A concept that easily predates the celebration of Durga Puja, here’s what makes it such an integral part of the festivity, especially in the states of East and Northeast India
Meat or fish as prasad may sound like an incongruity. But that is until one has been to a Durga Puja celebration in the East or Northeast of India, where sacrificing a goat/buffalo is not only a standard practice of the nine-day celebration but also has its own significance. “It is believed,” says Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti, Culinary Director, Sonar Tori, “that it is between the eighth night and ninth day that Durga takes on the warrior avatar and slays Mahishasura—the buffalo demon. And hence the offering of blood and meat, which is a tradition that dates to the early Shakti cult dating to the early years of Kalinga and is offered to calm her ‘rudra avatar’ into the caring nature mother goddess.”
The sacrifice, which often is an old goat, is symbolic of that fierce battle that has been fought between the goddess and the demon king. And the preparation of the meat is in celebration. “Of course,” adds culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “in many places fish is offered too as part of the prasad. In Kolkata, a selection of rohu, chital and sol is offered along with panta bhat or pakhala to her as part of the traditional Navami prasad, whereas in Cuttack, it is offered as a special bhog especially in Durga mandaps in Nabami Chandi Chowk, which is also the oldest, and in Alisha Bazar.”
This, says Chef Gorai, “is aside from the many temples in the East and Northeast—Ramkhapeeth Devalaya in Assam, Balaskumpa temple in Odisha, Durgabari temple in Tripura, the Kalimata Mandir in Kaliyaganj and the Ekarchala Kalimate Mandir in Goalpokhar in North Dinajpur of West Bengal—where meat is offered as bhog during the Navami celebration, and the preparation is called Niramish or Bali Mangsho.”
The exception to this is the Durga Puja celebration in the armed forces. Initiated and still organised by the Gorkha regiment across different units, the festival’s highlight, says brand specialist Zamir Khan, “is the offering of ‘pancha bali’ [five sacrifices] including bananas, pumpkins, ducks, male goats and buffaloes.”
Khan, who spent a good part of his childhood attending the Gorkha Durga Puja while his dad served in the Gorkha Rifles calls it one of the “tradition that leaves you bewildered and fascinated initially before you begin to understand the relevance of it all. For Gorkhas, easily one of the oldest martial tribes in India, Maa Durga is their house deity and a warrior goddess. In olden days, it was a common practice to offer the goddess a sacrifice before setting out for a war or to appease her for a good season during peace time. For them, she and not the Holy Trinity is the ultimate power. Such has been their devotion to their deity that wherever Gorkhas have been so has been the Durga Puja.”
That explains its omnipresence in all units including the Jharkhand Armed Police where Durga Puja is celebrated by offering prayers to the weapons rather than an idol, which, adds Khan, “many believe was the original practice of Durga Puja before the idols made their appearance.”
Fascinatingly, while in most places the mangsho and machcha bhog became a part of the meal that is served to the devotees, in the Gorkha Durga Puja, the sacrificial meat is used in every dish including the khichudi and labra that too has meat in it—and is served in the two shakti peethas in Guwahati (Ugratara and Kamakhya) during the Puja.
In regiments though, the Gorkha cooks, says Khan, “take on the nose to tail approach with the sacrificial meat which is often offered raw before it makes its way to the kitchen where a team of skilled Gorkhali cooks transforms them into one of the finest spreads using cumin, clove, cinnamon, and bay leaf for tastemaking. Known for its simplicity yet bold flavours, each spice used is smoked, roasted and hand pounded into a coarse powder or a fine paste before being added to a wide variety of cuts that are then cooked, steamed, roasted, sauteed and even barbequed.”
Fascinatingly, says Chef Gorai, “while the cooking technique and spices are almost similar across the two regions known for their Durga Puja celebration, when it comes to taste, each preparation has its own distinct characteristics.”
Like, he continues, “the bali mangsho in Kolkata is made of meat only with cumin, clove, ginger as base while the fish is often made with a yogurt-based curry with the occasional use of mustard paste, in Odisha, the Niramish Mansa is prepared with vegetables, especially root vegetables with cumin, ginger and clove paste serving as the curry.”
In Odisha, which was once the epicentre of Shakti puja, says culinary researcher Alka Jena, “the Niramish mutton is offered in two different places. One is an old Kali Temple in Baripada that is said to sacrifice an old goat during Durga Puja and another is the Balaskumpa temple in Phulbani where during Durga Puja celebrations, one gets to sample the Bali Mansa made by the cooks of the temples, and the recipe followed easily dates to the early AD when Shakti Puja was part of every royal dynasty that ruled Kalinga and then Odra Desh, and the Bali Mansa was a staple offering.”
“What makes,” Jena continues, “the Balaskumpa temple’s version of Niramish Mansa so unique is not only its ancestry which dates to the early 10th century but also the composition of the dish which is really an ancient eating practice. The one-pot dish made in a kudwa often has old goat meat accompanied with a selection of root vegetables, especially elephant yam, papaya, brinjal among others. The meat is slow cooked in gua ghia—a prime quality clarified butter—till it has this fall-off-the-bone consistency.” The beauty is that even though it is meat, the taste and balminess of the dish is akin to khichdi or ghanta that forms a part of prasad.
A similar preparation is also found in Mizoram as well as the Darrang Temple in Assam, where thanks to the royal patronage devi puja as well as bali mangsho found a permanent place.
According to Assamese cuisine expert Geeta Dutta, “For the last three days of Durga Puja—which are mahasaptami, mahaastami and mahanavami—there are animal sacrifices before the deity only at Gakhir Khowa Raja Howli that can range from a buffalo to goats, ducks and even pigeon. The sacrificial meat, especially that of buffalo, is then given to the tribal people while that of the goat and others is consumed by the brahmans of the temple and the patrons.”
The temple remains one of the few to have followed the tradition since the Golden age of the Ahom kings, who established the culture of Shakti Puja and even invited priests from Odisha to lay the foundation. Fascinatingly, adds Dutta, “these priests not only laid the foundation of the Devi puja in Assam but also created many of the rituals that till date are practiced in the temples of Kamakhya and Darrang, and this includes the Niramish Mangsho dish as well.”
The result was that in most places, says Dr Ashish Chopra (author of NE Belly), “the bali mangsho dish often is a one-pot meal with use of local greens to add flavour to it. In fact, in Mizoram where pork too is one of the offerings, each dish is cooked with a set of locally grown, seasonal vegetables.”
“This localisation of each dish,” adds Dutta, “is the reason behind the distinct taste. The mutton served in Kamakhya Mandir, for instance, bears proximity to roghan josh because of the kind of spice mix that is used to flavour the dish. Here, we cook the meat in mustard oil instead of ghee, which is then generously peppered with chilli powder, coriander-cumin powder, and a mix of fragrant whole spices like bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and a dash of hing that cranks up the deliciousness of the bhoger mangsho.”
In fact, continues Geeta, “it is a standard recipe for most of the meat dishes that are offered to the goddess across Assam and other parts of the Northeast. The beauty of this recipe, however, is that it has the same result no matter whether the meat is a duck, pigeon, chicken or goat.”
As for the question to why mangsho and machcha is offered during Durga Puja, the experts call it the blissful melange of tradition and history. Says Dr Chopra, “Shakti Puja remains one of the oldest cults that was followed across India back in the day. And since Devi was considered a warrior goddess too worshipped by martial tribes, the sacrifice became an obvious offering. After all, back in the day, one offered gods foods that were part of their own dietary routine, only better quality. The tradition since then has been continued thanks in parts to the existence of Devi worshippers and royal patronage.”
And given that, says Chef Gorai, “the Eastern states of Odisha and Bengal and the Northeast have through history remained the seat of Shakti Puja, the tradition has continued unabated. In fact, Niramish Mangsho remains the finest showcase of how religion has travelled and influenced other cultures. In Durga Puja’s case, much of the credit remains with Odias, Bengalis and, of course, Gorkhas who have been the oldest devotees of Devi Puja. And it is that ancestry that is reflected in the Niramish Mangsho.”
Of course, concludes Chef Chakrabarti, “the making of the dish is a hark back to a culinary period of tribes where food was about a complete meal, and meat hadn’t been categorised as non-vegetarian or, for that matter, tamsik.”
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.