Ganga Dussehra 2024: The Food And Festivities In Uttarakhand
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The holy Ganges, lovingly called Ma (mother) Ganga in India, is worshipped across the country. Ganga Dussehra, also called Ganga Dashami, is observed to honour and worship Ganga, which is considered sacred and personified as a goddess in Hindu mythology. It is believed that bathing in the Ganga during this festival can purify one's sins and grant salvation.

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The story goes that King Bhagiratha performed intense penance to bring the Ganga down from the heavens to earth to purify the ashes of his ancestors. Lord Shiva captured the river in his locks to prevent destruction and then released it gently, forming what is the Ganga we see today.

Uttarakhand, home to the point of origin and the source of the Ganga at Gangotri holds a special place in the religion and hosts grand celebrations for Ganga Dussehra. Two of the most prominent pilgrimage sites, Haridwar and Rishikesh, see massive gatherings of devotees who take a holy dip in the Ganga. 

The ghats are beautifully decorated, and special aartis (rituals of worship) are performed. While the celebrations in Haridwar mainly happen at Har Ki Pauri, Rishikesh also hosts significant festivities, especially at the Triveni Ghat.

The Rituals

Devotees take a dip in the Ganga, believing it to cleanse them of their sins and bring prosperity. At the Ganga Aarti performed at the various ghats there are offerings of lamps, flowers, and incense to the river while chanting hymns and prayers. Devotees perform elaborate pujas and homas (fire rituals) to honour the goddess Ganga. Many places host fairs and cultural programs, including folk music, dance performances, and spiritual discourses.

The festival highlights the deep connection between the people of Uttarakhand and the Ganga. “Ganga Dussehra is celebrated with great fervour in Uttarakhand, particularly in the holy city of Haridwar. One of the most vivid memories I have is that of the Ganga Aarti, a grand evening ritual where priests perform synchronised prayers with lit lamps, creating a mesmerising sight as the flames dance against the twilight sky,” says Chef Rahul Rana, Global Chef, Avatara who grew up in Uttarakhand.

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“Another ritual is ‘Deep Daan,’ where devotees float small oil lamps on the river, creating a glittering spectacle of lights on the water. The chanting of hymns and mantras by the riverbanks adds to the spiritual atmosphere, making the experience deeply moving,” he adds.

Chef Pawan Bisht, an independent food Consultant and an expert on food from Uttarakhand, also has fond memories of the festival. “I remember getting ready to visit Haridwar with my family and taking a dip in river Ganga. We would wait for that eagerly every year,” he reminisces.

The Prashad

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“Food plays a significant role in Ganga Dussehra celebrations. Prasad often includes traditional sweets like Peda and Jalebi. These offerings are made to the deities and then distributed among devotees. Additionally, vegetarian dishes such as Aloo Puri -  (potato curry with fried bread) and Kachori (spicy lentil-filled pastries) are popular during the festival,” says Rana.

“I fondly remember the taste of freshly made Peda, its creamy texture and sweetness that still lingers in my memory. Another cherished memory is enjoying the hot Aloo Puri,  prepared by my grandmother with a special blend of spices, making it a highlight of the festive meal. The aroma of these dishes, mingling with the scent of incense and flowers by the river, created an unforgettable experience.”

For Chef Bisht, it was the fruits, desserts made with rice, and the batashe (sugar drop) offered to Ganga ji and the Kheer, poori, and halwa made at home that made the festival special. “ I was very fond of Kheer. From what I remember, it was made with either white rice or red rice. The rice was washed thoroughly and, after that, fried in a pan. Then milk and crushed cardamom were added to the rice. The kheer was cooked on slow heat till the rice was fluffy. Once the rice was done and the milk became thick, the sugar was added. When the sugar dissolved, the kheer was done.”

Modern Day Adaptations

Having been born and raised in Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, which is also known as Devbhoomi (land of the gods), Chef Rana found himself immersed in these traditions while growing up. He later went on to draw inspiration from them in his culinary journey, especially at Dubai’s Avatara, the world’s only vegetarian Indian-cuisine restaurant with a Michelin star, which also recently opened in Mumbai.

“At Avatara, for instance, we created Naivedhya, our first course. In Indian culture, Naivedhya means offering to God, and it is customary to offer food to the deity before partaking in it as prasad. In this course, we serve  Makhan Malai (freshly churned butter) paired with popping rock sugar, saffron, and the sacred blend of Panchamrita, creating a flavourful experience. This is inspired from my childhood in Rishikesh and the rituals during these festivities.”