Diwali is a festival that not only unites the country in celebration but also in its delightful richness of treats and delicacies.
Holi has gujiya, Eid has seviyan, Pongal has payasam, Ganesh Chaturthi has modak, and Lakshmi puja has kheer and halwa. But Diwali? When it comes to festivals and the sweets associated with them, the festival of lights seems like the odd one out.
While each region has its own speciality – Himachal Pradesh has Khus Khus ka halwa, Kashmir has Shufta, Darjeeling has Sel Roti, Amritsar, Rasguliya; and Agra, its iconic petha, not one of them defines the essence of Diwali. The festival is as united in its celebration as it is diverse in its platter of treats, especially sweets. In fact, it is the only Indian festival that truly reflects national integration – not just today, but also in the past when the festival of lights was adopted by many a powerful ruler as their court festival.
The distinction, of course, goes to the Mughals who not only made Diwali an annual court festival during their reign, but also designed the grand way it is celebrated today. Read: fireworks, an exquisite food spread, an extensive sweet platter and gambling (read: card games) courtesy Emperor Jahangir.
History also credits them, at least the later Mughals, to turn the Hindu festival into one that united religions. It would be adopted by different royalty post 1857 not just as an effective political tool but also as a celebration that remained an epitome of India’s rich cultural heritage. However, the Mughals weren’t the only ones to be smitten by the festival of lights, which they equated to the one celebrated by Egyptian Pharaohs. Legend has it that Diwali was very much part of the Kalinga, Gupta, Vijayanagar and the Rajput’s glorious reigns as well. Its natural joyous character also made it an integral part of Buddhism and Jainism.
What makes Diwali so infectious a festival, says Yogendra Pal (Executive Chef, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty), “wasn’t just its bright, happy appearance but also the rituals that encouraged the feeling of being a part of a community. Even in its earlier iteration, the festival infused the joy of being together and that of a fresh start. Old books mention how in Vijayanagar, a kingdom that gave India the epithet of “sone ki chidiya”, Diwali was a three day long festival, the preparation of which began with the entire kingdom getting a fresh coat of life. Be it in terms of the palaces and homes being whitewashed once again, markets were set anew, even the sweetmeat makers would begin making sweets with season’s freshest, and this included ghee as well that was specially made for the occasion.”
This sheer flurry of activities in a city brightly lit for three days, continues Chef Pal, “would have been like a booster shot of joy that would make people have this balmy feeling which would transcend into a community festival.”
That “undeniable sense of joy” is an inherent part of Diwali, making it a celebration that people waited for. Not only in the mainland but ports as well where the festival according to culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “was an egalitarian carnival and the finest showcase of our culture of the time.”
A fine example of this was when Emperor Akbar decided to turn Diwali into a court festival on par with Nouroz, a major festival for Mughals at the time. He turned not towards the Tughlaqs, who were the first Delhi Sultanate rulers, but to Braj where the festivity was in accordance with the legend of Ram returning to Ayodhya.
And in this adaptation, says Chef Gorai, “came not only the tradition of gau (cow) puja but the sweets and food as well, especially ladoos, kheer, batasey and khilona among others. To this were added a few other rituals from Nouroz, which included the rituals of gifting, offerings and weighing of the emperor against the wealth that would be distributed to the subjects.
The later Mughals added newer things like Chappan Thal during Jahangir’s time, Akash Diya during Shah Jahan’s time and theatrics and others post Aurangzeb’s era. It was under Akbar’s reign that the festival was utilized as the perfect platform to build a united empire. Until then, Deepavali was celebrated differently across regions. For example, in Amber it was done with ladoo, halwa and a special sweet called Chapada; made of clarified butter and sugar – most likely, crystal sugar, and used for rituals, adds Shantanu Mehrotra (Executive Chef, Indian Accent).
What was remarkable about the Mughals’ celebrating Diwali or the ‘Jashn-e-Chiraghan’, as they fondly christened it, according to Chef Mehrotra, “ was showcased best in its food, especially the sweet platter that had contributions from each and every region of the empire as well as kingdoms that the Mughals held friendly alliance with.”
“That aside”, says Chef Pal, “it also paved the way for newer addition that came from far off land including the many ladoos, halvas from Turkey and those inspired by Sultan Suleiman’s royal kitchen, dry fruits from Persia and a wide variety of savoury dishes from the Pastun kitchens that included a slew of pilafs, kormas and such.”
Chef Gorai adds, “Mughals and their adaptation of Diwali broke the religious ceiling among the rulers as different kingdoms took to celebrating the festival with equal pomp and show, including Kashmir even as the empire rapidly declined with the later Mughals.”
Similarly in Awadh, chowks were decorated, sweetmeat, and attar makers were specially commissioned to create mithais to be distributed amongst the subjects. These were also gifted to the Nizam, who remained a fierce culinary competitor but a good friend of the Nawab.
Awadh history aficionado Sandeep Singh (co-owner, Ministry of Beer) adds, “It was here that phirni and different formats of halwa and barfi became a larger part of the platter along with traditional savouries like shakarpara, motichur ladoo and nimkipara. The other place that contributed hugely to the savoury side of Diwali treats was the state of Bikaner. They were already known for their Moong Dal Halwa, RaJ Kachori, Bhujia and Rajbhog, which was an interesting variation of rasgulla.”
Bengal remained an ace part of both the powerful empires of medieval and modern India, in spite of Diwali not being a key festival. They contributed immensely to the platter with their sandesh, mihidana, flaky pastry-style mithais like lavang latika and newer innovations like ledkini, and Channa Dal Halwa.
This was a suit later followed by other small estates and kingdoms of the latter period, who found Diwali nostalgic. While the festival post the decline of Oudh lost much of its grandeur, it remained, at least in food, one of the most joyful occasions across India with different traditions added to it.
What did the Diwali sweet thali finally appear like? “Kashmir added Shufta (a lavish sweetmeat made of dry fruits, spices and sugar); Kumaon scored with bal mithai (a fudge-like delicacies coated in tiny sugar balls); Punjab added Pinni (a form of ladoo that is both an indulgence and for health), and gud ka halwa”, says Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Garam Masala) “with bowls of belly warm gulguliya, which are these marble-sized gulab jamun filled with rose marmalade, a local specialty of the region.”
Mathura added jalebi, a festival staple today, served with a layer of rabri. Nizam added Gil-e-Firdaus (a phirni-style sweet) to the mix. Another classic added to the Diwali platter during the Patiala era was Gajrela or Gajjar Ka Halwa. Made of black carrot, which isn’t as sweet as its red counterpart, this version has a signature twang that makes it the perfect winter treat and Diwali must-have.
Rampur’s offering included the Mirch Ka Halwa, made with green chillies that have been deveined and deseeded to be cooked with liberal amounts of khoya till it loses all its pungency. They also offered the Ukkarai, a special form of halwa made of lentils and jaggery in Chettinad style.
Another big part of the Diwali sweet trail are the dry fruits. They are consumed both standalone and in the form of a beverage like thandai or as sweets like in barfi, chikki, to Gajjak and even Revri, a dish of beaten sugar and sesame seeds.
Among the communities to have influenced the Diwali thali were the Sindhis. “Sev Badam Ki Barfi, which is a Sindhi sweet-savoury, says Pradeep Tejwani (owner, Young Turks) “remains one of the must-have during Diwali along with Palagir that in texture and appearance mirrors the Maharastrian Gujia and Geear, which is jalebi but much bigger in size.”
According to Chef Gorai, “not all treats were local specials. A few joining the sweet and savoury bandwagon were sweets that travelled well like Anarsa, which is rice roundels fried in ghee and then coated with sugar syrup, and Adhirasam, which is a palate-heavy sweet made of a batter of rice and jaggery, which is deep fried and resembles the famous Oriya Arisa pitha when it comes to taste.”
Squishy treats like Gulgule and Chenna jhilli (made of deep fried ricotta cheese dipped in fragrant sugar syrup) are eaten in both North and East India, and are best enjoyed soaked in kheer or warm milk.
In contrast, there are also quite a few varieties that are healthy and yet fit into the criteria of rich indulgence. Case in point, shrikhand and basundi. While the former is made by evaporating milk and resembles the famous rabri, the latter, a Western India specialty, is made of cardamom, sugar and hung curd.
“Diwali in Goa and Maharashtra”, says Chef Kedar Bobde (Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Mumbai), “meant a choice of four different kinds of poha (flattened rice). Locally known as fau, you have a choice between bataat fau (with piquant potatoes), kalayile fau (with jaggery and spices), doodhatlye fau (with milk), rosathle fau (with cardamom-infused coconut) and a simple sweet poha prepared with curd or buttermilk. In the Jain community, the star is the Khara Khaja, which is made in sweet, savoury and plain versions and is served with aam ka aachar (mango pickle).”
“The addition of sweets and savouries to the Diwali platter even when it took over this gigantic proportion”, says Chef Seth, “followed the traditional ethos of what’s seasonal and food that heals. Most foods were designed not so much for the palate but for the winter season, when bereft of sunlight one does begin feeling gloomy and low and of course the extra calories for energy. And when taken in moderation has its own benefits.”
But given that sugar and high fat dishes beget gluttony, a way to navigate through the extraordinary decadence came in the form of kanji vada, a non-alcoholic Marawari preparation and Deepavali marundu or legiyam, a concoction made of ingredients like carom seeds, poppy seeds, dry ginger, dates, nuts, ghee. “A few glasses of the former and bites of the latter”, says Chef Bobde, “and one can digest the deluge – no matter how rich.”