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Young World

Festival of sweets

Arundhati Ray

Makar Sankranti, the harvest festival observed in Bengal, marks the sun's passage from Capricorn to Aquarius. During this colourful three - day festival, the community gets together to celebrate.

All over India during December and January the winter harvest is ushered in with joyous ceremony. In the South, Pongal brings a feast of rice preparations; in the West, colourful kites fill the sky and a range of mouth-watering puris are eaten. Bonfires burn in the freezing North while farmers dance and enjoy the fruits of the harvest; and in Bengal, Makar Sankranti — marking the sun's passage from Capricorn to Aquarius — is celebrated with the charming pithey parban. This three-day event of colourful rituals is the community's offering of thanks to the gods for the harvest. At the centre of this festival are the pithey or pulis - sweets that make use of the basic agrarian ingredients of rice, coconut and date palm juice and in their multiple manifestations these are some of the earliest sweets that developed in Dravidian eastern India. Following patterns laid down in ancient times, the rituals begin from the night before Poush Sankranti when sheafs of rice or baunis are tied around bed posts, almirahs and other furniture - a symbolic gesture of capturing the goddess of wealth with accompanying chant that implores Lakshmi to stay in the house for the next three days. 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 or welcome before it. Then one of the women pounds the first batch of rice and throws a fistful into the air as offering to the Gods.

The rest is taken home, where some of it is used to etch intriciate alpana motifs on all the precious possessions of the family. The first batch of pitheys is made with the rice offered to the gods and the first is fed to the family cow. 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 pitheys. Traditionally the first variety of pithey that is made is the delicate Ashkay Pithe - an almost transluscent pancake. When ready it is eaten dipped in fresh date palm juice. Steamed in moulds it is called Shajer Pithey. And then begins the feasting on pitheys in every shape and size and ranging from no-frills nutritious snacks, to intricate ensembles. Ranga Alur Pithey — a deep-fried rissole of sweet potato or yam filled with fresh moong beans ground with ginger and aniseed, Gokul Pithey — an exquisite blending of tastes and textures with flour, khoa and raisins fried in ghee and dipped in syrup, Sooji Puli (made with semolina), rich payasams with rice-flour dumplings filled with gur and coconut, syrup drenched malpoas, moong saloi ( a pithey made ground moong, subtly flavoured, sweetened and then deep-fried), pati shapta (rice-flour crepes filled with khoa or coconut) — the list is seemingly endless. And if this were not enough, there is also an entire range of savoury pitheys based on seasonal vegetables. Pithey parban is essentially a rural festival, but many a urban Bengali family recall their agrarian roots every year during Poush Sankranti, albeit in a modified manner. Homes are decorated with alpana, the old rhymes repeated and a variety of pithey cooked. Preparing pitheys is no simple task. As befits food meant for the gods, they have to be of the highest standard demanding skill and experience in determining the exact proportion of ingredients, precision in timing and a light but steady hand. However, with a little practice one can learn to produce the perfect pithey. And the end product is worth the time and effort that they may entail for the beginner.

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