Celebrating Kali Pujo and Diwali – a time for Mishti Polao and Payesh in India

Celebrating Kali Pujo and Diwali – a time for Mishti Polao and Payesh in India

Niramish Mangsho - meat cooked without onion and garlic – a traditional offering in Bengal

Bhajar Thala for Kali Pujo
Bhajar Thala consisting of 5 different types of fried vegetables Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

Autumn brings about a series of festivities on the Indian subcontinent. The celebrations start with Navratri, the nine days during which nine different forms of the deity Durga are worshipped. The sixth to the ninth day during this period constitute Durga Pujo for Bengalis. Diwali, the festival of lights, follows soon. It is celebrated over five or six consecutive days, depending upon the dates in the Hindu lunisolar calendar. Each day has its significance and the rituals of worship vary across India.

During the Diwali period, in Bengal and its neighbouring states of Assam and Orissa, people worship the deity Kali on the day when the new moon prevails through midnight. In other states, people worship the deity Lakshmi on the day of the new moon.

Although Diwali constitutes this entire period of festivities, the day when deity Lakshmi is worshipped is more popularly termed as Diwali in some Indian states. Depending upon the dates and timings of the occurrence of the new moon, Kali Pujo may fall one day before Diwali in some years. This year, both Kali Pujo and Diwali fall on the same date – October 24, 2022.

Here's a recipe for classic homemade Mishti Polao

Every Indian festival is kaleidoscopic, and I am as mesmerised today by the cultural and the creative aspects of each one of them as I was while growing up. Although there were less neighbourhood pandals or marquees set up for worshipping the deity Kali in Kolkata in those days as compared to the deity Durga, we were equally engaged in Kali Pujo celebrations. However, both Pujos are completely different.

Mishti Polao
Mishti Polao is a fragrant rice preparation, which is slightly sweet Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

Kali Pujo in Kolkata

A flurry of activities started at home, a day before Kali Pujo. The day was termed Bhoot Chaturdoshi or day for ancestors and we lit Choddo Prodeep - 14 oil clay lamps. We placed these lamps in fourteen corners around the house after sunset. This was to ward off all evil, remove darkness and to pay respect to our Choddo Purush, or fourteen generations of ancestors before us. At lunch, we ate Choddo Shaak, fourteen types of leafy vegetables. Some of these vegetables were seasonal, while others were popular in the villages but rarely available in city markets on a regular basis. Most vegetable vendors however, sold a selection of all the fourteen leafy vegetables during Bhoot Chaturdoshi.

On the day of Kali Pujo, we added more oil lamps to the existing ones from the previous day, all along the windows, doors and verandahs.

I loved drawing Alpona, the traditional floor design using the white paint made by adding water to powdered rice. I have continued with this tradition at home even today and sometimes resort to tea lights instead of traditional clay lamps, for convenience. My husband, Subir, loves strings of coloured fairy lights and every Diwali; he takes an immense effort in draping them on the outside walls of our home.

The joy of fireworks

Diwali sparklers
Lighting colourful sparklers in the evening Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Gulf News

Both Subir and I spent a considerable amount of time in our childhoods growing up in the same community. Hence, we celebrated Kali Pujo and Diwali together often and loved bursting crackers and a variety of other fireworks. Boromama, my eldest maternal uncle would buy huge quantities from Sivakasi, a city in Tamil Nadu in India, which is still famous for its fireworks. He then distributed them amongst us cousins. I always fought with my brother for a bigger share and generously distributed it amongst my friends - Subir included!

Now with a Labrador member in our family, colourful sparklers and flowerpots are the only fireworks that we light, during our Diwali celebrations. There is also a consciousness about the environmental effect of fireworks amongst most people. Here in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, there are shops specifically set up during Diwali, which sell Sivakasi fireworks. A lot of these are now eco-friendly and environmentally safe.

My friend… my sister, Aparajita

Aparajita and her husband Rajarshi
Aparajita and her husband Rajarshi with their twins, Mahika and Vihaan Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

Kali Pujo at my best friend Aparajita’s home in Kolkata was such a surreal experience for me. Aparajita had embraced me into her life more as a sister than a friend. As we both re-lived our memories for of Kali Pujo for this story, every single detail from the celebrations came alive. It seemed that her current life in Singapore is in stark contrast from her childhood in Kolkata where she and her family lived in a joint family.

“The first thing that we did in preparations for Kali Pujo was to wake up early at 4 am on the day that preceded the midnight hours of the deity worship. We placed banana leaves on the terrace and collected fresh dewdrops. We used to look for dewdrops on big and small leaves of potted plants in the terrace and then used a fine cotton cloth to collect the drops in a small brass glass. The glass was then placed in front of the idol as a drink offering along with all the other food offerings. We named our twins - a daughter and a son, Mahika and Vihaan. The meanings of their names are a reflection of the beautiful connection I have to Kali Pujo - of dewdrops, or Mahika, collected at the break of dawn, which means Vihaan!

“We fasted the whole day ‘Nirjala’, that is without consuming even a drop of water. In the morning, we went to the potters’ quarters in Kumortoli to get the idol of the deity Kali. Efforts were taken to make sure that the idols of Dakini and Jogini, the so-called fierce companions of the deity Kali, looked ferocious and wild. Once, these two idols turned out to be much bigger than the idol of the deity Kali herself! I also remember that my dad insisted the sculptor make the idol of Kali shine more than her companions by putting some additional varnish.”

From the Ganges to the altar

Vibrant red hibiscus flowers are associated with the deity Kali Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

As Aparjita reminisced on celebrating Kali Pujo at her home, we were both engulfed by familiar scents from the past - the clay from the Ganges that was used to make these idols; their freshly coated paints; the adhesive used to fix the jewelleries; weapons made with golden metal foil; and the freshly bought flowers from the market that would be used for worship.

It was an expedition to get someone to hire a truck in Kumortuli for bringing the idols home. The next task was to decorate the mandap or the marquee where the idol was placed for worshipping. Alpona was drawn on the floor and the room was then decorated with red and yellow marigold flowers. Red hibiscus flowers have become synonymous with the deity Kali and I remember how garlands were strung with hibiscus flowers to adorn the deity at the time of worship.

The Dhaaki or the drummer who played the Dhaak, a traditional drum that is played with wooden sticks that is also popular during Durga Pujo, was a regular fixture. He arrived every year from his village along with his son, who played the Kansar Ghonta, a flat brass bell to match the dhaak beats.

The smoky redolence of Bhog

A Bhog offering for Kali Pujo - Niramish Mangsho, Basanti Polao and Payesh Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

A cook from Orissa was hired for three days and he set up a temporary kitchen in one of the attic rooms. He built a mud stove by hand and took over the cooking for Aparajita’s family and the guests visiting them during this time. All food including bhog, the lunch offering for the deity, was cooked on this mud stove by wood fire. This lent a smoky aroma to all the dishes.

Bhog consisted of Khichuri, a rice and lentil preparation along with Labra, a mishmash of vegetables. It was prepared in the ‘Bangal style’ that is still prevalent amongst Bengalis who have originated from the part of the erstwhile undivided Bengal, which later became Bangladesh. The Bhoger Khichuri with faint traces of edible camphor and deliciously overcooked Labra were both prepared by the Oriya cook.

Here's a recipe for delicious Payesh...

One of the highlights of the Bhog was the Bhajar Thali, with five different types of fries made from rondelles of potato, pumpkin and eggplants. There were also florets of cauliflower and sliced parwal or pointed gourd. Yardlong beans substituted parwals when the latter were unavailable. This was cooked separately in their home kitchen.

Aparajita’s mother, whom I affectionately addressed as Mashi, a term to denote a maternal aunt, prepared the Naibedya, a special platter offered at the start of the deity worship. The Naibedya was prepared by arranging cut fruits, soaked Atap or parboiled rice, mung or yellow lentils and a variety of other edibles.

Luchis, the deed fried flour breads were accompanied by Payesh, a rice and milk pudding. It was the duty of Aparajita’s Boropishi, her eldest paternal aunt, to make this Payesh. The Luchis were eaten after the worship was over and hours after they had been fried. Naturally, they turned hard and difficult to bite into, quite resembling the popular Bengali sweet Jeebe Gaja, the oblong shaped fried pastry coated in sugar syrup.

While Naru, round coconut sweet truffles at most Bengali households are typically made with jaggery, Aparajita distinctively remembers that in their home, Narus were made with white sugar and fresh coconut plucked from the two coconut trees they had in their garden.

Kumro Boli or the sacrificial ceremony of cutting a pumpkin and offering it to the deity Kali during its midnight worship was an essential part of this family’s Kali Pujo. Many households or places of worship have now moved away from animal sacrifice that used to be a traditional part of the rituals of worship. Nowadays, symbolic sacrifices are offered with vegetables like pumpkins, white pumpkins, gourds, cucumbers and other fruits and vegetables.

Niramish Mangsho, the meat cooked without onions and garlic

Niramish Mangsho
Niramish Mangsho or meat cooked without onions and garlic Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

While a non-vegetarian Bhog offered to the altar is probably unheard of outside Bengal, a meat offering during Durga or Kali Pujo, especially of goat meat is quite common amongst Bengalis. The meat is then cooked without onions and garlic, hence acquires the term ‘Niramish Mangsho’ or vegetarian meat.

I first tasted a preparation of Niramish Mangsho a long time ago. Every Kali Pujo, a close family acquaintance sent us a portion of the Bhog that was offered to the deity Kali in the sacred temple of Kalighat, in Kolkata.

My paternal home in Naihati, situated on the bank of the Ganges and around 50 kilometres away from Kolkata, is famous for one of its Kali Pujo celebrations. Boro Maa, as the deity Kali is affectionately called, stood tall at almost 30 feet and been worshipped for almost 100 years now.

- Ishita B Saha
Payesh is made by cooking rice in milk and sugar Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

The Bhog came in earthenware and consisted of Khichuri, the typical Bhajas or fried vegetables, fish and goat meat, the sacrificial meat cooked without onions and garlic. Blessed with a strong sense of taste and smell, my Ma taught herself to cook the meat in the same manner as it used to be cooked in the Kalighat temple.

My paternal home in Naihati, situated on the bank of the Ganges and around 50 kilometres away from Kolkata, is famous for one of its Kali Pujo celebrations. Boro Maa, as the deity Kali is affectionately called, stood tall at almost 30 feet and been worshipped for almost 100 years now.

I remember visiting Naihati once or twice during Kali Pujo. Borojethu, my eldest paternal uncle drove us cousins around at night amidst the massive crowd, to see a few other idols around Naihati. Our last halt would be at the pandal where Boro Maa was worshipped. Embellished in real gold and silver, the deity exuded a high vibrational energy that consumed us all when we stood in front of it with our hands folded in an act of worship.

Here's a recipe for the Niramish Mangsho recipe from Kalighat by my Mum...

Lights in my home away from home…

Whether in Dubai or now in Chennai, we decorate our home with oil lamps, coloured fairy lights, and fresh flowers and partake in cracking light fireworks. I also cook a Bhog by stirring in a lot of good intention and offering it to the home altar. Thereafter, when we share it amongst the family and sometimes our friends, the festivities revolving around Kali Pujo and Diwali celebrations all start to make sense. The essence is to bring about healthy and hearty connections amongst loved ones and release all emotions that doesn’t serve our highest good.

Traditional Alpona
Traditional Alpona design in our home Image Credit: Ishita B Saha/Supplied

I am sharing my Ma’s recipe of Niramish Mangsho. It’s slow cooked for several hours and the meat pieces turn tender and soft. Although the Bhog from Kalighat didn’t have potatoes in it, our younger daughter Ilaakshi loves the epic Mangsher Aloo, the potatoes cooked in the meat gravy. The Niramish Mangsho tastes wonderful with Mishti Polao. Basanti Polao, as the latter is also called sometimes because of its Basanti or saffron tinge, is cooked in ghee and is fragrant and slightly sweet. This is a favourite of our elder daughter Shrishti.

I try to keep desserts very simple and meaningful. A classic Payesh made with rice, milk and sugar is important, as it is prepared on every auspicious occasion, festival and celebration. This is also the first solid food that a Bengali child is fed as an infant during his/her Annaprashan, the first rice ceremony. Payesh is also a symbolic representation of bringing in an infinite abundance at home with never ending anna or cooked rice!

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