Nabanna and Poush Sankranti

Nabanna and Pitha Parbon

By Barnali Dutta Published: January 3, 2014

Nabanna and Poush Sankranti harvest festival

In Bengal Nabanno (নবান্ন) festival was celebrated to ensure good crops and healthy livestock for the coming year. It used to be a massive event that began before sunrise and would involve the entire community, even the children, who recited rhymes. It is therefore a new crop celebration, as the name describes, with Nava meaning new and Anna being a word referring to grain. It is a time of joy as the smell of newly harvested crops rise into the air, and rice paste is used to decorate gardens and homes. The cultivation of rice was widespread throughout the fertile plain of the Ganges. The tradition stems from the Vedic period due to their dietary habit. At one time, this ceremony could draw the whole community engagement into a celebration as elaborate as described here. The rite has a part to give respect to our real feeder – the earth and the farmers. This ritual leading up to eat first crop in a modest community event, a preparation - Nabanna, that is still used today in ritual offering seems to date back to Vedic times. Nabanna, in this context, food, with its rituals and taboos is central, even if culinary customs do not strictly follow any accepted rules seem to float in a nebulous cloud of common class and caste.

The late autumn is followed by the winter. Winter looks overcast in the morning. An assortment of delicious vegetables grows up in this season and people eats them. Folk festivals like Poush parban are a wonderful mixture of several traditions that originated from rites and celebrations that were held to keep the agricultural gods and the goddess of wealth and prosperity happy. This festival known also as poush parban and pitha parab (পরব) is held on the last day of the Bengali calendar month poush (middle of December to middle of January).

It is primarily celebrated in villages where paddy is harvested around this time. Granary doors and husking pads are ritually tied with ropes of newly made hay, which is believed to be a symbol of good luck. Name of the rituals are gurir haat (গুড়ির হাত), Baoni (বাউনি), nabanna, pitha parab, lakshminarayan brata, khetra puja. The annual fair at Gangasagar is also held on this day. Besides nabanna and paus parvan, which are the main rural festivals of Bengal there are other festivals also of a minor nature not directly related to agriculture are bastu puja, Dak-sankranti, Dhane shadh. Some aspects are also taken from early few days of sankranti, namely, tushtoshali (তুষ-তোশালী) brata, where husk of new rice, brinjal leaves, mustard, radish, and flat bean flower is needed. Festival alike different part of Bengal is "tusu"(টুসু) – a harvest festival that is celebrated mainly in the Puruliya district of West Bengal and the festival ends on the last day of Bengali calendar month of Poush (mid-january) celebrated with rice and sesame dumplings with coconut fillings that are offered to the goddess.

The woman of the house would, soak rice and the twig of a mango tree in a pot of water the night before and on the morning sprinkle it on everyone in the family. This was based on a magical belief that the water would wash away the mistakes and negative aspects of the past year and bring peace to the family as they have the responsibility of this mangolik or wishing well ritual. Early next morning, the festival is inaugurated with, women decorating the dhenki (the wooden beam used for pounding rice) and performing the traditional ritual of baran (বরণ) or welcoming before it. Then one of the women pounds the first batch of rice and throws a fistful into the air as an offering to the Gods. The rest is taken home, where some of it is used to etch intricate alpana motifs on all the precious possessions of the family.

Offerings were used to be made to the animals, to the deities or gods and to fire, and the community would open their homes to their neighbors allowing them to entry and serving them with rice cakes that were made from the new crop. Preparing dishes from the new crop is a symbol of respect towards the goddess of crops, Laksmi. Crows are also lured to homes with food, as their flight path is significant to the festival, which is a thanksgiving ritual in which payesh is laid out by the river or for birds to have and which is also believed to bring peace. The first batch of pithe is made with the rice offered to the gods and the first is fed to the family cow and Then begins the feasting, starting with the ritualistic nabanna- a blending of uncooked harvest produce including rice, coconut and moong dal- and moving on to the main attraction, the pithe.

Pancakes and dumplings - pithe and puli are prepared with rice powder, fresh date palm jaggery, coconut and milk. There are first offered to Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, to seek her blessings for the year ahead. Conveniently this edible blessing is then taken and distributed among the neighborhood and relatives. Traditionally the first variety of pithe that is made is the delicate Ashkay Pithe - an almost translucent pancake first it ritually offered to Tulsi tree then to pond water. This is called gurir haat. When ready it is eaten dipped in fresh date palm juice. When steamed in moulds it is called Shajer Pithe and then begins the feasting on pithe in every shape and size and ranging from no-frills nutritious snacks, to intricate ensembles. Ranga Alur Pithe — a deep-fried rissole of sweet potato or yam filled with fresh moong beans ground with ginger and aniseed, Gokul Pithe — an exquisite blending of tastes and textures with flour, khoa and raisins fried in ghee and dipped in syrup.

The ingredients of worship are the conventional things only – unboiled sun dried rice and other fruits vegetables and some sweets. Unheated milk, palm sugar, pieces of sugarcane, and small bananas are combined with uncooked, newly harvested rice and offered to the gods. Afterward, the rice is cooked with milk and palm sugar to make payesh, sweet rice porridge. In Chittagong, a Nabanna is a drink, prepared with fistfuls of new rice, mixed with green coconut juice. This in turn is flavored with peeled oranges.

During the month previous to the month of paush, a cultivator reaps some ripe paddy from the field on an auspicious day and keeps a handful of newly harvested paddy in a corner of his house covered with a new piece of cloth. Farmers gathered and tied up paddy stems called Baoni parab. The paddy is considered very sacred and lucky and is preserved throughout the year in sacred pots. Observance of this ritual is known as Aoni-Baoni. In the course of recitation of the verses the village ladies praise the householders. The festival was always accompanied by dance, singing and music.

"Thus thou cometh year to ear
Pray, let us not starve in any year,
Take thy seat in my central hall,
Take thy seat at the thrashing ground,
Sit tight on the floor of my house,
Thus thou cometh year to year …."

Culture also often dictates the way rice is cooked and eaten. Payesh made with slow-boiled milk, parboiled rice, sugar or batasha, kismis, bayleaf or cardamom is a popular traditional dessert. The taste is not predominantly one over other. During Paush Sankranti it is made with nolen gur. The payesh or rice porridge is very auspicious. It is considered quite holy enough for every blessed moment.

The dessert-obsessed Bengali cultures featured some preparations called pitha, puli and payesh along with nabanno (rice pancake, rice dumpling and rice porridge) - it is made during the rice harvest festivals held in Agrahayan(poush – the Lakshmi month) during one of the four nabannas among four rice harvesting occasions of Bengal when Aush cultivation was done.

There is no fixed time for nabanna. Nabanna depends on newly harvested rice and "what kind of rice!" one has to select from a large varieties. My father can recall a few names and their characteristics – "Hingkeshar", "Sitashaal", "Madhushaal – its poetic name is "Gourikajal" apart from them dozens of names can be memorized i.e. Kamalbhog, Kataribhog, Gopalbhog, Durgabhog, Kishoribhog. In winter there is "moa" (these days one specialty from Jaynagar – called Jaynagarer moa) attracts ones taste buds, which is made with "khoi" (খই - popped rice) fried with only kanakchur rice, no other rice can be used for that. There are many varieties of rice named with the suffix word "shaal" like Angurshaal, lathishaal, morichshaal, jeerashaal. There is also a black variety. People composed verses and stories depecting many varieties of rice – matured rice, dance with northern winds as if sound of music comes from anklets of dancing feet of a maiden comes the name – ghungurshaal, nupurshaal and yes, we have karpurkanti rice - even from their green leaves the smell of camphor spreads. Naughty boys and would be mothers eat even the leaves with pleasure and taste the smell of it.

Now about Nabanna preparation, for which milky white sweet smelling rice grain is a must with the paste of overnight soaked and uncooked rice, unboiled milk, first-cut nolen jaggery, scrapped coconut of Jhuno narkel with each fried binni rice khoi. Mix all in a bowl and it is ready to be offered and served.

First stage of coconut – "Daab" (ডাব - green coconut) has no innards. In the next stage white watery inner layer develops, which is not fit for nabanna. The third stage is "Durmo" (দুরমো)– fragile meat of coconut flesh, next is "Chwal" (চল), a solidify stage, and "Jhuno" (ঝুনো) is a hard type of white flesh of a mature coconut. For nabanno one can use "Durmo" to decorate the dish.

The pithe preparations have a base made of starch (either rice or wheat) and a raw uncooked batter is prepared out of these, which will eventually be used to make a kind of pouch where some additional filling will be put (sweet, vegetable, meat etc). The pouch is called "khol" (means the container) and the fillings are called "pur" (the filling). The Bengalis make rice based specialties such as saru chakli, rice-batter crepe fried in a pan with porous earthenware with lid). This tastes sublime with syrupy liquid jiggery. Pat-pora pitha are steamed rice cakes wrapped in leaves. Puli pitha is a dumpling similar to dim sum which is also made with covering of rice flour around decicated coconut and fried milk (kheer). Gur pitha (fried balls of if fermented rice batter flavored with jiggery and cocunt ash. Chusi pitha (long rice shaped pitha boiled in milk and jiggery) are the most popular. Chitui or Chiti pitha, Teler pitha, Vapa pitha (also known as Dhupi in Rajshahi area), mug-pakon, Dudher pitha (also known as Vija pitha), Pathishapta pitha is usually a thin flat cake prepared from a batter made with soaked and ground rice, fried in oil, roasted over a slow fire or baked and rolled over a hot plate once made. It is traditionally served by Bengalis at open houses on festive occasions such as paush sankranti and nabanno. Pithas may also have various stuffings; coconut and kheer for sweet pitha, grated vegetables and duck meat for savory - Shomsher pitha (Fried triangular shapes stuffed with minced meat).

Pitha is the favorite sweet all over East India and women at home were making these long before sweet shops became so immensely popular. In orrisa, pithas are made from rice flour or semolina. The dumplings are stuffed with delicate coconut filling and sweetened with jaggery and raisins. The way of wrapping the batter in turmeric leaves and steaming it makes a favourite pitha, weet aroma oozes from neighborhoods across the Bengal where cauldrons of sweet cow's milk or buffalo's milk are boiled, simmered, dried to make payesh and kheer (thick evaporated milk) for this occasion.

Bengalis consider palm jaggery (khejur gur – খেজুর গুড়) more superior in taste than any other sweeteners. In winter when the palms are tapped, numerous sweets use gur as liquid molasses (jhola gur – ঝোলা গুড়) or as a dry paste (patali - পাটালি) . During its short season one can find patali (nuggets or dry paste of the palm sugar – nolen gur) embedded in curdled milk or other sweets. Sweet-obsessed Bengalis during its short season all sweets likely made with nolen gur, from Rossogolla, (a syrup-poached curdled milk bouncy dumpling) to karapaker sandesh (a dry sweet which can store longer) as well as creamier sandesh. Any alternative sweetener as example Akher gur (sugar cane jaggery) or sugar generally is not preferable during this season.

For making 'patali gur' from unfermented sap, the 'jiran ras' or the initial sap and the 'katel ras' or the sap collected during the night, is stained out by the net like, brown coloured extended growth of the leafs heath called 'ramra'. Then the fresh sap is alkalined by liming and boiling in 'jelo' or 'tarasi' (a large fat-be1lied earthen pot) over a 'ban', a folk furnace found in Bengal. During boiling the scum is frequently removed by a wooden ladle, 'hata' or petiole made ladle, 'taru '. The process is locally called 'gyaj pheta '. Then the desired consistency is attained by boiling through the steps of'toak', 'jhola gur', 'toag' and 'bich'. This process is called as 'bich mara'. Ultimately the 'bich' is poured on holes in the earth covered with muslin cloth which is locally called as 'lobat'. Those who are working in sugar-date-palm industry in rural Bengal for collection of sap and preparation of crude sugar, patali, are called sheuli.

I remember my mother besides her busy schedule to raise her daughters and ritually devoted life to Government service from 9.30 to 5.30 (exceptionally selfless and an idealistic lady), but on holidays during this season did spend her whole day unhurriedly forming uncountable patishaptas and natun gurer payesh. She taught us how to follow the nature culture wise with great food fiesta, but not to be strict custom wise.

Bengali culture is in the face of threats of globalization, but I believe Bengali culture has the strength to adjust to all situations and it is based on human values. The phrase that parents are always telling their children "manush haoa" not an exact expression, but more of a blessing "to be a good human being" is a proof how human values are put above everything else is the essence of Bengali culture.

There are similar celebrations that also take place in the tribal regions of Bangladesh after the harvesting of the crops where Navanna is celebrated in the autumn month - Agrahayan, a festival of the Santhals the Soharay Festival takes place during the winter months. The Mailukma Festival is unique to the Usui, Wangalla is a Garo tribe festival and the Mru have the Charmoinat festival – all of which are harvesting festivals.

Nuakhai is observed welcoming the new rice-paddy “Aant Dhan” of the season over the entire Western Orissa according to Hindu calendar it is observed on “Bhadraba Sukllapakshya Panchami Tithi” in August-September, is also called Nabanna Bhakhayana. The importance of Nuakhai is well understood by its nine different rituals. As a consequence nine sets of rituals are followed as a prelude to the actual day of celebration. On the day before Nuakhai, people collect the new paddy and make it, into flatten rice “Chuda”. They decorate their houses with the banner of new paddy. On the day of Nuakhai, they prepare “Nua” which is a mixture of Chuda, Banana and Milk and Sugar. Then they go to the nearest temple where they collect the “Bhoga” which is offered to their village Goddess. After that they mix the offered Bhoga with their home prepared Nua and finally all the members of the family sit together and eat the Nua (Mixture of Chuda, Banana and Milk and Sugar) for three times in a row. During the celebration people also take the Blessing of their village Goddess. After being blessed by Goddess, the junior members of the family take the blessing of the senior members by touching their feet. Other members may wish Nuakhai by saying “Nuakhai Juhar”. In the evening, folk dances and songs are organized in different parts of Western Orissa called as “Nua khai Bhetghat”.

In orissa Arisa piṭha is a deep-fried pitha made from rice flour with jaggery or sugar. Manda Pitha is a steamed pitha made from rice flour, often with grated coconut and jiggery or sugar filling or fresh cheese (chhena) filling. Kakara pitha - a very popular fried pancake made from wheat flour or semolina, often with sweet cocunut filling. Enduri pitha is a special delicacy of the Prathamastami festival made from rice flour and black gram, often with jaggery and coconut or cheese filling, steamed and turmeric leaf. Chakuli Pitha thick pancake (set dosa) made from fermented rice and black gram, often eaten for breakfast. Thinner varieties are called saru chakuli often served with dalama (vegetable mixed with pulses) nadia chatni (coconut chutney) or kheeri, and rice dish. Poda pitha or "burnt pitha" is a slow-cooked pitha made from fermented rice and black gram, with chopped coconut. Its crusts slightly burnt, while the insides soft and white, mostly during Raja Parva. Chitau piṭha - a fried pancake made from rice flour, coconut, and milk, often offered in pujas to Lord Jagannath on Chitalagi Amabasya (or Chitau Amavasya). Gaintha godi: Small balls made of rice flour dipped and seasoned sweet milk.speciality of pausha amavasya (baula amavasya) Karanji: dumpling made of maida and stuffed with coconut,cashew raisins. Malpua: Sweetened deep fried batter of mixture of bananas and flour Suji Kakara Pitha: Sweet dish made of suji with coconut stuffing and last but not the least Tala Pitha - a sweet dish made of palm fruit and rice batter.

The Magh Bihu is akin to the Makar Sankranti festival observed by the people of other states of the country. This harvest festival celebrated in Assam is also dedicated to the Hindu fire God, Lord Agni On the Uruka, people organize a grand community feast that continues overnight while also preparing bonfires of 'mejis' and the bhelaghars' which is more popular in lower Assam. In the next morning, people light the Meji or bhelaghar to mark the beginning of the festival. The Meji is a temple like structure generally made out of bamboo, thatch and leaves while the young people also creates a makeshift huts made of bamboo and haystacks near the meji to spend the night. The day progresses with lots of entertaining activities like bird fights and other traditional sports. Some of the mouth-watering delicacies and pithas served during this harvest festival in Assam are til pitha, ghila pitha, Xutuli Pitha, Sunga Pitha and Tekeli Pitha, sweet snacks like Tilor Laru, Narikolor Laru and rice—based snacks Bora Saul, Komal Saul, Chira, Muri and Akhoi.