Friday, February 13, 2009


Of the millions of gods crowding the Hindu pantheon, my mother’s personal favourite is Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. In true Bengali tradition, she reveres knowledge above all other virtues, not just as an end in itself, but also as the means to other ends, like money, career, and – if wishes could be horses – fame.

Which is why, Saraswati Pujo was always celebrated very sincerely in our home when we were young. Some days before the auspicious date, we would all troop to the market and select a suitable Saraswati to grace our home from the idols on display at the market place. Some years she would be a traditional doe-eyed white-skinned beauty with flowing fake jet black hair and a bright saree made of real fabric; on other years it would be a more artistic rendition completely made from clay, with her earthen locks coiled in a knot sideways on the top of her head. Whatever her attire and hairstyle, Saraswati was recognizable by the veena (sonorous musical string instrument) she carried and by her pet white swan nestling near her feet.

A portion of our bedroom would be cleared to place the deity, and baba (father) and Didia (my cousin) would brainstorm to give Saraswati a suitably artistic abode. The backdrop would usually be a saree from Ma’s or Barama’s (my aunt) collection, sometimes decorated beyond recognition. Once, I remember, my over-enthusiastic Baba swirled an entire saree in a tub of mud, let it dry and then made a backdrop of brown mountain peaks for the Goddess. Ma would stoically bear the brunt of all such creative experimentation, no doubt a small sacrifice for the greater cause of erudition.

Didia would enlist our help for the menial tasks, while the grand scheme of decoration would emerge from her brain. We would sit up late, cutting strips of thin coloured paper to make endless paper chains (the adhesive would be a homemade concoction of water and flour) which would hung all over the walls and ceiling. The floor would be decorated with elaborate intricate patterns of white alpana (a traditional method of decoration). The various brass and stone utensils ritually used in pujos (idol worship) would be brought out, washed arranged in front of the deity. Fresh flowers would be piled on a brass thali (platter) and incense sticks and diyas would be lit. As a finishing touch, we would all keep some of our books near the deity’s feet. My pile always contained, apart from other things, my Mathematics book, because I felt I needed divine help most in that particular subject.

Ma would be in charge of the prasad (food offered to the deity). Various fruits would be washed and cut, sweet narkol-narus (coconut-jaggery sweets) prepared and other uniquely prasad offerings would be prepared, like chal-kala (moist uncooked rice with sugar and banana) and moong-narkol (grated coconut and soaked yellow pulses). There would be khichuri (rice-lentil mash), cauliflower-curry and topakul-er chutney (a sweet-sour concoction of a type of plum).

Saraswati is worshipped in Basanta (spring) and so mostly, we would wear Basanti coloured (yellow) clothes. We would wait patiently with folded hands as the Purohit (priest) completed his rounds of chanting mantras (hymns), interspersed with all of sprinkling flower-petals at the Goddess and the tinny ringing of the small brass bell. Maybe the elders prayed for abstract ideals like wisdom and insight, but my fiercely muttered prayers (with my eyes squeezed shut) were directly related to the coming class examinations.

The next morning, we would take the patkathi (jute straw) which served as a pen out of the clay doyat (inkpot) and use the milk within (in lieu of ink) to write the name of the Goddess three times on the small belpata (leaves of the bael-tree, used in religious rituals). A truly tricky test of spelling and calligraphy, befitting the Goddess of Academics and Fine Arts. Needless to say, we could never do it neatly enough, though we were allowed to eat the narkoli kul (sweet plum-like fruit) placed atop the inkpot as a reward anyway.



lopamudra said...

Like every bengali household saraswati pujo was celebrated in our home.We had 'balok bhojan'(kiddie feast) in the evening,the menu was always the same luchi,alurdum & rosogolla.There is an interesting story behind this balok bhojan, when I wan an infant some fortuneteller had predicted that I would never pass any major exams .My mother was so petrified that she promised the goddess of learning 'balok bhojan' every year till I had cleared all the major board exams!

Kavi said...

Oh. We celebrate the Saraswati puja as well. Big time.

And that is a favourite festival. Because on that day, all books are kept at the altar. And you are not SUPPOSED TO STUDY !

Now, can you beat that. Saraswati was my favourite goddess !! White swan and 'no study' rule took me on flights of fancy !!


seanag said...

So great to hear about the Saraswati pujo tradition. I don't feel that I can contribute much to this thread, though I wouldn't be surprised to realize that some aspect of my chilhood had some sort of ritual aspect that I don't really recognize as such.

I look forward other memories.

Also, I think my life really could have used a little more attention to the goddess of learning!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Nice to learn of art and music being associated with a god of learning. And a no-study rule is quite a way to interest lazy youngsters. Such a rule would have drawn my attention and focused my thinking on this goddess.

Anonymous said...

Yes, our landlady used to do Saraswati puja and we visit and also keep our books near the puja for one day.
And the best was we do not study on that day.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks everybody for sharing your memrories/opinions about this beloved religious ritual.