While most of north India revels in Diwali and its fruit-and-nut sacrifices, in east India, Kali Puja takes precedence. And every year, a debate breaks out between vegetarians and non-vegetarians over food supremacy.
But food in Bengal, like food from anywhere else, has 10 hands. From a tradition of animal sacrifices to vegetarian mutton to chopsuey prasad, the Kali Puja festivities in Bengal are a mosaic of residues from East India Company, Hakka Chinese immigrants, Mughal rulers and tantric rituals.
How Kali rose
Worship of Kali increased in the mid-18th century in Bengal. Several Kali temples sprang up in Bengal, with many literary texts being written about the goddess during this period. Also, not coincidentally, Bengal was in the throes of a grand political, economic, cultural and climatic (famines) chaos in this century – with the Mughals and the East India Company making their presence felt. The worshipper’s relationship with Kali became almost a mother-child relationship, where solace was sought in the deity. The Shakta practices (tradition of worshipping the Goddess) gained ground in Bengal and Kali and Durga rose above others in the pantheon.
The mass participation, for the first time, in these pujas gave zamindars political currency as well. The pujas helped consolidate their hold over a region at a time of upheaval. And obviously, food and prasad were big parts of this. For many, who couldn’t afford their own animal sacrifice to the goddess, this was a community event where meat was shared.
Raja Nabakrishna Deb hosted a Durga puja in the autumn of 1757 to celebrate the East India Company defeating Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah. Robert Clive had personally sent him a gift of goats for the occasion.
A letter to the editor of Samachar Darpan in 1832 goes on to highlight what a grand affair these pujas had become. The letter talked about the routine consumption of “beef, brandy, champagne” during the pujas.
The image of Kali is much more ferocious than Lakshmi’s. The blood-thirsty goddess, with her tongue out, has a severed head on one hand and a weapon in another. She wears a necklace of heads and, according to mythology, lives in cemeteries.
The dual nature of Kali – the tantric one where she is associated with ferocity and violence, and the more sanitised, Brahminised mother goddess who supposedly regrets stepping on her husband Shiva – led to two types of ritual offerings. Fruits and sweets on the one hand, and sacrificial meat on the other.
The most famous temple of Kali, the Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, was also built in 1809. Goats by the hundreds were sacrificed for Kali Puja at this temple. Even though open slaughter is banned in Kolkata, the practice continued in Kalighat. In a 2006 Calcutta High Court ruling, the judges said Kalighat was a tourist destination and visitors could not be forced to watch the bloodbath.
The mixing of the bloody Shakta and non-bloody Vaishnav traditions during Kali Puja just meant that Bengalis came up with a dish that eased their guilt, slightly. This was the Niramish Mangsho, or vegetarian mutton. The meat is slow-cooked with ginger, spices and curd till it becomes tender and succulent. What makes it “vegetarian” is the absence of onion and garlic from the recipe. It is first offered to the goddess and then consumed.
On Bhoot Chaturdoshi, a day before Kali Puja, Hindus light 14 lamps to ward off evil spirits from their homes. And for those thinking that Bengalis only indulge in mutton debauchery during Kali Puja, Bhoot Chaturdoshi has a different menu to return balance to the gastronomical world. Fourteen different types of green vegetables or choddo shaak are supposed to be eaten on the day. Folklore has it that tantrics would kidnap children on the day for ritual sacrifices on Kali Puja and so they had to eat green vegetables to be strong – taking care of both immunity and myth-making.
In Kolkata’s Tangra, where the Hakka Chinese and Dalits settled and built several tanneries, exists the Chinese Kali temple, frequented by both Hindus and Chinese descendants. The prasad? Chopsuey, fried rice, chowmein, vegetables.
‘Bhog’ or feast during Kali Puja now includes anything from khichdi and labda (a super vegetable medley) to mutton. Even if you don’t worship Kali, on the puja night, you are likely to be seen gobbling biryani, mughlai and rolls. Or greasy Hakka Chinese, as you do.
And to wash down the night of unabashed sins? Gelusil, and for the believers, prayers.