Underneath contemporary trappings and irrational excesses, Durga Puja has more intimate connotations, best understood, perhaps, at a 'Bonedi Barir Pujo'
Kolkata: Inside the private quarters of many an aristocratic household in the city, the annual homecoming of Durga is not simply a souvenir from a golden past but a cherished bequest charged with sentiments. The once-pompous celebrations might have lost some colour with time but, in these old mansions, life still revolves around the nine days of Devi Paksha.
A striking aspect of the Bonedi Barir Pujo is the bhog (edibles) offered to the Goddess—a far cry from the spicy khichuri and payesh typically served at Baroari Puja pandals on Ashtami afternoons. In fact, khichuri does not feature on the bhog menu at several of these pujas (only Brahmins have the privilege of offering anna bhog, or cooked rice, to the Goddess). Nonetheless, a mouth-watering assortment of sweets and savouries more than make up for the absence of khichuri.
Sadly, at most of these houses bhog is reserved for members of the family and invitees. But it is worth checking out what Durga feasts on at some of the most famous Bonedi Barir Pujos in Kolkata.
Sabarna Roy Choudhury Atchala Durga
In 1698, the East India Company acquired the villages of Gobindapur, Sutanati and Kalikata from the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family; Calcutta was born thereafter. So, what is now dubbed as the city’s oldest Durga Puja (started at the Roy Choudhurys’ Barisha address in 1610), is older than the city itself. Today, eight separate Pujas are hosted by the different branches of the family, but the ancient Atchala Durga Puja performed at the original site is still the most important.
The Bhog: The Maha Bhog here is a stunning spread comprising ghee bhaat, basanti pulao studded with dried fruits, khichuri, an array of deep-fried vegetables and bori (dried lentil balls), curries, and traditional fish preparations, and payesh, along with a host of sweetmeats. On Dashami, Durga is treated to a unique spread of panta bhaat (soaked, fermented rice), khesari daal, kochu saag (taro leaves), koi machher jhaal and chaltar ambal (a runny chutney made of elephant apple).
Unique element: The red pillars that flank the walkway leading to the Durga Dalan were, perhaps, witness to a remarkable moment in Calcutta’s history—the dalil, or deed for the transfer of Sutanati, Gobindapur and Kalikata is said to have been executed here at the Atchala.
Durga Puja at the illustrious Shovabazaar Rajbari was started by Raja Naba Krishna Deb in 1757. For years, at Shovabazaar Raj Bari, the auspicious Shandhi Puja has been performed to the sound of cannon fire. The Debs’ Durga Puja now has two addresses on the same street, hosted by the two branches of the Deb family.
The Bhog: There is no offering of anna bhog. Instead, an incredible variety of monda mithai—gigantic sweetmeats painstakingly prepared by Brahmin cooks on the Rajbari premises—is served on giant salvers (the size of the wheels of a tonga). Some of the items on the menu are mithey gaja, chauko (square) gaja, pantua, peraki stuffed with cinnamon flavoured kheer, katkati, piping hot shingara stuffed with spicy potatoes or lentils, nimki, and radha ballavi (deep fried bread stuffed with lentils) each the size of a plate. A unique item is the motichoor, a mammoth laddu which, unlike regular motichoor, is pristine white (like a pearl) in colour. The Choto Rajar Bari (across the street from the original Rajbari) is also the lunch stop for Bonedi Barir Pujo Parikrama, organized by the state tourism department. A sumptuous lunch of pulao, luchi, alur dum and sweetmeat is served to the guests, usually by members of the Deb family.
Unique element: Since the tradition of freeing the Nilkantha birds (so, they could carry the news of Durga’s departure to Shiva) on Vijaya Dashami was forbidden by the Wildlife Preservation Act, clay models of the bird are immersed in the Ganges with Durga’s idol.
Chhatu Babu Latu Babu
The puja, started by Ishwar Ram Dulal Dey aka Ship Sarkar (he made a fortune from investments in maritime trade), at his Beadon Street residence in the 1780s, is famously known as Chatu Babu Latu Babur Puja, after Ram Dulal’s sons Ashutosh (Chatu) and Pramatha (Latu). Durga is adorned with stunning heirlooms, a few over two centuries, including a dazzling naulakkha haar.
The Bhog: A rather austere meal, comprising luchi and three kinds of vegetables, fried in ghee, is offered to the Goddess. The food is cooked without salt. Besides, naividya comprising rice, fruits, sweets and curd is a must. For guests of the family, however, an elaborate spread is prepared. Radhaballabi, chhanar dalna, dhokar dalna, stuffed capsicum, rich cauliflower curry, mishti doi, darbesh and ledikeni are the usual entrees on the menu.
Unique element: Here Durga is flanked by her sakhis (companions) Jaya and Bijaya. Perched on lotuses, these female figurines can easily be mistaken as Lakshmi and Saraswati except there’s no jhhapi or beena in either’s hands.
Pathuriaghata Ghosh Bari
Steeped in memories of a flamboyant past, Babu Khelat Ghosh’s palatial mansion on 47, Pathuriaghata Street (the present address of the prestigious All Bengal Music Conference), is a treasure trove of antiques like centuries old Belgian cut-glass chandeliers and a Thomasson Chronometer grandfather clock (imported from London in the early 1800s). It is also where one of the city’s oldest Durga Pujas, around 180-years-old, is hosted.
The Bhog: A rather unique item, offered to the Goddess here, is the chandana kheer, a delicate, milk pudding, tad runny, flavoured with sandalwood—a recipe over a century old. On certain evenings, giant bowls of saffron infused rabri is offered to the Goddess, while Ashtami means a vast assortment of deep-fried savouries like shingara and nimki, prepared in pure ghee, served in addition to the usual array of traditional sweets like chandrapuli, mammoth raj bhog, taal shansh (a curiously shaped sandesh) filled with runny jaggery (also called jal bhara) sourced from some of the most famous sweetshops in the city, as also home-made narkel nadu and kheer’er (khoya) chhapa mishti. Until a couple of years ago, a grand feast with everything from ilish paturi to mutton biryani on the menu was arranged for guests.
Unique element: Although no animal sacrifice is performed here, on Maha Ashtami is marked by the symbolic sacrifice of curious sugar structures called Mata Chini imported all the way from Kashi (Varanasi). The sweets made at home also use mata chini, instead of regular refined sugar.
Durga Puja at north Kolkata’s famous Laha Bari (now hosted in turns at three different addresses by different branches of the family) is a tradition over two centuries old. At Laha Bari, the clay idol of Durga is different from the usual 10-armed slayer of Mahishasura astride her fierce mount that one sees at pandals. Here Durga is seen sitting on Shiva’s lap. The ashtadhatu idol of the family deity Jai Jai Ma also journeys from the her original seat in the family prayer house to the Thhakur Dalaan with much ceremony during Durga Puja, where she is worshipped along with Shibo-Durga.
The Bhog: At Laha Bari, more than 20 different types of sweets are offered to the goddess, but there is no anna bhog. A mind-boggling assortment of ‘mithai’—tiler nadu, narkel nadu, sujir nadu, paan gaja, jibey gaja, jhad gaja, moog’er daler laddu, maidar laddu, chholar daler nadu, peraki, ledikeni, pantuas and more—is offered to the Goddess, and later distributed among visitors. Here too, the bhiyen system prevails, and every delicacy is made at home.
Unique Element: According to legend, the kuladevi Jai Jai Maa once appeared in a dream conveying how she yearned to follow the immersion procession, lured by the revelry. Ever since, on Vijaya Dashami, once Shibo-Durga leaves the premises of the house, all doors are shut and bolted, to stop Jai Jai Maa from leaving the house.
Darjiparar Mitra Bari
Over two centuries old, Durga Puja at the Mitra mansion in north Kolkata is a grand affair. The idol of Durga here sits on a grand throne about 210 years old. A unique ritual here is that the mandatory 108 lotuses offered to Durga are replaced with 108 Aparajita flowers, here.
The Bhog: Bhog at Mitra Bari is one of its kind. Apart from the regular naividya of rice, fruits and sweets, a naividya consisting of raw ingredients used in preparing khichuri and its usual accompaniments, and one of butter, are offered to Durga. Bori (dried pellets) of different kinds (poppy seeds, spinach, peanuts, different lentils, etc) are also offered along with an assortment of pickles—plum, tamarind, mango and aamshi (dried mango). The only cooked meal Durga is offered is a simple one of ghee-fried luchi, deep-fried vegetables (without salt) and sweetmeats.
Unique element: The women of the house must eat a meal comprising shukto, shaak, maachh and achaar offered as part of the bhog, on Vijaya Dashami before concluding the Baran rituals.
Dutta Bari, Balaram Dey Street
Durga Puja at the Dutta residence on Balaram Dey Street started in 1882. Shyamol Dhon Dutta, who started the puja here, belonged to the famous Dutta family of Hath Khola (Netaji’s mother Prabhabati hailed from the same family). An important tradition at Dutta Bari is the Kumari Puja (the symbolic worship of little girls as an embodiment of Mother Goddess) hosted on all three days of the festival.
The Bhog: A spread of radha ballavi, luchi, khasta kochuri, padma (lotus shaped) nimki, ledikeni, darbesh, narkel nadu, khasta gaja and mishti doi, prepared by Brahmin cooks who occupy the mansion’s dedicated bhiyen ghar from the eve of Shashti, is offered to the goddess twice every day. On Dashami, however, the Duttas arrange for a khichuri and payesh lunch for friends, neighbours and the less privileged.
Unique Element: The women of the family sit with clay malsha (bowls) filled with burning frankincense in their hands, and on their heads, as a votive offering—a ritual called Dhunoporano.