Ash Gourd, The Significance Of This Sacrificial Vegetable

When you think of religious sacrifice, where does your mind go? Most likely, it’s not to vegetables. But during Durga Puja, it’s the humble ash gourd that take on a new meaning, both in rituals and in the kitchen. The significance of ash gourd is deeply rooted in Vedic culture, as evidenced by its Sanskrit name, Kushmanda Rasayana. It is equated with the Devi Kushmanda (an incarnation of Goddess Durga), considered the creator of the universe. “It’s symbolic in the Hindu belief, the name itself means embryo,” says food writer and Bengali native Tanushree Bhowmik, “It’s been associated with the Mother Goddess for a long time. In the South, you’ll often see ash gourd smashed outside homes and businesses. The liquid that runs out represents the blood and is thought to deter the evil eye.”

The ash gourd is steeped in numerous myths and legends. In one such belief, individuals with living parents should refrain from cutting a whole ash gourd with a knife. Instead, in Karnataka, the practice is to shatter ash gourds by dropping them from a height. This custom is particularly observed on the ninth day of Dasara, during the Ayudha Puja. Sacrifices too were an integral part of worshipping the mother goddess and is deeply ingrained in the rituals surrounding Maa Durga. However, with the influences of Buddhism, Jainism and Vaishnava traditions, the practice of animal sacrifices dwindled. And it was then that the ash gourd became a ritualistic replacement and was attributed with a sacred life force, known as "Prana," signifying life itself. Aside from its spiritual significance, also has a lot of medicinal and nutritional value. It is mentioned in Ayurvedic texts like the Charaka Samhita, where it is considered part of the sakavarga group of medicinal plants. According to Charaka, the ash gourd helps balance the doshas in the body, revitalises the weary parts, and offers aphrodisiac properties. 

“The idea of sacrifice simply means giving back to the gods, something that they’ve bestowed on us, and from that point of view, the ash gourd is very apt for the rituals,” says Tanushree. Its shape too mimics the form of an animal's body, contributing to this transition. “In some parts, they often also pierce the gourd with sticks to represent the limbs and tail of an animal, and smear it with red vermillion and sometimes a little bit of turmeric to represent blood.” The gourd is then cut in half and it needs to be done in one stroke of the knife to represent the cutting off of an animal's head. This also seeps into day-to-day life, “In many Bengali families, women are never allowed to cut an ash gourd, a male member would take a knife and pierce or cut it in half to make sure it’s not perfect, since anything that’s not perfect cannot be offered up for sacrifice,” adds Tanushree.

Besides ritual offerings, ash gourd also finds a place in the meals during Durga Puja in preparations using mustard paste and mustard oil. “In our family, we make a dish with ash gourd coconut and mustard paste,” says Tanushree. It also plays a part in the dishes of Laxmi Puja which falls seven days after Durga Puja and is one of the five fried dishes (panch bhaja) that are offered to the goddess. 

Ash gourd is also used to make a dish called Chalkumro Bori, and type of dumpling that’s served with dal in many families. It’s also used in the prasad for many places. “Across India, I think it’s most well-known as a sweet, to make petha specifically,” says Tanushree, “but for us Bengalis we use it to make dal – especially moong dal. Stuffed and fried ash gourd, and we also cook it with fish heads and in some places where fish is offered as a bhog, it cooked with the fish and offered.”

As Durga Pujo gets underway, it’s time for the unassuming ash gourd to shine as a vegetable that bears great importance as an offering and as a nutritious food item, and its rich past continues to reflect in the celebrations to this day.