While the Western world celebrates Halloween in all its glory, Bengalis in India are celebrating Lakshmi Puja. I specify the Bengali community because other parts of India worship Goddess Lakshmi at a different time, namely during the festival of lights, Diwali.
Goddess Lakshmi is the goddess of Prosperity and Wealth. she blesses you with health, wealth and abundance.
For me, this day becomes all the more important because my family holds this puja in our house. It’s a lot of work and running around, but it’s an awesome amount of fun too. So I thought, why not let you have a behind-the-scenes, step by step look at what makes up a Lakshmi puja?
There she sits, on a pedestal, decorated with garlands of marigold.
This is what the whole room looks like after everything’s ready (of course a lot of pushing furniture out etc. happens much before it reaches this stage).
An extremely happy picture of me putting down the white designs on the floor. The designs are made with rice powder mixed with water. It’s called an Alpona (pronounced Aal-poe-naa). It looks pretty awesome, and is kinda tough to make, even though I say so myself. I, however, am nowhere near a lot of my mom’s aunts who draw masterpieces with this white paste.
The pedestal gets a new design to brighten things up.
This is the main design that’s made on the floor. Those ‘S’ shapes (and reverse ‘S’ shapes) stand for the goddess’s tiny footprints, coming into the house and upto the pedestal. And the foot-steps are put around a long strip of what depicts wheat. You see, as I said, the Goddess Lakshmi blesses you with abundance, and the wheat signifies the abundant harvests and foodstuff of yore.
Right in front of the pedestal stands this copper vase (called a ‘kalash‘ in Hindi, or ‘Ghaut‘ in Bengali), on another white floral design. On it sits a branch holding exactly seven auspicious mango leaves. And on top of the branch sits what is called a ‘Sheesh Dab‘ (‘sheesh’ meaning stalk (see that long stalk coming out of the young coconut?) and ‘dab’ meaning a young coconut).
The copper vase is decorated with red vermillion.
There is a whole copper plate full of flowers and leaves from a ‘Bel’ (wood apple) tree. Also, there have to be small amounts of white and red sandalwood paste for the flowers to be dipped in before offering to the goddess.
Now, a very exciting and important part of this puja, is the food. My mom makes a whole, lavish spread. the idea is that all the new seasonal foods (veggies, fruits) which are coming up with the season, are first offered to the goddess on this day, and then we start eating them. It’s a good way of getting to know when certain veggies or fruits are in season…a simple ‘ritual’ which is actually just a very practically thought out act!
All this food together is called the ‘bhog’. There is khichuri (a gorgeous mix of rice and lentils cooked to perfection with some delicate morsels of coconut flavouring the entire dish), payesh (a sublime concoction of rice and thickened milk with sugar, raisins and cardamom), sabzi (vegetable dishes of two kinds – a ‘panch torkaari‘ (‘panch’ meaning five and ‘torkaari’ meaning vegetable dish) made of five new seasonal veggies and a ‘phoolkophir dalna‘ (‘phoolkophi’ referring to cauliflower which is now in season and ‘dalna’ meaning another different kind of preparation of veggies)), a sweet-and-sour tomato chutney with raisins and dates, luchi (puffed golden fried breads) and ‘panch bhaaja‘ (‘panch’ meaning five and ‘bhaaja’ meaning fried).
And there is also the usual fruits and sweetmeats, along with ‘naaru‘ (small bite-sized sweet balls made of jaggery and sesame/coconut) and ‘moa‘ (slightly larger sweet balls made with puffed rice and jaggery).
The image of Goddess Lakshmi which is worshipped holds many symbols which signify all that the goddess stands for. There is the Owl, which is believed to be her ‘vahan‘ or sidekick of sorts. And there is a nice, big pile of wheat, which as I said signifies abundance.
Then there is a white conch shell, which is considered sacred in all pujas. Behind the shell, you can see a tall, red container. This was what married women earlier used to keep their vermillion powder in. And so, Goddess Lakshmi also blesses women with a happily married life.
You can see her feet have red edges; married women sometimes apply a red dye called ‘Alta‘ on their feet, as red is a symbol of marriage.
My mom places the vermillion container which she carried during her marriage ceremony in front of the goddess with a silver coin, some vermillion and some other items on a silver plate.
It looks pretty amazing all together.
There is a strange sense of peace and serenity which come with a puja ceremony. And it’s nice to take a break from the usual daily routine and do something a little different.
(As Lakshmi puja is held in the evening, the photos had to use the flash. So sorry about that!)