‘Kola-bou’ – The Banana Bride

The red benarasi sari was quite heavy because of the zari embellishments and I had to wrap my arms around it to make sure I had a tight grip. Kola-bou was just dismantled and someone had handed over the sari to me. I stood there with a heavy heart watching our Durga idol being immersed into the stream, a portion of which was temporarily stagnated for the purpose. The intoxicating divine fragrance emanating from the sari was impossible to ignore. Not surprising, this sari was draped around Kola-bou who was worshipped for the past four days. I thought I could quite literally smell the Goddess.

This Durga Puja I was home after 15 long years. Quite surprising, given that this is the most important festival for Bengalis. A few of these years I spent in Kolkata, a few in Bangalore, and the rest I traveled and trekked. I hadn’t realized that so many years passed by and I did not visit our Shillong home during this time of the year. This wasn’t by chance, though. Rather a choice attributed to certain personal reasons. This year circumstances forced me to be here, and I attended our family puja after a very long time. As a result, my Durga Puja celebration turned out to be quite good, while most people had no celebrations at all. Thanks to the pandemic.

Pic 1: Ma Durga with her children. Sons – Ganesha and Kartikeya; Daughters – Laxmi and Saraswati.

Durga Puja is a 5-day event entailing a host of rituals and celebrations. Ma Durga is the most powerful and fearless Goddess, who slays the buffalo demon Mahishasura to protect the earth. She is the supreme power created by combining the powers of all other Gods. The Mother of the Universe, she ensures creation and preservation. The Destroyer of Evil, Ma Durga’s mythology revolves around victory of good over evil. The word ‘Durga’ literally means impassable and inaccessible. It is believed that earth is the maternal home of the Goddess and she comes here every year with her children – Ganesha, Kartikeya, Laxmi, and Saraswati. People celebrate the Mother Goddess, characterized by her ten arms carrying various lethal weapons with the lion as her vehicle.

There are many fascinating aspects of Durga Puja. One of these is the Kola-bou, which is a young banana tree dressed like a Bengali bride. Kola-bou is also known as Nabapatrika – ‘Naba’ meaning nine and ‘Patrika’ meaning plant. It consists of nine plants that are symbolic representations of the nine forms of Ma Durga.

  • Banana plant – represents Goddess Brahmani
  • Colocasia plant– represents Goddess Kalika
  • Turmeric plant – represents Goddess Durga
  • Jayanti (Jubilee) plant – represents Goddess Kartiki
  • Wood apple leaves – represents Lord Shiva
  • Pomegranate leaves – represents Goddess Raktadantika
  • Asoka (Saraca) leaves – represents Goddess Shokarahita
  • Arum plant – represents Goddess Chamunda
  • Rice paddy – represents Goddess Lakshmi

In olden times, Kola-bou was a symbol of Mother Nature herself and worshipped by farmers for a good harvest. As Durga Puja gained popularity, Kola-bou or Nabapatrika got inducted into the ceremony.

Pic 2: Kola-bou or Nabapatrika is always placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga.

The ritual of Kola-bou in our family puja constitutes the sanctification of all nine plants on Mahasashti, which are then carefully kept aside. The next day, on Mahasaptami, these plants are tied together using yellow threads and twigs of Aparajita (Clitoria) plant. Kola-bou is then draped in a benarasi sari and orna, (dupatta) and dressed like a bride. There is another ritual of ceremonial bathing of Kola-bou in River Ganges, which is not followed in our family puja.

Kola-bou is then placed on the right side of Lord Ganesha and worshipped as Ma Durga. The position of Kola-bou could be associated with Lord Ganesh being considered as the creator of the eighteen medicinal plants, for which he is also known as Astadasausadhisrsti. Maybe, that’s why some people consider Kola-bou as Lord Ganesha’s wife.

On the last day of Puja, Dashami, Kola-bou is dismantled and immersed through chanting of mantras. The dismantling of Kola-bou needs to be done in seclusion. The Immersion Ghat remains crowded with people. Hence, a large cloth is used to form a barrier that covers Kola-bou from all sides while the priest and head of the family perform the ritual of dismantling. This is interesting as Kola-bou is Ma Durga herself and her untying and uncovering needs to be done respectfully. The idol is immersed in the water only after Kola-bou immersion is completed.

Some Nostalgic Memories

Traditions, customs, and cultural practices are fast disappearing, happily sacrificed at the altar of metro living.

A thought that gets triggered off every now and then. Our technological and robotic lifestyle has no space for them! The trigger for this thought brought along some memories from the past that made me downhearted on a busy workday morning. The only consolation was that many of these practices maybe good riddance to bad rubbish. But certainly not all of them. Certain rituals and practices associated with specific occasions are not only enjoyable but serve to add fun and zest, breaking the monotony of life in general.

Today is Basant Panchami – a festival associated with welcoming the arrival of Spring. Not a major festival, but for me this day is associated with Saraswati Puja and that was the trigger for today’s thought. In the Eastern India, this day is dedicated to Goddess Saraswati, who is an embodiment of knowledge, language, music and all kinds of art. Goddess Saraswati’s association with knowledge makes her special. Afterall, studies are foremost and that’s the only thing children and young adults are supposed to be focusing on in our country. Back home, every household ensures she is invoked on this day.

What We Used to Do

Back in the days, Saraswati Puja belonged to those most eagerly looked forward to days. It used to be a day to say no to books. The only day in the entire year when we wouldn’t have to hear the usual “destined to be doomed if we don’t study” from parents. Books were dedicated to the Goddess on this day and one was not supposed to touch them. With exams lurking around the corner, this time period used to be a hectic study period. As school students, what could be a more welcome break than to get away with a day without studies!

Yellow used to be the colour of this day – considered to be Goddess Saraswati’s favourite colour (associated with the yellow mustard flowers that bloom in Spring). Draping a saree on this day used to be a must and more often than not, the saree would be yellow or at least have a dash of the colour yellow. As we grew older, the saree to be worn on Saraswati Puja used to be decided days in advance. The puja would be completed in the morning and the rest of the day would be spent gallivanting with friends.

In the globalized world of today’s metro cities, I cannot visualize children indulging in such activities. Rather they are busy chasing the likes of Haloween and Thanksgiving. Though I believe children in Eastern India still celebrate this day in pretty much the same way.

Saraswati Puja is sometimes unofficially called “Bengali Valentine’s Day”. This is more so in West Bengal than in other parts of East India. With parental restrictions waned on this day, young hearts dressed in their ethnic best celebrate love in their own way. I guess I needn’t elaborate anymore on this.

The first thing we would do the following day of the Puja would be to write “Namo Saraswati Devi Namah” 108 times on a piece of paper. The norm was to write with the pen/pencil that was dedicated to the Goddess the previous day. Usually it would be written in Bengali. For small children, this would be a difficult task and hence writing the letter ‘A’ or ‘অ’ (first letter of Bengali alphabet) 108 times was considered enough. Thereafter, the paper was supposed to be immersed in a flowing river or stream. In the absence of easy access to a river or stream, we would simply immerse it in drums at home that were used to store water.

All of these nostalgic remembrances suddenly resurfaced today. The reason being my parents, who are on their annual visit to my home in Bangalore and Saraswati Puja becomes a must do at my Bangalore home too. As my parents make the necessary arrangements, my mind goes on this trip down memory lane with nostalgia dripping all way through.

The Poush Sankranti I Used to Know

Cultures and traditions almost extinct…..

“It’s gotten too cold and with Sankranti this weekend, I need to get some things ready for Pithes, miss you all”, said my Mom on the phone yesterday. Oh yes, 14th of January is just round the corner. It’s time for Poush Sankranti, the Bengali version of Makar Sankranti. A major Indian harvest festival celebrated by Hindus across the country marking the first day of sun’s transit into Makara or Capricorn. Called by different names, it is celebrated in different ways in different parts of the country. Maghi in Punjab, Sankrat in Rajasthan, Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam, and so on.

Poush Sankanti is named after the month, Poush, which is January in Bengali. Bengalis celebrate this festival with Pithes, or special Bengali sweetmeats made of khoya, flour, rice powder, sweetened coconut, jaggery, cardamom, etc.

The thought of Poush Sankranti suddenly brought back a flashback of childhood memories urging me to pen them down before they get washed away with the passage of time. Poush Sankranti used to be a big festival associated with elaborate celebrations and the neighbourhood homes having each other invited.

It was almost like a Pithe Festival with the entire neighbourhood merrily immersed in Pithe-making and Pithe-eating that would spread out to 3-4 days.

In our joint family, this used to be a very special time of the year. The planning would start days in advance with listing out of the kind of Pithes that would be prepared for that year. Usually 4-5 types would be finalized taking into consideration special requests from all the family members. One or two savories, Nimkis and Shingaras would also make to the list to balance out the sweet Pithes.

The entire house would then get together in a hustle and bustle of activities. Dads and Uncles would be busy making several trips to the local market to get the ingredients, especially the perfect coconuts – the ones they feel will yield substantial meat. Removing the coir and preparing the shell to make it ready for grating was their job as well.

My Grandfather’s primary job was to eagerly wait to consume the Pithes while blackmailing the rest of the family about this year being his last Sankranti and hence his Pithe wishlist better be fulfilled. As long as I remember, it was the same story every Sankranti till one fine January morning when it turned out to be real – yes he passed away on a cold January morning.

Moms and aunts would have the more demanding part of the job, grating the coconuts, preparing the khoya, making the sugar syrup, mixing the ingredients in perfect proportions, kneading the dough and shaping up the Pithes, frying them in oil on slow fire, and so on.  Back then, Khoya was also prepared at home by thickening the milk – a job primarily done by my Grandmother. I remember participating wholeheartedly and lending a hand in all the activities.

Dad’s elder sister, Boropishi lived in the same neighborhood with her family. This was a great advantage as usually her Pithes would taste different and often the types would vary giving us a wide range to satisfy our palates. The women, of my family take great pride in their Pithe making skills and that continues to this day. Not the ones of this generation though, most of us have no patience, and the few of us who have tried their hands in it are hardly any good.

Back then, the youngsters of the family, like elder siblings and younger uncles had nothing to do with the actual Pithe preparations but their interest in eating them is what motivated the elders. Besides, they had another important role. They were entrusted with the responsibility of creating the ‘mera-merir ghor’, which used to be a makeshift home made out of haystack. Mera refers to the Ram, the adult male sheep and Meri refers to the Ewe, which is the adult female sheep.

So, ‘mera-meri ghor refers to the house of a sheep couple.

This would be burnt at dawn on the day of Poush Sankranti ( Jan 14th), amidst chants of “mera-merir ghor jole re hooooi!; Mera gelo bajaro, Meri gelo koi; mera-merir ghor jole re hooooi!” (The sheep’s home is up in flames hoi hoi; the ram’s gone shopping and ewe’s missing, the sheep’s home is up in flames hoi hoi). Before setting the ‘mera-merir ghor’ on fire, everyone would take a mandatory bath and stand beside the fire with a plate of Pithes. So, have the Pithes while soaking in the warmth of the fire – what bliss on a chilly January morning! A few Pithes would sometimes be thrown onto the fire as an offering.

Young boys and girls, the courageous ones who dared to brave the cold, would also spend the night merrymaking in the ‘mera-meri ghor’. Often times there wouldn’t be enough hay, so pine needles, bamboos, cardboard boxes and anything that will aid in making the fire burn strongly would be used to supplement.

I have only very early childhood memories of ‘mera-meri ghor’, a few years later as I stepped into adolescence it had disappeared altogether from the celebrations in our home. I believe ‘mera-meri ghor’ was part of Poush Sankranti celebrations only for Bengalis of North East India. I am not sure about Bengalis in other parts of India.

The Assamese people had a similar celebration and they called it ‘Meji’, experienced from the few Poush Sankranti that I spent at my maternal Grandparent’s home in Assam. Their amazing boga-pithas are still my favourite. I am not sure how much of the celebrations still exist in the same way. As for Shillong, I know there are hardly any. Probably, it is still celebrated in pockets of North East India but by and large it is disappearing. Another sacrifice at the altar of urbanization!

It’s sad that our children have no idea of the distinctive flavours of such celebrations. Today’s children celebrate a Haloween with a lot of fun and fervour but probably have no idea about a Poush Sankranti. Who else but us to be blamed!

The tradition of Pithe making at Poush Sankranti continues to this day at my home in Shillong. Though there is no mera-meri ghor and over the years it has reduced to being ritualistic with may be just one type of Pithe. However we do have our impromptu ‘Pithe celebrations’ that make up for Poush Sankranti and which happen at other special times, such as, when our parents visits us or we visit them.