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The meaty role

Priyadarshini Chatterjee | Updated on October 25, 2019 Published on October 25, 2019

Power play: Bengal’s Shakta tradition sanctions the oblation of blood through boli or sacrifice   -  ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

The highlight of Bengal’s Kali Puja is the mutton curry that comes with the blessings of the goddess

We got lucky once on Kali Puja. The morning after the puja, which usually coincides with Deepavali in the north, a friend of the family arrived with an earthen pot full of uncooked prasadi mangsho — meat from a goat sacrificed at the altar of Kali.

Growing up, Kali Puja meals at our Kolkata home were strictly vegetarian, almost austere. The women of the family observed a nirjala uposh (waterless fast) and no fish or meat was brought into the house on the day of the puja. They broke the fast late at night, after offering prayers at a neighbourhood Kali temple. It was only the morning after Kali Puja, when one of the temple workers brought over bhog (food offered to the gods) in earthen pots, that things got more exciting. The bhog typically comprised khichuri, fragrant pulao, vegetable dishes, deep-fried fish and curried goat meat.

A goat was ritually sacrificed at the Anandamayi Temple in our neighbourhood every year for Kali Puja. Bengal’s Shakta tradition sanctions the oblation of blood through boli or sacrifice. But with hundreds of devotees lining up at the temple for the prized meat, only a small quantity of it was sent to each house in the area. We were a large joint family, which meant each of us only got a bit of it.

But that year, the family friend smugly announced that he had sacrificed not one goat but a pair to Maa Kali. The goddess, he said, had granted him what he had prayed for (though he didn’t tell us what it was).

What followed was a flurry of nervous activity carried out to my grandmother’s animated directions. The meat entered the kitchen only after the floor had been washed, the unaan (a built-in clay oven) painstakingly cleaned and Gangaajal (holy water) sprinkled multiple times. My aunt was put in charge of cooking “with ritual purity”.

The delicious meat curry that was served for lunch that afternoon was nothing like our otherwise mouth-watering Sunday staple. It had no onion and garlic; ginger and cumin seeds, ground together, were the dominant flavours along with the garam masala, fragrant and just right. And a mandatory ingredient was asafoetida, while some versions of the prasadi meat had a hint of fennel seeds.

The worship of Kali in Bengal is inextricably linked with the ritual partaking of boli’r mangsho. The tradition of animal sacrifice in the state, however, predates the popularity of Kali Puja as one of the biggest festivals in the region. The push for making it a household affair is said to have come from one of the most influential figures in early 18th-century Bengal. Raja Krishnachandra Roy of Nadia, a wealthy zamindar who was also a patron of the arts, ordered his subjects to observe Kali Puja. Afraid of invoking his wrath (and penalty), thousands of people followed the landlord’s orders. This was documented by William Ward, an English missionary, in his book A View of the History, Literature and Religion of the Hindoos (1815).

The ritual of animal sacrifice also resonates with the narrative of Kali’s tribal roots. Home chef and blogger Debjani Chatterjee Alam recalls the tribal flavour of her childhood Kali Pujas in the village of Maluti, in the Santhal Pargana region on the Bengal-Jharkhand border. The area is famous for its terracotta temples, especially the one of Devi Molikha (or Mouliksha, who is said to be the sister of a form of Kali). “This tiny village hosts as many as eight Kali Pujas where animal sacrifice is still mandatory. The meat is cooked and served as bhog the next morning,” says Chatterjee Alam. This is also where the local tribes celebrate their version of the Kali Puja, with music, mahua (an alcoholic drink) and meat.

In many households, however, Kali Puja is strictly a vegetarian affair, aligned with Vaishnavism. Ash gourd, cucumber, sugarcane and banana replace the goat as sacrificial offerings. Though widespread, the ritual of boli in Bengal never went unchallenged — opposition came not just from the Vaishnava camp, but also the state’s liberal elite. Rabindranath Tagore, in his 1890 play Bisharjan (based on his earlier novella Rajarshi), wrote, “Listen to the cry of thy children, Mother, let there be only flowers for thy offerings, no more blood.”

At Kolkata’s Kalighat Temple — a place of pilgrimage for many Hindus — animal offerings are a daily affair. And the meat, though underhandedly, finds its way to buyers. In his 1881 book The Hindoos As They Are, author Shib Chunder Bose refers to the practice: “The meat of goats that are daily sacrificed before the altar of Kali being too numerous for local consumption, are sold to outside customers much in the same manner as fruits and vegetables are brought from the neighbouring villages in to the market.”

Bose also refers to the competition Kalighat had from other shrines in terms of meat sales. Kali bhakts will not challenge the position that Kalighat enjoys in the scheme of Kali worship, but the lure of so-called “temple meat” led to the mushrooming of stalls in other parts of Kolkata. The meat, Bose wrote, was cheaper than the Kalighat variety and also more abundant, thus earning the goddess the name of Kashaye (butcher) Kali. He added that only the inebriated and the sex worker contributed to this “trade... openly carried out in the name of the Goddess”.

In any case, it is perhaps safe to say that the Bengali’s love for pnathar mangsho (goat meat) is powered by the blessings of Maa Kali.

The author is a food writer based in Kolkata

Published on October 25, 2019
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