Holi 2023: What Goes Into Vrindavan’s Famous 56 Bhog Thaali?
- Shreya Goswami
Updated : March 08, 2023 03:03 IST
There is perhaps no Holi celebration that matched the pomp of Braj or Vrindavan. The 56 Bhog Thaali is an integral part of these celebrations. Slurrp talked to Vrindavan residents and experts all about this special thaali. Here’s what you should know.
As India and the world prepares to get drenched in colours and delicious foods to celebrate the festival of Holi 2023, there is a special part of India which engages in celebrations in a different way. Brajbhumi, the region of Uttar Pradesh that stretches on both sides of the Yamuna River, celebrates Holi as a festival dedicated to Lord Krishna. Centred around Mathura and Vrindavan, as well as small towns like Barsana where Devi Radha was born, this region has always been culturally demarcated as the land of Lord Krishna.
During Holi, the region celebrates not just a single day or two, but a whole stretch of 40 days as a part of prolonged festivities. One of the key aspects of these festivities is the famous Braj Ki Holi Ki Thaali, which encompasses Chhappan or 56 Bhog dishes offered to Lord Krishna. Here’s everything you need to know about how the people of Brajbhumi celebrate Holi through the special 56 Bhog Thaali.
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The Leela Of Lord Krishna
While Lord Vishnu has many avatars who are worshipped as per Hindu scriptures, Lord Krishna holds a special place because of his uniqueness and his teachings as both a shepherd and a king. “Krishna is the only Vishnu avatar who has Leelas, which is why he’s known as Leela Purushottam,” explains Samrat Banerjee, an avid Krishna-bhakt and Partner at CHO – Vietnamese Kitchen, Bar & Terrace. “While we never know what the Matsya avatar or Narsimha avatar did throughout the day, as per the scriptures, we know what Krishna is up to during all the Ashtraprahar. His Leela stretches from waking up in the morning to the Gaucharan or cow herding time to evenings. These Leelas are described in detail in the Govind Leelamrit and other sources. The idea of 56 Bhog is related to the Leelas in this way: In a week we have seven days, and every day has eight prahars. So, seven multiplied by eight is 56 vyanjan or dishes.”
Banerjee explains that this Leela is basically of two types. The Nitya Leela or Ashtayaam Leela is basically associated with the days when Lord Krishna is a working boy, i.e. he works as a dedicated cowherd. The 56 Bhog around this time includes dishes which are elaborate and can be had when Lord Krishna can sit down and indulge in a huge meal. On the other hand, there is Naimitik Leela, which is based on festive occasions like Holi. “Just like we get an annual leave, Holi is the official time of leave for Thakurji, which starts from Basant Panchami till Holi,” Banerjee explains. “So, these 40 days are the time when all Brajwaasis take a holiday. This is the festive time when Thakurji is going to play with his friends, Radha and the gopis. Obviously, the food also changes around this time. Yes, it’s a festive period but at the same time, this is the time for play so having a proper sit-down meal is not something Thakurji will do now. Rather, all the food needs to be “on-the-go", in the form of a small tiffin tied to a waistcloth. So, during Holi, the number of items remain the same at 56, but what goes in the plate changes.”
The Story Around Braj Ki Holi
Apart from the Naimitik Leela story that dictates what goes into the 56 Bhog Thaali, there is another legend associated with Lord Krishna and Holi. Anita Khetarpal, who is a Vrindavan resident and author of books like Make Space For Grace, Shri Bhakti Rasamrit, and Kripa Manjari, explains that “the concept of 56 Bhog comes from the seven days during which Krishna held the Govardhan mountain on his little finger to protect Brajwaasis from the anger of Lord Indra. Because he was busy holding up the mountain during these seven days, he could not eat. Once Indra was appeased and the Brajwaasis were safe, the citizens offered their lord protector with the 56 Bhog.”
In case you are unfamiliar with the legend, it goes that Lord Krishna asked the Brajwaasis to discontinue the worship of Lord Indra in the favour of worshipping Govardhan mountain, which provided shepherds of the area with everything they needed to keep their livestock healthy. Indra took offense to this, and ordered his clouds to rain non-stop on Braj to teach the Brajwaasis a lesson. That’s when Lord Krishna lifted the mountain to provide the Brajwaasis with a refuge, and after seven days, Indra knew he had deigned to compete with a miraculous avatar. Conceding the round to Lord Krishna, he proved the young avatar was a true protector of his people. The 56 Bhog offered by the Brajwaasis was therefore a gesture of appreciation as well as well-deserved worship.
Everything In The 56 Bhog, And All That’s Left Out
No matter what the exact legend behind the 56 Bhog Thaali dedicated to Lord Krishna, the dishes that go into this elaborate thaali are still a part of the ritual celebration of Holi in Brajbhumi. So, what goes into the Holi-special 56 Bhog Thaali in Braj? “There is a liberal use of kesar or saffron in everything, because it is a festive colour. You also have the colour that comes out of the Tesu, and barfi is made using it,” Banerjee explains, adding that since this is also a time of season change and hectic playing with colours both wet and dry, the focus on health is a key aspect. “Milk offerings will always have saffron and almonds to give you that strength to combat any health issue that might come from getting wet during Holi celebrations. Everything is spiced with black pepper. Then there is sugarcane, and sugar and jaggery,” he says.
Khetarpal explains that since Bhaang or cannabis leaves are considered to be the healing flavour of this season transition, Bhaang-laced goodies are also offered to Lord Krishna. “We offer thandai with or without Bhaang, Bhaang Laddos, Bhaang Kulfi, etc. But these are all secret ingredients. We also offer various types of Chaat during Holi,” she says. Banerjee elaborates on a whole list of Holi goodies that are a part of the Holi-special 56 Bhog. “Some dishes unique to the Holi-special 56 Bhog are different kinds of laddoos, ranging from dry coconut and sugar laddoos to Til Ke Laddoo, Besan Laddoo—all laden with ghee, but also with a black pepper element just to keep that healthy spice aspect on. There are four-five kinds of Mathris which are sweet or salty. Of course, there are Gujiyas of different kinds, including Chandrakalas. They are usually filled with khoya, coconut, almonds, etc to make them rich and nutrient-dense.”
But while these are regular 56 Bhog fare for Holi which are offered throughout the 40 days of the festival, a special dish is added on D-Day. “On the day of Holi, Malpua is the big festive sweet always offered to the deity,” Banerjee says. “But these Malpuas are tiny, not big ones, so that you can have them on the go. They are, in fact described as ‘Chote chote malpua, ghrit chu vatako’ (small little malpuas which are dripping with ghee).”
Just like on any auspicious day on the Hindu calendar, there are also certain things which are cut out of the 56 Bhog Thaali for Lord Krishna. “Thakurji does not have the time to sit down and have elaborate tarkaris and other dishes. So, these are avoided,” Banerjee explains. “Spices are also avoided in the Holi special 56 Bhog Thaali. Even in the temples, we don’t use chillies of any kind. Things are usually cooked sweet and healthy. There is no asafoetida. Only Indian-origin fruits and vegetables are consumed, so there is no potato, no tomato, cauliflowers, etc. And of course, everything is Sattvik, so there is no onion or garlic.”