United We Stand, For Bhoger Khichuri
Image Credit: Bhoger Khichuri

Every year, a few days before Durga Puja, I start receiving feelers from some of my friends and former colleagues (mostly non-Bengali) to help enable them to partake of the Durga Puja bhog at any one of the pandals in town. In focus is Khichuri (to be pronounced khi-choo-ree) - the runny, yellow-hued mishmash of the small-grained and aromatic Gobindobhog rice, roasted moong dal beans or split yellow lentils and vegetables (traditionally potato, cauliflower, and peas), with a seasoning of ‘gorom moshla’ (bay leaf, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves), dried red chilli, cumin seeds, and topped off with a generous dollop of ghee. 

Served steaming hot on a sal leaf with another festive favourite Labra, a medley of vegetables (like potato, pumpkin, radish, cabbage, beans, and spinach) of a similar runny texture, Beguni (crisp brinjal fritters), a tangy-sweet tomato chutney or ‘chaatni’ as the Bongs would have it, and finally ending with some more hot rice pudding or Paayesh, it is the Khichuri that is the star of the bhog. 

The makeshift kitchens which come up for those few days beginning Saptami and ending with Dussehra at most Durga Puja pandals has the scale and community spirit of the langar seva at a gurdwara and has the same purpose: to feed all people, irrespective of their faith. I remember one of the puja committee members at one of the oldest puja pandals in Tank Bund, Hyderabad mentioning about one of their biggest donors being a Sikh gentleman who would contribute quintals of rice, similarly the lentils would be donated by a Telugu businessman and the bhog or prasad would be served to thousands of people who would visit the puja pandal.

Since the Durga Puja pandal is considered sarbojanin (universal), nobody is turned away empty-handed, even if the cooked bhog or prasad runs out. Contingency stocks of raw materials are always available, and a hot meal is cooked up in no time.  

The Bhog Khichuri served on Ashtami is especially vied for, as Ashtami is considered the most auspicious and the peaking of Durga’s Shakti on her mission to vanquish the bovine demon Mahishasura. That day, there is always a generous margin kept for more Bhog supplies, keeping in view the teeming hundreds who throng the pandal, to seek the blessings of the goddess and partake of the simple, vegetarian bhog which is soul-uplifting. 

I have personal experience of witnessing this when I was participating in Bhog Poribeshon at the puja pandal and food ran out as the crowd turnout was exactly double the usual numbers. Although there was hullabaloo in the kitchen, the ‘extra’ guests sitting at the dining table did not get a whiff of the commotion inside. They waited patiently, as hot khichuri and beguni and tomato chutney were dished out and no, there were no complaints about the missing Labra.

I remember on the same occasion a gentleman wishing me while being served and I was thinking how pleasant-mannered he was and wondering had I seen him before? The next day I was told by my friend, who is a chef at a star hotel, that he was the person I had served bhog to but since he was not wearing his uniform I had, perhaps, not been able to recognise him. I had to correct him that it was the sheer multitudes and the pressure to serve the couple of dishes assigned to me to serve at a buffet set up that day, that I failed to add up the identity. 

I find it fascinating to study the profile of guests waiting in line patiently, Dida in her white, starched cotton Jamdani sari, Dadu in his best kurta pyjama and the younger generation mostly dressed as Christmas trees, depending on their sartorial sensibilities. Then there are the NRI kinds, who dress up in chic ethnics and indulge in witty English-peppered Bangla banter and carry their cutlery to have bhog. But the goal for all is the same, stand in queue, grab a chair, and enjoy the piping hot and delicious bhog served out of ‘baltis’ or buckets and feel that level of bliss, to the chants of Bolo Durga Maa ki Joi. 

Then there are the devout fasting Maashi Ma’s who will be found near the Durga idol, participating in various rituals with the priests and not having had a morsel of food until all the offerings are made to the goddess. 

These days, some pandals have started serving fried rice or Basanti Pulao served on Nabami to the utter disappointment of the traditionalists and I would completely bat for that view. For, there is nothing to match the absolutely unbeatable and unputdownable Bhoger Khichuri. 

The Ashtami Bhog is always the most vied of the lot, as the Mahasthami or the eighth day is considered most auspicious. Most devotees are on fast until Pushpanjali and while some break their fast with Luchi, Aloo Dom and Rasgulla at the food stalls at the pandal, others wait patiently near the community dining centre awaiting their turn to be served bhog. Ironically, bhog served at pandals is strictly vegetarian and sans onion-garlic, the stalls at Puja pandals are anything but vegetarian. Be it the chicken rolls or Dimer Devil or Fish Orly or Chowmein or Singada-Aloo Chop, Sondesh-Malpua, there is enough to engage the palate of die-hard foodies, but in the end it is that gooey Khichuri which rules.   

Frankly and personally speaking, one of the best socio-cultural/spiritual entitlements I feel happy to have imbibed, having married into a Bengali family is this Durga Puja celebration of community camaraderie. Be it New York, London, Hongkong or Kolkata, Mumbai or Hyderabad, Durga Puja pandals come up in any corner of the world with great gusto. I have seen it wherever we travelled for our jobs, first in Delhi, (where film director Dibakar Banerjee was also a puja committee member who had visited our house for late night puja organising discussions and I don’t even remember now!) and then in Bengaluru where we got to see both young techies and the older generation organising the Puja with the same amount of zeal. 

I remember participating in puja pandals in the west in Ahmedabad, (where the garba puja and dandiya nights would vie for our attention too) in the east (in Bhubaneswar where most puja pandals serve prasad of sweets and fruits after Pushpanjali and not bhog) and in the south in Bengaluru and now Hyderabad. While I was a reluctant entrant, wondering initially what the fuss was all about, especially when most of those days were working ones, I have now become a full and final bhakt of all things Durga Puja. The spirit of universal brotherhood rules across locations and interestingly, even the divine taste of khichuri remains the same. 

So, what makes khichuri so special? Is it the magnetic spirit of Durga Ma and her blessings which make Bhoger Khichuri taste so divine? Who knows? I am already making my plans for pujo pandal hopping and having my first Bhoger Khichuri… Bolo Durga Mai ki Joi!