Tomorrow is Vishwakarma Puja in Bengal. While every other festival appears on different dates each year depending on its tithi, Vishwakarma Puja has rooted itself deeply on 17th September and never budges. It’s an enigma created many decades ago and Bengal has been following it religiously since. Vishwakarma has been considered as the divine architect, the God of Engineers and machines. If you are in Bengal on 17th September, you’ll easily spot this good looking deity being worshipped in every factory, press, manufacturing unit and even in rickshaw stands. While other idols sport some weapon or the other in their hand(s), Lord Vishwakarma is proudly flanked by a kite! His arrival brightens up the autumn sky with vibrant kites (that have a name each based on their designs) that look like confetti spread all over the canopy.
But this is not an article about Vishwakarma Puja. It’s about an age old custom associated with the festival – Arandhan (no cooking). It is celebrated in the month of Bhadra, on the auspicious day of Vishwakarma Puja. Typically, the custom involves no cooking on heat for the day. Every item was cooked the day before and stored in earthen utensils to protect them from rotting in the autumn heat. The culmination of the month of Bhadra implies the end of monsoon and onset of autumn in the next month of Ashwin. Arandhan serves the purpose of cleaning up the household after rains and offer a platter of the choicest foods from monsoon to Ma Manasa (goddess of snakes). I think this ritual originated in rural Bengal to protect people from the wrath of Manasa and her army of snakes. Until my generation came into being, our families used earthen stoves (unoon/chulha) before the advent of LPG. After cooking up a storm for Arandhan, the stoves and kitchen were cleaned to perfection. A platter was served on earthenware and offered to Ma Manasa, symbolised by a clay pot placed beside the stove.
Not every household celebrated this delicious festival, including mine. It’s still a rare one and not many even in Bengal are aware of it. I’ve had glimpses of it in my mother’s maternal grandmother’s place and heard stories about the food from M’s maternal family as well. A part of Arandhan is to invite a few close ones and share the food with them. It’s also called Ranna Pujo (mostly in South 24 Parganas), as the festival is about cooking and not. I have faint memories of attending the invitation with my parents at mother’s maternal grandmother’s place in Baranagar. One of mother’s aunts, the youngest one, was the host and she was a great cook. I used to call her Notun Dida as she became the youngest and newest grandmother after I was born. She served a beautiful menu that was passed on to her from previous generations and tried to conserve the custom as much as possible. I can’t reproduce the platter with seasonal fruits, vegetables and fish here in Pune, but let’s have a sneak peek of the items that were traditionally served in my mother’s family.
The two pillars of an Arandhan menu are Panta Bhaat and Ilish. While Panta cools down your gut and stomach, Ilish is a must as it is the prised catch of monsoons. Panta Bhaat is one of the best things that you can do with rice in a sub tropical country like ours. Rice is cooked and stored in an earthen pot with sufficient water in it. It is covered with an earthen lid and allowed to ferment overnight. When you serve the soaked rice with a choice of sides, it will simply cool down your system. The fermentation of rice is just perfect for a good siesta later. My father says their ancestral kitchen corner had a hole dug permanently to store rice for Panta quite frequently. This additional cooling probably resulted in better fermentation. Since Panta is soaked, cool rice – it is served best with a platter of hot and fried items. At my mother’s maternal grandmother’s place, the staple was Narkel Bhaja (fried pieces of coconut), Beguni (eggplant fritters), and Ilish machh bhaja (fried Ilish). If you ever try making Panta Bhaat at home, here’s a trick on how to have it in the most delectable manner. Serve a big spoonful of the cool rice, squeeze a little lime juice on it, mash half a green chilli, add salt, mix well and eat with raw onions. You’ll find a mouthful of heaven slowly traversing your gut.
Once you’re satiated with Panta, rest of the menu slowly makes appearance. Chalta diye Matar Daal is up next. If you know Bengalis well, no lunch is complete without a daal. So Matar Daal (Yellow Pigeon Peas) is cooked with chunks of Chalta (Elephant Apple) – the fruit of the season. We find exotic fusion items using fruit with Indian daal, but trust me, it has been an age old recipe in Bengal.
Chalta is a slightly sweet and quite sour fruit that was used frequently in Bengali cuisine. Daal was followed by a vegetarian item – Chalkumror Ghonto. Since Chalkumro (Ash Gourd) is devoid of much taste, an addition of Matar Daal Bora (fritters) into the ghonto makes it more appealing. This is thankfully one vegetarian item that I can happily reproduce in my kitchen and a photo is due to appear here, soon. The fish items make their entry as entrees next – Ilish Machher Knata Chochhori (Ilish head and bones in a curry). The translation doesn’t do justice here as Knata Chochhori is difficult to illustrate. Frankly, I haven’t heard of this much and the recipe is totally unknown, though I’d try my best to procure it from mother and try to recreate. There was also a Bhetki Machher Jhaal served in this traditional menu. The treat ended with Chaltar Tawk (Elephant Apple Chutney) to cleanse the palate with its sweet and sour taste. Mishti Doi and a tray of sweets always followed the meal or preceded it at times.
While this was the Arandhan menu from my extended family, I’ve heard of other items being cooked in South 24 Parganas like Daal Chochhori (a dry item of daal with veggies), Ilish Machher Matha diye Kochur Shaak (Taro/Colocasia greens with Ilish head) and more fishy items. M has memories of his maternal grandmother cooking up Panta Bhaat and a plethora of Ilish items to be served after Vishwakarma Puja at their place.
Our memories are fading with decades and generations passing by, and there’s not much we can do to conserve these scrumptious festivals and customs. As we’re flying off to far flung lands and cities, our ties with Chalta and Matar Daal are weakening. I can still procure Chalkumro and Ilish in Pune, but celebrating Arandhan seems quite improbable in our sedentary and isolated lifestyles. Sitting pretty in our skyscrapers and ‘society’s, it is futile to appease the goddess of snake in earthen pots and dishes, since we have lost contact with the earth.
Happy Arandhan to anyone celebrating. Wish I could cook all these for each of my readers and witness the glee of devouring such a feast served traditionally. Someday, may be.
P.S. The title of this article mentions Arandhan in past tense as I haven’t heard of many who take the effort these days. My parents’ domestic help is from South 24 Parganas and she’s celebrating tomorrow with a limited budget.
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