed by a mid-morning snack of patla khichuri (thin khichdi) prepares her for a lavish lunch of mutton curry, rui maacher kaalia, prawn malaikari, paachmishaalir torkari (medley of five vegetables), dal, chutney, papad, curd and sweets.
The mutton offered here is different from what you may otherwise get. Known as niramish mangsho or vegetarian mutton, it is prepared sans onion or garlic. It is instead cooked with ginger, a paste of cumin and coriander and garam masala. In the evening, the goddess is treated to luchi, five types of fries, basanti pulao (fragrant gobindo bhog rice cooked with turmeric for a golden touch) and payesh.
“She is a real foodie just like us," quips Banerjee.
On Dashami, the mood is sombre as the goddess prepares to leave. There is no special bhog; lunch is typically leftovers and paanta bhaat—leftover rice soaked overnight and allowed to ferment. Manik Pande, a descendent of the family, says: “Ma Durga is like our daughter. We, therefore, pamper her exactly the same way a father would when his daughter visits after a long time."
While families continue to hold onto their archaic traditions, changing times made Durga Puja more inclusive in the early 19th century. “Greater equality of bhog consumption came about with the community, or sarbajanin pujos, which allowed all members of a neighbourhood or community to claim ownership of the festival, regardless of caste or socioeconomic status," says Banerji.
With the festival, even the food became more mainstream and accessible. Today, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a puja without the humble khichuri—prepared with roasted moong dal and rice along with potatoes and vegetables such as green peas, cauliflower or carrots. But, why khichuri? Banerji says, “It is a popular item in Bengal, is nutritious and versatile (in terms of the ingredients you can throw into it), and it is acceptable to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. It is also affordable, which is an important consideration when large numbers of people have to be fed."
The British may have gone and Durga Puja may have become a public event overshadowed by glitzy sponsors, loudspeakers and traffic jams, but the spirit remains the same. As long as there’s khichuri accompanied by some hoi-choi (hullabaloo), no one is complaining.