“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.