Shiuli,Kaashphool and Akalbodhon- Looking back in time

One knows that Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis is around the corner if one looks at nature.Verdant blue skies with fleeting clouds, Shiuli flowers flowering ,Saptaparni trees growing dense with the intoxicating flowers, the iconic Kashphool swaying in the gentle breeze means it’s time to usher in the Goddess to Earth. Durga Puja is not limited to being a religious festival alone but in essence it is a celebration of life and a coming together of disparate elements and stratas. As we bid adieu to the Goddess in 2020 with restrained celebration but with a lot of faith amidst the Pandemic, I thought of looking back in history, about the origins and changing nature of the Pujas.

Ancient origins of Ma Durga

The Durga temple of Aihole (550 AD) is the oldest temple dedicated to Hindu goddess Durga, yet quite surprisingly, worshiping the Goddess turned into the biggest annual festival in another part of the India, especially in the state of West Bengal, that too, presumably not before 16th century. A recent research suggests that Gosanis of Odisha were probably the predecessors of Mahisasurmardini Durga worshipped in Eastern part of India. How did the Goddess gain popularity in the neighbouring region more than her place of origin?

Durga became a celebrity goddess in Bengal long before the two states separated in 1930s. The earliest Durgapuja recorded in Bengal history is in 1583, probably arranged by one of the zamindars of Rajshahi, who started Durgapuja as a substitute of Aswamedha Yagna. Historians also point out that the Durga worshipping culture bloomed as an expression of Hindu identity in Bengal under Islamic rule during the regime of Murshidkuli Khan and Alivardi Khan. However evidence of a Durgapuja arranged by Raja Baidyanath in Dinajpur by 1760s under patronage of Nawab Alivardi Khan supports a different opinion: worshipping the Goddess was in fact, patronised by the Mogul emperors. They favoured Durgapuja through their local representatives as an option to enhance brotherhood with the Hindu subjects in this region.

Tracing origins of Durga Puja in the city

The first Durgapuja in Kolkata was celebrated by the Barisha Sabarna Ray Chaudhuri family, when the puja was started in 1610. This puja was in celebration of the receipt of a Jagir from Humayun. Another school endorses the view that the festival took its current shape after the Battle of Plassey (1757). The new English rulers were keen to patronise the festival in order to win the hearts of the local Hindu subjects. Durgapuja in a sense was a ploy to reconstruct the relationships between Hindu Zamindars and the British. Maharaja Krishnachandra’s Durgapuja in Nadia district is a perfect example of British patronage. Krishnachandra, was not in the good books of the Murshidabad Nawabs and was even jailed that prevented his participation in Durgapuja in his own home in Krishnanagar. during the power struggle between British and Islamic rulers, he supported the British and in return was awarded the title “Maharaja” by Lord Clive. the Durgapuja with Krishnanagar royals became a festival to mark the re-establishment of Hindu cultural traditions in the region. Similarly, Raja Nabakrishna Dev, the founder of Shobhabazar Rajbari, who was awarded royal title by British,invited Lord Clive to participate in Durgapuja in 1787. In the beginning of establishing their rule, English rulers found patronising Durgapuja an option to establish power amicably in Bengal.

Durga Puja and 19 th century Socio- political milieu

The new group of zamindars post Permanent Settlement to confirm as well as to boost their social and economic status did not spare the scope of using the religious festival as a medium to establish own brand. Inviting Europeans following the trend set by Shobhabazar royals became wide practice for the same reason. There are plenty of newspaper reports of that time showing the growing number of Europeans attending the festival. 19 century Bengali literature, especially satires written by Kaliprasanna Simha, Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay can be considered as literary evidence explaining this scenario.

How community pujas evolved

Durgapuja as a community festival started in 1790 as the first Barowari puja, organised and sponsored by 12 friends together in Guptipada of Hooghly district near Calcutta, was a display of wealth and power. Raja Harinath of Kashimbazar adopted this collective form of puja in 1832.“Hutom Panchar Naksha” (1862) by Kaliprasanna Singha gives a vivid description of Calcutta Barowari (public) Durgapujas: how these were organised, celebrated and how the celebrations used to be dragged for weeks.This can be interpreted as the beginning of democratization of Durga Puja. Power-shift from old orthodox land-owners to the merchant class Zamindars encouraged them to show their gratitude to the ruler by accepting the British queens as incarnation of the goddess — best expressed when look of some of the Durga idols resembled Queen Victoria!

Public Durgapuja started gaining popularity late nineteenth century onwards. At that time, donations were collected from the people of the locality or community members staying close to the puja venue. Some of these old public Durgapuja are still being organised in Kolkata. One of them is Bagbazar Sarbajanin Durgotsav, started in 1919. The term, “Sarbajanin” started being used instead of Barowari puja for the community Durgapuja by early 20th century.

Durga Puja and the political language in the freedom movement

This, in turn, contributed in Bengal’s freedom movement as well. In the imagination of the freedom fighter, India as a country was transformed to mother-goddess and image of this “Bharatmata” intermingled with the goddess Durga based on Bankimchandra’s poem “Bande Mataram”. During this time, Durga became the symbol of power against colonialism. The history of Durgapujas organised by Simla Byayam Samity of Anushilan Samity proves this. Anushilan Samity organised a Durgapuja combined with weapon-worshiping in a hidden location in North Calcutta where Maharashtrian activist leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar played the role of a priest once. Even British ruler became aware of the trend of power shift evolving around the Goddess by that time and that was their reason for banning the Simla Byayam Samity’s puja between1932–34. . Swami Vivekananda started Durgapuja in 1910 in Balur math (1908). Bharat Sevashram Samgha and some others followed suit. Durga became the Goddess for Bengali community free from caste or religious bias — supporting the cause of Hindu nationalism of Bengal.

Theme Pujas and footfalls

As celebrations became much more festive rather than being ritualistic, the dramatic twist in this came with the introduction of themes in 1990’s and the emergence of corporatism in the whole event. The makeshift pandal was no more a beautifully decorated shelter for the idol, but representation of Bengal’s cultural life, people’s understanding of global history, politics, economy and current affairs.The Badrinath temple or the ancient Egyptian temple or Harry Potter’s world began to be recreated. With all these concepts, pandals and the idol were designed by an artist conceptualizing the theme atleast six months before.individual donations were no more adequate to meet the huge cost. At the same time, number of footfalls in the Durgapuja venues were converted into an advertiser’s canvas. presence of almost all business sectors covering FMCG, CDIT, electronics, apparel, mobile networks and apps, automotive, banking etc in the puja sponsor’s list. Durgapuja, became a corporate event showcasing power as market force.

Durga Puja and the political lexicon now

Interestingly, Durgapuja provided the political parties of Bengal good opportunity for public relations. Following the footsteps of pre-independence political motivators, political leaders kept on using the occasion of Durgapuja as their best scope for public communication — the way to achieve political power in a democracy. Many influential political leaders became Puja organisers in own locality. Even Communist Party of India,could not avoid opening kiosks near the famous Puja venues in Kolkata. With government funding to Durga Puja these days, Durga, the Mahisasuramardini continues to be the symbol of political opponent slayer.

This Durga Puja many of these did not happen except the government funding.Pandals were declared no entry zones and pandal hopping was ruled out by the High Court in the event of the Pandemic. Durga Puja once again went back to its ritualistic form as the main focus shifted from counting footfalls to observing the religious rituals.For the first time in history, Pujo became virtual as there were live streaming of the bodhon, anjali, sandhi pujo and bisarjan across the world.

Looking ahead amidst the Pandemic

Amidst a different flavour to the celebrations this year, many things continued to remain same. Ma Durga blessed us all, her eyes glistened during Sondhi Pujo which became watery as well on Dashami. The kaash phool swayed, the shiuli filled up the early morning fragrance, the Saptaparni flowered and so did the lotus bloom.People expressed their bonds through traditional food as Chandrapuli, Kheer takti, Bonde, Mihidana, Ghugni did make star appearances at most houses. A deafening silence engulfed the festive days no doubt but hope did make its way through as we fervently wished to enjoy once again the hues and spirit of a Sarbojanin or a traditional family pujo.

Radha Ballavi – Love Personified

Durga Pujo 2020 has been different for all of us and for myself too. The pandemic restricted celebrations worldwide and for me this year without my Ma was a journey into the self and memories. As I opened my Ma’s wardrobe and tried to feel her and her recently worn sarees, I felt comforted and warmed.Life is vastly different this autmn, there were neither pre Pujo to do list nor any plans for pandal hopping or eating out. Pujo in that way was relaxed but was not happy.The only strand of happiness I tried to integrate in my life this year was to cook, otherwise Bengali households rarely cook during the festive days. Eating out is the norm. It is during the festive days that people veer for traditional delicacies like kheer singara, mihidana,sitabhog,luchi- cholar dal, jibhegoja,kheer takti, narkel takti, basanti pulao , kosha mangsho, khichuri, labra, apart from a deluge of a on the go chicken roll or a plate of biryani while pandal hopping.As I heard a friend ordering Radhaballavi and alurdom for breakfast, my mind suddenly got thinking about the the historical as well as etymological origins of this typical festive Bengali delicacy.

How are Radhaballavis different

Radhaballavis are in its essentials soft deep fried flat breads made of refined flour and stuffed with urad dal or black lentil paste flavoured with ginger, asafoetida and cumin. The art of making a good Radhaballavi lies in fusing the flavours in the filling in a way each flavour remains distinct.The distinguishing element of Radhaballavi is the addition of sugar in the filling. Stuffed fried flat breads are common across the subcontinent be it the Hing Kachori or the Dal Puri or the Bedmi Poori, but the delicate balance of the spice and the sweetness of the lentil filling in a Radhaballavi makes it stand apart. it also stands apart for its festive character distinguishing it from the everyday luchi alurdom and it’s beautiful name.

The root Sanskrit word for Radhaballavi is Beshtonika and in common parlance it is named after Radha and Krishna,the eternal lovers of the world. My imagination runs wild as I get to grind the soaked lentil for the stuffing of radhaballavi for Dashami breakfast.Did Radha and Krishna share love for Radhaballavi?Did they binge on it on their secret escapades? Did Radha make them for his beau? After all food shared is love shared.

Shobhabajar Rajbari
Radhakrishna Jiu – home deity of Shobhabajar Rajbari

Origins of Radhaballavi

Legends have several stories about the origin of Radhaballavi. Myths about Shri Chaitanya inventing these stuffed flat breads to be offered to Shyamsundar Ji of Khardah, a form of Lord Krishna. Since one among the 108 names of Sri Krishna is Radhaballav, it is said that these flatbreads got named after the Lord himself.Another legend points out to a rather late origin of Radhaballavi in the kitchens of Shobhabajar Rajbari. The radhaballavis were offered to the presiding deity of the house Radhaballav Jiu, hence the name. Some other chroniclers trace the origin of Radhaballavi to the Singha family of Kandi in Murshidabad where the stuffed and fried flat bread was offered to the deity. It is also said one Jitendranath Modak learnt the art of making Radhaballavi from Vrindavan and introduced it in the shop of his nephew, the iconic Putiram Sweets in College Square.

Whatever be historically correct, whether it originated in Bengal as part of prasaad offerings or had an origin away from Bengal or was part of ancient food customs as the Sanskrit origins suggest, Radhaballavi has been able to maintain its steady popularity with its inherent festive and celebratory character. The best radhaballavis are undoubtedly made at home but one can choose from Putiram Sweets which serves puffed up Radhaballavis with a sweet cholar dal or Shri Hari Mistanna Bhandar in Bhowanipur which doles out slightly thick ones with red hued spicy alur dum. While the city generally stands divided in food preferences and specialities between north and south ,Radhaballavi stands tall against such disparities.It is loved and popular in both the parts of the city.

Any time Radhaballavi time

The nostalgia associated with Radhaballavi is not only linked to religious festivals and food offerings to God. Radhaballavi was an intrinsic part of a marriage spread till a couple of decades back. It was served as the first course with cholar dal over plantain leaves The Radhaballavi was served piping hot carried from the makeshift kitchen in cane jhuris , an indigenous way of draining the oil. A perfect Radhaballavi has to be redolent with fragrances of the asafoetida and the cumin, with no oil seeping in through small punctures within the flatbread. Radhaballavis were also served for breakfast during marriage gatherings coupled with bonde or mihidana. All that is lost today. Marriage spreads now would rather have a baby nan or a lacha paratha with chole keema or stuffed dum aloo. What still lives on in some community pandals is a queue waiting for a plate full of hot radhaballavis after the customary Ashtami anjali. Some mihidana and a hot milky tea to team up with the aged cousin Radhaballavi. Radhaballavis are also gentle enough to break fasts after rituals like sasthi and several pujos
They still though rarely makes its valiant appearance in packed food packets served as working lunch or for various ceremonies like Sraddh when people stay away from having rice and prefer carrying back token food packs.

Iconic Radhaballavis

Nothing is lost however for good. Radhaballavi remains thriving in our childhood memories, in the memories of college life of our parents and one can ocassionally watch a glimpse of a Radhaballavi served in marriage spreads in the marriage CDs. My memories of Radhaballavi are rooted in my college days at Presidency College and Putiram. Though not a very frequent visitor to Putiram during college days, yet the taste was preserved with much care.Now whenever work takes me to College Street, I make it a point to dip the radhaballavis in the cholar dal and take a big gulp closing my eyes trying to feel better the riot in my senses. The Radhaballavi at Shree Hari Mistanna Bhandar in Bhowanipur is also iconic. Full houses of people of various stratas pairing their Radhaballavi with langcha.

How I did my Radhaballavi

Since Durga Pujo this year was mostly about rejoicing around food nostalgia, Dashami had to begin and the Pujo had to end with Radhaballavi and Ghugni. Late on Nabami night I hurriedly soaked the lentil and went off to sleep with a eagerness to wake up to a good morning.After a hurried cup of my favourite Darjeeling Assam blend of tea, I drained the soaked black lentil or urad dal or biulir dal and made a course paste out if it.Over oil, I put in whole cumin seeds, fennel seeds and a pinch of asafoetida or hing. Once fragrant and spluttering added chopped ginger and green chillies. I put in the coarse paste ,some mace powder, salt and sugar.As the oil left the sides and the filling was well blended, I put the filling to cool. For a soft dough I mixed in refined flour, salt to taste and warm milk.The dough has to be medium soft.Out of the dough made small equal sized roundeks, made a dent in the middle ,stuffed the filling and reshaped it and flattened it on palms.Rolled it like luchis but remember to do with light strokes, the filling should not peep through, if it does your Radhaballavi would become soggy upon frying. Fried it over hot oil and one can serve it either with alur dom, cholar dal or Ghugni.

Love pairs and food bondings

My Radhaballavi paired beautifully with a Ghugni made sans onion, garlic and flavoured with fried coconuts, tamarind sauce and bhaja masala. I dry roast cumin seeds,whole red chilli and whole fennel seeds before grinding it coarsely. As I was pairing Radhaballavi with ghugni I was in two minds over a not do common serving tradition.But I went ahead and let this breakfast indulgence be as different as is the love dynamics between Radha and Krishna. Let Radhaballavi reign the world for ever as the eternal love story of Radha and Krishna lives on in our legends, myths, minds and everyday ritual lives.