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.
WHAT RITUALS DID YOU CELEBRATE IN YOUR HOME?