Bhoot Chaturdoshi- As our ancestors come visiting.

Ancestors do come and visit us it is believed across the world and varied cultures as we celebrate a day remembering them and in some cultures performing rituals to celebrate their coming. Be it the Hallowen or the Bhoot Chaturdashi of the Bengalis, be it the carved pumpkin or the choddo shaak( leaves of 14 greens),food and rituals remain inextricably connected. So too are memories of childhood, pictures of our grandmothers and mothers going about celebrating a ritual with traditional gaiety and faith. Eating choddo shaak and lighting of 14 diyas, a day before Kali Pujo was a must in our house, though I never saw my parents or my grandparents being rigid about any ritual or festival. This was more about celebration of food and illuminating thehouse.I remember my mother reminding my father not to forget the choddo shaak when he went to the market. I can still hear her voice cautioning Baba to himself choose the 14 varieties and not to get the ready packs. What my father eventually did remains shrouded for Ma often used to complain about the quality and compare them with what her father, my grandfather used to get in their village in Jessore, presently in Bangladesh. Bhoot Chaturdasi is also memories of choosing the fourteen places where the diya should be placed- finding the darkest corners. This was a task left by my parents to me and my elder sister. Me and my sister used to disagree till our father acted as the patient referee .As I am writing this, I was worried about the quality of the greens I would get and also I was mentally choosing the fourteen places of my house. This has been a ritual which I have followed in my in laws place ever since I got married and still will do today.

Hallowen and Bhoot Chaturdoshi

The history of Halloween goes all the way back to a pagan festival called Samhain. The word “Halloween” is derived from the word All Hallows Eve meaning hallowed evening. People dressed up as saints and went door to door, which is the origin of Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating. Halloween is celebrated on October 31 because the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, considered the earliest known root of Halloween, occurred on this day. It marked a pivotal time of year when seasons changed, but more importantly, it is also believed that the boundary between this world and the next became thin at this time, enabling them to connect with the dead. This belief is shared by some other cultures too. A similar idea is also the crux of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, which is celebrated in October and involves saying prayers for the dead. This is also where Halloween gains its “haunted” connotations. Bhoot Chaturdashi celebrated in Bengal or Naraka Chaturdashi celebrated in rest of the country is its close cousin. The 14th day of Kartik month or Chhoti Diwali is also known as Narak Chaturdashi, Kali Chaudas and Bhoot Chaturdashi.

Indian legends

According to a legend, Lord Krishna killed the demon Narkasur with his Sudarshan Chakra on this day. As a ritual, symbolical killing of Narkasur, a ‘Kareet’ (an extremely bitter green berry also called Narkasur) is crushed under the foot by each member of the family. Its bitter juice is then consumed. Symbolism aside, this ritual has great health benefits as the Tikta Rasa (bitter taste) of the berry is known to pacify Pitta, which is on a high during this season. Several rituals that are performed during this season like the celebration of autumnal harvests in south and west in India is marked by preparing of special delicacies with sesame seeds, fresh jaggery, poha along with ghee and sugar The ritual of Anjanam or Kajal is popular during this day to ward off evil spirits. A unique herb called Daruhaldi is boiled with goat’s milk to create Rasanjanam. It is then applied as Kajal with a silver stick to prevent inflammatory eye conditions, which are on the rise due to Pitta during this season.

Celebrated a night before Kali Pujo, Bhoot Chaturdashi is also all about warding off the evil spirits. Though Bhoot Chaturdashi does not call for going trick-o-treating for candies, but it does include eating 14 kinds of leafy greens, and instead of Jack-o-lanterns, one lights 14 lamps. These 14 lamps are placed around the house, especially in the dark corners and near the tulsi tree to ward the dark spirits away. Some legends point out that the number of lamps represent the 14 forefathers. According to folklore, the spirits of the ancestors come back to the household on this night and these ghee lanterns help them find their loving homes. It’s believed that ancestors upon visiting their homes showers blessings. Bhoot Chaturdashi is in a way to pay homage to choddo purush — fourteen ancestors, seven from each side of the family — protecting from evil spirit and ghosts. Another popular belief is that Chamunda along with fourteen other ghostly forms ward off the evil spirits from the house as fourteen earthen-lamps are lit at different entrances and dark corners of the rooms. There is also a belief in rural Bengal, that tantriks kidnap children the night before Kali Puja and sacrifice them the next day to gain dark magic powers. Bhoot Chaturdashi is also often believed to be a custom to keep the children safe by keeping them busy at home with leafy green food and other rituals.

Bhoot Chaturdoshi and Choddo Shaak

Ritual practices are often underlined with ethnobotanical significance. Bhoot Choturdoshi like any other Bengali ritual, is connected to food – leafy greens in this case. This ritual food is called ‘Choddo Shaak’/‘Fourteen Greens’. It traditionally involved the collection of fourteen uncultivated greens by women from their homestead gardens or home surrounding areas like roadsides, ditches, ponds or canal banks, field bunds. Choddo shaak is a ritual of celebrating such uncultivated greens highlighting the enormous variety of uncultivated foods in our surroundings and its immense nutritional and environmental importance.

How the ritual began

Though the word shaak currently implies leafy greens in modern Bengali language, the word shaak was traditionally used in Ayurveda to denote six different types of greens. “Jodi totro bosenmasong sakaharo noradhip.
Sonunong lovote punyong bajimedh folong totha’’ In 6/24/4 sūkta of Rigveda, a place called Shaakdwip, located in eastern India is mentioned where several Aryans lived. ‘Shaakal’ otherwise known as ‘Baskal’ branch of Rig Veda originated. They use to rely on mostly greens instead of meat in the diet. These group of people later spread to other regions and came to be known as ‘Shaakdwipi Brahmins’ due to their food habit. the 13th verse of chapter 84 of ‘Banaparba’ of Mahabharata mentions that Yudhisthira had visited ‘Shakambhar Tirtha’, a place in Shaakdwip where Shakhambhari Debi, a deity who was offered Shaak was worshipped by serving Debi Shaak for fourteen days(Sanskrit Choturdosh).  Thus the practice of eating greens to celebrate Shaak Choturdoshi Vrata was started by ‘Baskal’ or ‘Shaakdwipi Brahmins’.However, there was no mention regarding the season of this ritual. Krityatatta (16th century C.E.) written by Raghunandan first mentions about the ritual of eating Choddo Shaak on Bhoot Chaturdashi . The verse is:‘‘Olong kemukbastukong, sarshopong nimbong joyang.Shalinching hilmochikancho potukong shelukong guruchintotha.Vontaking sunishonnokong shibdine khadonti je manobah,Pretottong no cho janti kartikdine krishne cho  vute tithou.’’

Charak Samhita and dietary notes

The practice of eating leafy greens can also be traced in scriptures as old as Charaka Samhita (c. 700 B.C.E.). “Barshashitochitangonang sahasoibark rashmiviih. Taptanamachitang pidong prayoh saradi kupati’’, meaning ‘‘in rainy season our body becomes numb/cold. With the advent of autumn, our body becomes suddenly warm by sunlight and often suffers sudden bile upsurge. So sages have alerted us to consume greens in this season to be safe’’. In  Markandaye Purana (7th century C.E.) the eulogy of Shakambhari Durga denotes that Debi is creating greens, tubers and fruits from her body to save and feed the world from famine.  Charaka Samhita also states “On the onset of autumn the sudden change of weather brought about by the heat warmifies our heat-starved cold body due to lack of sunlight during the monsoon and thus engaging the pitta imbalance, which may cause various infectious diseases and these herbs have the potential in them to keep such diseases at bay.” This ritual of choddo shaak is believed to have its origin from this Ayurveda advice.

Doing the Choddo Shaak

Choddo shaak should ideally be a mix of palong (spinach), lal shaak (red amarnath), kalmi shaak(water spinach),sorshe shaak (mustard green), mulo shaak (radish green), pui shaak (malabar spinach),methi shaak(fenugreek green),paat shaak (young jute ),ol kopi shaak (turnip greens), chola shaak (chickpea greens),helencha, lau shaak (bottle gourd greens), kumro shaak ( pumpkin greens), kochur shaak( taro greens). Choddo Shaak has to washed very well, and the key to cooking it lies in retaining all the myriad flavours in a perfect balance.In mustard oil, I add whole dried red chilli. Once it splutters I put in some crushed garlic and a pinch of nigella seeds or kalo jeera. To it,the choddo saag is added. Some salt and turmeric is put in. I cover the pan to let the shaak cook in steam. Once done I add a pinch of sugar and some whole green chilli. This is served with plain steamed rice.

Bhoot Chaturdashi, this year, the year of the pandemic and so many deaths has an added significance – to ward off the virus and spread happiness and light. Let Bhoot Chaturdashi be celebrated with tradition,let the 14 diyas spread light across 14 corners of the world and restore our known world where we hugged, loved ,trusted and travelled. Happy Diwali to all as you choose your choddo shaak with love and caution and cook it perfect for the afternoon lunch. Dress up the diyas with ghee and mustard oil and start choosing the fourteen corners of the house.May we light one for our soul too- the darkness,the contradictions be dispelled for ever.