A fortnight before Durga Puja, Aloke Krishna Deb is proving difficult to track down. The septuagenarian scion of the Sovabazar royal family of Kolkata, which organizes two of the oldest Pujas in the city, is busy dividing time between home and thethakurbari (family temple) down the lane named after his ancestor, Raja Naba Krishna Deb.
Quite a few missed calls later, when Deb comes on the phone, he sounds tired but enthusiastic as he narrates the history of the 220-year-old family puja. The other puja organized by another branch of the family is even older and, according to family legend was attended by Robert Clive, of the Battle of Plassey fame. Given the legacy, the prasad offered to the goddess at the Debs’ is legendary. Since the Debs are not Brahmins, cooked rice meals can’t be offered. Besides uncooked rice and fruits, the prasad is an assortment of around 20 traditional half-forgotten sweets and savouries such as kheertakti, radhaballavi, jibhe goja, mithe goja, pokkan, khaja, kotkoti naru. Collectively called methai, these Bengali sweets pre-date the sandesh and rasgulla.
The royal indulgence extends to family meals as well. While the meals on the first three days are family-only affairs, the grandest banquet on Navami is for friends and invitees too. The menu includes pulaos, mutton korma, bhetki paturi, prawn malaikari, sandesh, rasgulla and even a tipsy pudding, as a doff of the hat to Raj officials who used to be guests.
Festive spread: Traditional banquets are an integral part of Durga Puja. Courtesy Brown Sahib
A few neighbourhoods away, at the Daw household, the puja is into its 152nd year. Here too, the goddess is not offered any cooked meals. “We offer Durga lots of fruits, sweets, uncooked rice and vegetables as naivedya. On Ashtami, when the most important puja is held, the naivedya is made of a mon of rice, which is about 37kg,” says Sulagna Daw.
The cooked repast is for family and friends. “Around 100-odd relatives have lunch and dinner together every day from the day of Mahalaya (the start of the Navratras) to Dwadashi (two days after Dussehra),” she adds. The menu of khichuri, luchi and other very traditional Bengali dishes varies from day to day, the only concession to modernity being the replacement of the family cook with a catering service.
At the relatively newer puja by the Mallicks of Bhowanipur, in south Kolkata, such concessions are still unthinkable. The retinue of staff engaged for the puja comprises descendants of the staff employed when the puja first started in 1924. “Our cooks, our priest, our kumor (idol maker), ourdhaakis (traditional drummers) have all been with us for generations,” says Tapan Mallick. The cooks from Midnapore prepare lunches and dinners for the nearly 400-member clan for the four days of the Puja.
“The Dashami lunch is the grandest. And the must-have on that day is a mete chochchori (liver curry), whose recipe is a family secret,” says Nandita Ganguly, a daughter of the family.
Not invited to a family feast? Pick from one of these Puja spreads
The Park, Kolkata
Pujor Mahabhoj banquet lunch, with unlimited alcohol, on 15-16 October, Rs675 (veg) and Rs975 (non-veg), inclusive of taxes.
Eden Pavilion, ITC Sonar, Kolkata
Special buffets all October, Rs1,500 (lunch) and Rs1,800 (dinner), plus taxes.
Oh! Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata and Bangalore
Special menus on Puja days. Buffet prices vary from Rs575-725 depending on the city and whether it’s lunch or dinner. Taxes extra.
Bhojohori Manna, Kolkata and Bangalore
Special ‘thalas’ on Puja days, Rs320 (veg) and Rs450 (non-veg), inclusive of taxes.
Brown Sahib, Delhi
Puja Maha Bhog ‘thalis’ all October for Rs450 (veg) and Rs750 (non-veg), plus taxes.
Buffet on Puja days, Rs595, inclusive of taxes.