To the whole of India, Durga Puja is a magnanimous festival of Bengalis all over which is celebrated across the globe with much show and splendour.
But if you scratch the surface, you would find that beneath the glamorous exterior lies a simple festival that narrates the story of good’s triumph over evil and nothing exudes this simplicity than the Durga Puja bhog.
The bhog basically consists of a simple khichudi preparation, two to three preparations of fried vegetables or curries, chutney and payesh — a Bengali version of kheer.
Compared to the diverse culinary palate that the typical Bengali household is accustomed to, this bhog looks and sounds pretty bland to a normal person but if you have taken part in the great Bengali bhog on Ashtamis, you don’t need someone else to tell you how special that bhog is.
In its simplicity lies its charm. The food items that constitute the bhog are something that even the most novice hands can make. In Bengal, each and everyone can take part in the Durga Puja bhog. All social differences are forgotten in these five days as people from all walks of life sit together and relish the food which is considered to be the blessed food of Ma Durga.
When you observe the people sitting together happily gorging on the bhog, you would be able to see how people from all social strata forget all their differences and set an example of coexistence. The term unity in diversity may have been truly made for an occasion like the Durga Puja.
Making the bhog is also practical due to its simple nature and it provides for a healthy balanced diet while also pleasuring the taste buds. But pragmatism is not the only reason why this particular palate is served during the Pujas as its inception is deeply rooted in the Bengali culture.
Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur had organised the first Durga Puja back in 1606 which was later replicated by twelve friends from Guptipara (Hoogly), who organised the first community Durga Puja in 1790.
Kangshanarayan had chosen khichudi due to its simple preparation technique and it eventually became the most loved yet the most difficult dish to replicate.
Back then, the choice of khichudi was done because the Autumn Durga Puja began as an excuse to feed villagers who had had a bad crop year or a famine, which made khichudi the best option as it was a meal in itself and with ready resources.
The ritual that began as a goodwill gesture soon transformed into an annual feature. By the late 1500s, it was seen as status symbols where Zamindars outdid each other on who could organise a better Puja, and this included the food as well.
This tug of war, many believe, led to the evolution of the bhog thali, which in its earlier days had khichudi and laddoo or one vegetable dish depending on what was available in large quantities. The idea of donating, a gesture that the community Durga Puja infused among people, was little known those days.
During the 18th century, the worship of Durga became popular among the land aristocrats of Bengal, the Zamindars. Prominent Pujas were conducted by the Zamindars and Jagirdars, being enriched by emerging British rule, including Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Sovabazar, who initiated an elaborate Puja at his residence.
These celebrations brought the Durgostavs out of individual homes and into the public sphere. Festivities were celebrated as a community, where royalty and peasantry were welcomed into the home of the Zamindar or bania (merchant) to feast together.
The festivities became heavily centred around entertainment — music and female dancers — as well as lavish feasts that continued for the entire month.
In the 19th century, the Pujas celebrated placed less emphasis on elaborate celebration and feasting, and more on including all of the community. They moved from being a show of wealth and authority by royalty and merchants back to a festival of worship and community. Many of these old pujas exist till date.
The oldest such Puja to be conducted at the same venue is in Rameswarpur, Odisha, where it has been continued since the last four centuries, starting from the time when the Ghosh Mahashays from Kotarang migrated there as a part of Todarmal’s contingent during Akbar’s rule.
Today, the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the princely houses to Sarbojanin (literally, “involving all”) forms. The first such puja was held at Guptipara — it was called barowari (baro meaning twelve and yaar meaning friends)Coming back to the modern times, it is now unimaginable that a Durga Puja can exist without a bhog.
The social lines are blurred during this grand feast where the rich and the poor, friends and strangers can be seen sitting side by side, eating the bhog and sometimes even striking up conversations. With the changing times, the concept of Durga Puja has also evolved.
Gone are the days of a simple looking Durga Pujas. Instead of that, we have seen the rise of theme Pujas where the organisers try to outdo each other in terms of glamour.
The only thing that still remains constant since time immemorial is the Puja bhog. Even in this fast-paced lifestyle, sitting down and having the bhog in your community hark back to simpler times.
It is during the Pujas when you can see how benevolent the denizens of Kolkata are which reminds you why this city is called a city with a soul.
In different pandals in the city during the community bhog, the less fortunate are treated with the Mother’s blessings. No one is turned away from the Puja pandals without having the bhog. Some pandals in Kolkata serve bhogs all five days of the festival while in others the bhog is given on two days, namely Saptami and Asthami.
The Puja days are when you see every member of every community blend in with each other, working together to ensure that the greatest festival of Bengal passes off without a hitch.
The festival is a huge event in Kolkata but other places around India as well as the world are also gradually embracing the concept of Durga Puja and the ensuing bhog with different Bengali communities in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi organising lavish Durga Pujas along with mouthwatering delicacies.
But everywhere, the simplicity of a Durga Puja bhog remains intact. It acts as a reminder that even though Durga is the destroyer of evil, she is also the nurturer whose nature is reflected on the simplicity of the bhog platter.
As you sit down to eat the bhog along with your near and dear ones, the sound of dhaks playing and conches being blown, all add up to create a surreal environment, reminding you why you look forward to these five beautiful days of communal harmony, throughout the whole year.
In its simplicity lies its charm. The food items that constitute the bhog are something that even the most novice hands can make. In Bengal each and everyone can take part in the puja bhog.