Every Tuesday, during the Bengali month of Jaishtha that falls at the height of summer, it is customary for women in my family to observe Joi Mongolbarer Brata, a fast in honour of goddess Mangal Chandi. When I was young, I would return from school late in the afternoon to find the fast coming to an end. My mother, grandmother and aunts would be gathered in our living room, preparing a slimy mash called gad. Grains of paddy and barley were mixed with muddled bananas and then gulped down in precisely three instalments, making sure it didn’t touch their teeth. Why three instalments? Because that was the niyom – the rule. Nobody knew why.

After the sludge came a gooey mix called phalaar. Scoops of mishti doi (sweetened yoghurt) were mixed into a bowl of soaked chirey (flattened rice), topped with crumbled sandesh and slices of bananas or chunks of mangoes. Everyone ate a bit. I didn’t care much for it, but was forced to have a little anyway. “Pet thanda hobe,” my grandmother would say – “It will cool your stomach.”

Joi Mongolbarer is one of the numerous bratas observed by the Hindu women in Bengal to invoke the blessings of deities in the hope that their wishes will be fulfilled. The wishes can vary greatly. So can the rituals. What is common to the observances, writes scholar June McDaniel in Making of Virtuous Wives and Daughters, is the expression of “personal faith” and the concern for others. And, of course, food.

While elsewhere abstinence frequently defines such observances, in Bengal food plays a crucial role. A brata may require the observer to follow a stipulated diet, offer prescribed food to the gods, give it away as charity, or just include food in the story – the katha – narrated during the observance.

One instance of this is Aada Holud Brata. Observed for the wellbeing of the husband and domestic harmony, it requires that a married woman be offered food – specifically, a good amount of paddy, a fistful of coriander seeds, five pieces each of ginger and fresh turmeric, as well as sweets – throughout the month of Baisakh. “The Aada Holud Brata obviously points to our primitive proto-australoid tribal roots,” said food historian Pritha Sen, “and [it is a show of] reverence to the planting season in the month of Chaitra.”

Aada Holud Brata begins on the last day of the month of Chaitra, called Chaitra Sankranti, which is also when Chhatu Sankranti Brata is observed. On this day, sattu made of various grains, along with sugarcane molasses and sweets, is offered as charity and consumed as well.

Pre-Hindu origins

The majority of these women-centric rituals in Bengal emerged from folk religion, not scriptures. Indeed, as Abanindranath Tagore points out in his book Banglar Broto, many of the meyeli bratas, or feminine vows, bear clear signs of pre-Hindu origins – although, over time, Brahmanical patriarchy has manipulated them to fit its dominant narratives.

An interesting brata that hints at the role of women in food production is Itur Brata. Observed on every Sunday in the month of Agrahayana, it was originally dedicated to the Sun god but has metamorphosed into a tradition that marks a good harvest. During the brata, a clay pot is filled with clay and a sacred vessel is placed at its centre. Around the vessel are planted banyan branches, saplings of taro and colocassia, mustard, turmeric, kalmi (water spinach), shushni shaak (dwarf water clover) and five different grains. Finally paddy is sprinkled all around. Every Sunday of the month the pot is watered, and on the final Sunday, a grand feast is cooked for Itu.

“While men tend to focus on commercial cash crops, women have traditionally played a crucial role in subsistence farming,” said food historian Tanushree Bhowmik. “There are quite a few bratas that underscore this role.”

Another thing bratas highlight is the knowledge passed down matrilineally about the seasonality of food and its nutritive virtue. An illustration of this, Bhowmik says, is Gashwi or Gadu Sankranti Brata, observed on the last day of the month of Ashwin, particularly in some regions of Bangladesh. The brata is a reminder that fresh produce is relatively scarce in Bengal in autumn – a period when nature is allowed to rest. “There is a saying during this time that goes: ‘Haalir khaaaye na, jaalir khaye na. (Don’t eat of the plough, Don’t eat of the net),’” said Bhowmick.

One dish made mandatorily on Gadu Sankranti Brata is Gadur Dal. In the past, this dal was prepared with khesarir dal (India peas) along with a rainbow of vegetables and typically eaten with atop chaal or millets. These days, matar dal (yellow split peas) is a common substitute. At Bhowmick’s home, Gadur Dal, referred to as Aat Anaaj, is made with a mix of grains (matar dal and green gram) along with eight different vegetables (colocassia leaves, stalks of water lily, mati aloo, among them). The vegetables in Gadur Dal, Bhowmick notes, were traditionally foraged since the brata arrived at the turn of the season in preparation of a period of frugality. “And, usually, it was women who foraged for food,” she explained.

Food blogger Maumita Paul Ghosh’s grandmother made her Gadur Dal with eight kinds of pulses and seeds, some of which were carefully stored during earlier seasons, in line with the long-cherished kitchen tradition of no-waste cooking.

On Gadu Sankranti, food is not consumed fresh but stored overnight outside the house in clay pots covered with wicker baskets. It is eaten the next day, which is the first day of the month of Kartik. A verse puts the rule succinctly: Ashwine raandhe kartike khaaye/jaa bor maange tai paye (Cooks in Ashwin, in Kartik consumes/the one is granted every boon). To explain the custom, a legend around Ashwinikumar is often cited: a divine physician, he is said to have prescribed Parvati to cook rice on the last days of Ashwin and eat it the next morning as a cure for an ailment.

Undesirable trait

Food anthropologist Ishita Dey points out that even if bratas provide for the consumption of foods beneficial for women, they are conditioned on the women first performing a stipulated role and putting their bodies through the act of abstinence and sacrifice. “We need to take a critical look at how women’s roles as nurturers and caregivers are doubly emphasised through the use of their bodies,” said Dey. “Besides, there’s the immense labour women are required to put in the kitchen to carry these culinary traditions forward.”

An example of what Dey calls valorisation of women’s labour, particularly in the kitchen, is Shankat Mangalchandi Brata, which requires the bratacharini to cook her own food. While that sounds fairly simple, it is patently not so. Tradition mandates that the observer must cook and eat with her right hand tucked under her right knee – a position called shankatabastha, which translates to perilous state. Usually two or more women perform these tiring rituals together since, at the end, a fellow bratini’s consent is needed to finish up.

Another brata that makes inordinate demands is Natayi Chandi Brata. Popular among those whose family lines can be traced to East Bengal, Natayi Chandi Brata requires women to prepare seven pitha or rice cakes – a mix of salted and unsalted or, in some homes like Bhowmik’s, savoury and sweet. Bengali artist-writer Rani Chanda recounts in her book Amar Maayer Baperbari how her aunts would eat the pithas they made in a shadowy corner of the house in absolute silence. The practice probably stemmed from age-old codes of feminine propriety in Bengal, where women would typically eat in private and often secretly, so that they were not seen eating.

The brata katha narrated during Patayi Shashti Brata offers an insight into this relationship between food, women and feminine propriety. At the centre of the story is a young woman with a big appetite. Much to her mother-in-law’s despair, the woman often eats the Naivedya, or ritualistic food, before it could be offered to the gods. The story blames her gluttony and apathy towards fasts for her string of stillbirths. On the day of Patai Brata, while she is busy washing clothes at the pond, she overhears the sound of conch shells and ululation and remembers it’s Patai Brata, for which special food should have been prepared. As she runs home she trips on the root of a tree and collapses. In the end, her mother-in-law convinces her to observe Patai Shashti Brata and all is well. The moral of the story is clear: in a woman, longing for food is an undesirable, almost scandalous and sinful, trait.

Abstinence and sacrifice are even more pronounced in bratas for widowed women, whose lives were traditionally circumscribed by strict roles and rituals. Poet Satyendranath Dutta’s Dorokha Ekadoshi speaks of a young widow who is condemned to hunger and thirst on Ekadoshi Brata while a married woman enjoys luchis and mangoes from her husband’s platter. Her throat parched, her hunger insufferable, the widow endures silently. The poem concludes:

Ekadasir bidhan-datar garje nasha sukhi/
Adhomukhe biswa dekhe, hay go Biwanath,
Pashan pore ashru jhore pore divas raat.

The arbiter of Ekadasi is deep in slumber/
while the world watches on, head hung low,
as tears roll down stones all day long.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.