Temple Tales From Lepakshi

There it was – the hanging pillar – our main reason of visiting this ancient temple that dates back to the 16th century. We stood there for a while along with other bystanders watching someone slide a scarf, someone else a paper underneath the pillar to ascertain that it didn’t touch the ground. It was mind-boggling to imagine the kind of design that enables this wafer-thin gap between the pillar’s bottom and the stone floor. And, to think that our modern era of hi-tech technological advancement is unable to unravel the mystery of this architectural riddle.

This pillar is just another testimony to the engineering genius of ancient India. It is said that the pillar is slightly dislodged from its original position. This is attributed to the British Era when a British engineer made an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the secret of the pillar’s support.

Pic 1: The mysterious Hanging Pillar at Lepakshi. Notice the thin gap between the pillar’s bottom and the surface of the stone floor.

We were at Lepakshi Temple, located in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Also known as Veerabhadraswamy temple, this Vijayanagar style temple is just about 120 Km. away from Bangalore. Hence, it’s a favourite destination for daytrips from Bangalore. I was always intrigued by the mysterious hanging pillar of Lepakshi but with my preference for places of nature superseding I hadn’t landed up here before. Lepakshi, however, turned out to be so much more than just the hanging pillar.

Pic 2: At the center are pillars in the Assembly Hall of the main temple, just outside the sanctum sanctorum. Among these stand the Hanging Pillar. Left and Right are close-ups of the ornate sculptures on two pillars.

Dedicated to Veerabhadra, a fierce form of Lord Shiva, Veerabhadraswamy temple was our first stop at Lepakshi. As we stepped into the temple, the first thing we noticed was that it felt extraordinarily cool. It’s always hot in this part of the country and this day was no different. The design of the temple certainly has something to do with it. Apart from Veerabhadra, the sanctum sanctorum has idols of Bhadrakali, Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Parvati.

The brilliant  mural paintings in the temple represent some of the finest artwork of the Vijayanagar dynasty. The fresco of Veerabhadra on the ceiling before the main sanctum sanctorum is supposedly the largest in India. The strikingly contrasting colours of black, brown, orange, green, white, black, and shades of ochre-gold are simply astounding. (Unfortunately, I realised that I have no pictures, possibly was lost admiring the artwork.)

Pic 3: Just outside the main temple. The main temple is the pillared structure on the right.
Pic 4: A Shiva Lingam just outside the main temple complex.

Having seen the hanging pillar and the sanctum sanctorum, we moved around exploring other parts of the temple. The temple houses 70 pillars, each uniquely engraved with gods, goddesses, mythical animals, dancers, saints, and the like. The place was quite crowded with a lot of tourists on that day. It was early January, 2021 – a time when we had happily forgotten that we were in the middle of a pandemic. Not many people wore masks and there was no social distancing at all. The marvelous architecture kept us engaged and we had little time to worry about the pandemic. We remained masked though, taking them off only when clicking pictures.

Pic 5: The incomplete Kalyana Mantapam or Marriage Hall
Pic 6: A close look at the sculpture of one of the pillars at Kalyana Mantapam.

Moving on to the temple’s outer enclosure, we were now in the Kalyana Mantapam or the marriage hall, meant for the marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. There were intricately carved pillars, each representing a God or Goddess supposedly attending the marriage ceremony.

This was an incomplete structure with no roof and has a gruesome story associated with it. The temple was constructed by two brothers, Viranna and Virupanna. While the king was away, Viranna used up the royal treasury to fund the increased cost of construction. On his return, the King was furious and ordered that Viranna’s eyes be gouged out. Upset with the King’s sentence, Viranna gouged his own eyes and rubbed it on the temple wall. The two red blotches on the western wall of the temple is said to be blood marks of Viranna’s eyes.

Pic 7: The unique monolithic Ganesha. Spot the snake coiled around it’s rounded belly.

A little away from the marriage hall is the monolithic Ganesha, a unique one at that with a snake coiled around it’s belly.

Next, we found ourselves standing before the impressively massive Nagalinga with seven hoods and three coils that shelters a black granite Shivalingam. It is believed that the Nagalinga was carved from a single block of stone while the sculptors were waiting for their mother to cook lunch for them.

Pic 8: The astounding gigantic seven hooded Nagalinga. The associated belief that it was carved out by the sculptors while their mother prepared lunch makes it even more fascinating.

We walked around the temple courtyard, admiring the archaeological and artistic splendour. The courtyard was characterised by pillared hallways and several tiny chambers. We found an empty spot and sat there for a while. We should have hired a guide we thought, as we watched others enjoying a guided tour. My sister thought Google could be our guide for now.

Pic 9: The temple courtyard characterised by ornate pillars and small chambers.
Pic 10: The sisters managed to request someone to click a picture for them – precious memories!

As she googled, we learnt several fascinating tales of the temple, including the legends of the incomplete Marriage Hall and the Nagalinga. She also read about Sita’s footprint, which we discovered on our way out. It’s the impression of a huge foot on the stone floor that has a perennial flow of water. Apparently, the source of the water or where it drains out to is unknown.

Pic 11: An enormous foot impression, which is believed to be of Sita Mata.

After spending close to two hours at Lepakshi Temple complex, we stepped out and headed towards the Jatyayu Park. I will cover that in my next post.

Pic 12: The sublime flowering Frangipani tree on the way out. It reminded me of a similar tree that had captured our imagination at Virupaksha Temple, Hampi.

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.

‘Jhulley’ from Kibber and Lhalung

Kibber

“Jhulley ji!” I greeted the old lady soaking in the sun outside her home. “Jhulley, Jhulley” she returned the gesture with a toothless smile before going back to counting the prayer beads that were held together by a decorative tassel. ‘Jhulley’ means Hello in the local language, a word I had learnt even before setting foot onto Spiti Valley.

It was about 5 PM in the evening and the sun was still shining bright. We had arrived at Kibber about an hour back and after settling down at our homestay, had stepped out to explore the village making sure that we were layered well enough. Soon the sun would go down and it would become really cold. I chit-chatted with my travel companion – my sister – while walking down leisurely through the only dusty lane that ran through the center of the village.

Just a few meters down the road and suddenly a herd of sheep came rambling down from nowhere. We did expect to see sheep and other livestock in the village but not at that time and in that manner. Completely taken by surprise, we were jubilant at the sight of least a 100 sheep with their sheep dogs and shepherds. As we moved to the side to give way, I scampered through my jacket pocket hurriedly trying to locate my mobile to capture the moment. The sheep were too fast and by the time I was ready many of them had moved on. I had seen herds of sheep in many of my Himalayan sojourns before but this was different as the animals blended perfectly into the surrounding colour of the landscape, which was sharply contrasting to how I had seen them stand out in the green meadows. I regretted not getting a good shot and wished I had my mobile handy at that time!

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Pic 1: The herd of sheep blends harmoniously with the surrounding colour

We walked around the village for some more time, climbing up and down, passing through the narrow lanes, talking to the villagers and reveling at the beautiful surroundings against the setting sun. The leisurely pace enabled us to actually feel the evening slowly giving way to night. This was refreshingly different from  the mad rush in cities where we don’t know where our evenings go.

The village was really clean and much to our delight we found it well equipped in terms of a school and even a dispensary. There were solar panels all around and most houses had a television and satellite channels as well. This turned out to be different from what we had seen at Osla village (in Uttarakhand) a few months back.

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Pic 2: The farmland and few scattered houses on one side of the village

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Pic 3: View of the village from the window of our homestay

The village of Kibber, situated at a height of 4205 meters is about an hour’s drive from Kaza, the main town of Spiti. As you drive from Kaza through the steep and winding roads, Kibber can be seen from a distance as a green patch of land with a cluster of houses with white walls and red roofs surrounded by formidable mountains. Kibber is the biggest village in Spiti Valley, having around 80 houses that are densely packed to make sure that not an inch of agricultural land is lost in this dry and arid mountain area. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the major occupations here. Snow leopards have been sighted in Kibber during the winter season making it a much sought after destination for wildlife photographers. Kibber houses a Gompa and also the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, which is India’s only wild life sanctuary in a cold desert.

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Pic 4: The densely packed houses at Kibber

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Pic 5: Rooftops serve as a storehouse of livestock fodder, collected in preparation for winter

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Pic 6: A typical house in the village

Back at our homestay, we found Padma waiting for us with the evening tea and snacks. Padma and her husband owns the Kanamo homestay, which they had built recently. They lived there with their 4-year old daughter, Saraschotun. We soon discovered that Saraschotun was a bundle of joy with a contagious energy that cannot be escaped. We spent the evening playing with Saraschotun and chatting with her mother as she prepared dinner for us. Padma had two more daughters and a son, all of whom were in boarding schools at Kaza and Rangrik. The importance she gave to education was praiseworthy.

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Pic 7: The tandoor burns while water is heated in a pan

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Pic 8: Saraschotun sits still for a moment as she plays with my phone enabling a quick photo

The spick and span homestays in Spiti turned out to be much more comfortable than hotels. Our itinerary had just one day of homestay but we ended our travel with three. Two in Kibber and one in Lhalung.

My Kibber story will remain incomplete without mentioning Tashi’s home. 20-year old Tashi was the bell boy at our hotel in Kaza, who stole my heart with his simplicity and innocent dimples. I almost felt like adopting him. Tashi belonged to Kibber. When I showed him the pictures I had clicked in his village, he was quick to point out his home. He urged us to visit his home when we go back to Kibber. We did as we wanted to respect his wish. We met Tashi’s father and brothers, his mother and sister had gone over to Kaza. Unlike Padma’s homestay, Tashi’s home was very ordinary and their only source of income was livestock. Tashi was their eldest son, who had studied till Class 12 and wants to do better rather than spend the rest of his life at Kibber. We were humbled by the immense respect showered on us by Tashi’s father.

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Pic 9: Tashi’s home on the right, quite a climb uphill it was

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Pic 10: A selfie with Tashi’s father and brothers

Lhalung

Lhalung is situated at a height of 3,658 meters and is another beautiful high altitude village in Spiti valley. The word Lhalung means ‘land of God’ (lha for God and lung for land). It is said that the Tangmar Mountains, which surround Lhalung village changes color depending on the mood of Lhalung Devta, who is the head of all the Devtas in the valley. Red denotes anger while yellow signifies happiness.

At Lhalung we stayed at Khabrik homestay. Tandup Dolma, the owner and lady of the house was very hospitable and a great story teller giving us glimpses into the indigenous spitian way of life. Tandup lived a happy life with her two husbands. Her husbands are brothers – one of them is in the army and stays away most of the time, while the other is a farmer and lives with her in the village. Their three children were at a boarding school in Rangrik. We met her nephew Nuwangsonam, who was staying with her as his school was closed. Nuwang was in 8th grade and studied in the village school. However, his innocence appeared to us like a usual 5th grader of the cities. Lhalung does have a school but no dispensary. If anybody falls ill they have to travel all the way to Kaza.

We spent the evening chatting with Tandup while Nuwang desperately tried to teach us the local language. The next morning Nuwang took us around the village, especially to show the old Gompa of the village. The Gompa is also known as the Sarkhang or Golden Temple and we were told that it is 1020 years old. A new Gompa has also been built recently besides the old one. The old one appealed to me much more than the new one. Nuwang introduced us to an enthusiastic septuagenarian man who had the keys to the Gompa. This man took us through the Gompa with elaborate descriptions, much of which we just weren’t able to follow. Though we learnt that villagers believed the Gompa was built by angels one night. Hence, touching the murals on the Gompa wall is forbidden as that will anger the angels and they might leave the village.

Later Tandup played their traditional musical instrument, Kho Poh, and also tried teaching us a strum or two.

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Pic 11: A stack of hay stored neatly in the terrace of Tandup’s home, note the mud flooring

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Pic 12: Nuwang takes us around his village with a lot of pride and excitement

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Pic 13: The old monastery or Gompa at Lhalung

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Pic 14: Another part of the old monastery

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Pic 15: Murals on the wall inside the old  Gompa

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Pic 16: Inside the new Gompa

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Pic 17: Tandup tries to teach my sister how to play the ‘Kho Poh’

Everything about the lives of the villagers fascinated us. It was amazing to see the villagers holding on to their beliefs and customs. In spite of the tourist influx, their culture is still intact and modernization has not eroded their traditions and values. The people of Spiti live a life of happiness and pride despite their problems of long winter months and isolation from other parts of the country. They are very hospitable and more than happy to have you as their guest. The sense of compassion and the spirit of Buddhism is deeply rooted in everyone.

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Pic 18: The ceiling of the homes made of branches and twigs, which provide very good insulation

Padma and Tandup have not set foot outside Spiti and have never seen a city, but guests like us are their window to the world. They have their own hardships but are happy and satisfied and in many ways lead much more meaningful lives than those of us in the cities.

Here are some snippets of the villages, the people and the culture:

  • The tandoor in the village homes have the chimneys passing through the center of the homes making the homes warm, much warmer than hotels. Dried yak dung and cow dung are the main source of fuel for heating the tandoor. The floors of the houses are made of mud and the roofs made of dried twigs/branches provide the much needed insulation.
  • The rooms are clean and well furnished, however there were no mirrors in the rooms. The local women didn’t seemed to care about their looks though we found them exceedingly beautiful and simply loved their unique jewellery.
  • The homestays are better than hotels and are easier on the pocket too. They are much warmer, food is great, and you get to learn so much about the culture.
  • The practice of polyandry is seen and all the brothers in the family maybe married to one woman. The main reason is to avoid division of property. This system was fairly common before but now is not accepted by all, especially the youngsters.
  • During the brief summer (mid-May to mid-Oct), people work really hard to prepare for the 8-month long winter.
  • During the long winters, there is snow everywhere and most of the villages are cut off from civilization. People don’t have much to do. They spend their days soaking in the sun, knitting sweaters, and feeding their livestock. In the cold evenings, everyone in the family gathers around the tandoor and spend their time singing and dancing. So they work hard during summer and party hard during winter.
  • During winter, sheep are usually shifted to lower altitudes where the temperate is not that extreme. Cows and mules remain with the owners and are kept indoors. Yaks remain active through the winters and people even ride them to move through snow.
  • Green peas, potatoes, and barley are the main crops. The government is also promoting the cultivation of Seabuckthorn – the orange-coloured berries growing all around Spiti that are rich in vitamin C. The farming is organic and most of the crops are free from pesticides.
  • Some local way of saying things, that we learnt from Nuwang:
    • Accho: Brother (Bhaiya)
    • Acche: Sister (Didi)
    • Thammo: Sister-in-law (Bhabhi)
    • Amma: Mother
    • Appa: Father
    • Aane: Aunt (Bua)
    • Yato: Friend
    • Chiru: Cow
    • Nyuth thuk thapa: How are you?
    • Gno yak poh thak: Am doing good

Tales of Pithe-Puli

Fast Disappearing Exotic and Traditional Home-made Bengali Sweetmeat

A pan filled with oil simmered over a low flame as Ma peered onto it maneuvering a shining steel spatula with her spectacles daintily perched at the edge of her nose. Driven by curiosity, I take a closer look to discover the diamond-shaped flattened cubes seething in the hot foaming oil. Tossing and turning the cubes, she patiently waits for them to turn a reddish brown.

It was a Sunday afternoon and ‘Chana Daal Pithe’ was underway at my Bangalore home. Yes, it was that time of the year when my parents were visiting me.

Anybody who understands Pithe, knows the amount of labour that goes into its making. And Ma managed all of that single-handedly and more so after she had prepared breakfast, cooked lunch, even got me a bowl of fruits sometime in between, and doing a dozen other chores around the house. As I watched her with awe yet again, the same old thought crept into my mind – “Why don’t I have half the energy she has and how does she manage time to get so much done!” – All mothers have superpowers, I swear!

Chana Daal Pithe is an irresistible mouth-watering authentic Bengali sweetmeat. It is made by mixing boiled and mashed bengal gram, sweetened coconut shreds, khoya (milk thickened and solidified by heating in an open pan), and refined flour. The diamond-shaped flattened cubes are crafted out of the mixture and deep fried in vegetable oil. They are then dipped in sugar syrup, which is spiced up with cardamom. It’s often served by garnishing with a layer of kheer over it. (Kheer is milk with sugar, thickened to a certain consistency by boiling over low flame). Chana Daal Pithe is one of those special dishes that comes from Ma’s kitchen and like many other things is on the brink of extinction. I don’t know how many of us have the time and energy to prepare pithes even though we love to eat them……..I for one wouldn’t have the patience, I know that for sure! Grate the coconut, boil the gram, mix with flour, sugar and kheer in perfect proportions, and the right proportion happens to be really important, fry them over low flame while you prepare the sugar syrup separately…………PHEW!

At the same time it upsets me to think that the future generations may never know what pithes are and how they taste. After all, you don’t get to buy pithes off the shelf. Though, I did see a few during Poush Sankranti in a sweet shop in Kolkata a few years back but definitely those wouldn’t taste like the home-made ones. A business opportunity hidden there? Hmm…..

Pithes are indigenous home-made Bengali sweets that are traditionally prepared during Poush Sankranti (Makar Sankranti) in the month of January. Pithes can be of various types. There are those that are common across all sections of Bengalis, then there are those that are indigenous to certain regions of Bengal. Again, some pithes are made from refined flour, while others require rice flour; some should be sweetened with jaggery while sugar suffices in others; in some potatoes are a must while some cannot be imagined without bananas, again others require jackfruit or dates; there are those that are deep fried and those that are steamed or boiled – the combinations are endless.

Pithes are not any random dish and are not a part of our usual menu. It’s definitely not what fish is to us. Pithes are distinctive and special. It has to be a Poush Sankranti or a special occasion for pithes to make their appearance.

Besides Bengal, pithes are also popular in the states of Orissa and Assam. However, each state has their own set of unique and distinctive pithes. 

Pithes have also been associated with a special kind of love, affection, and indulgence. Many of us associate our grandparents with pithes. I remember demanding pithes from my Thamma (paternal grandmother), who would not only be delighted but would do anything under the sun to fulfill our wishes. And Thamma’s pithes belonged to a different genre altogether, the range of pithes was way broader and the taste couldn’t be reproduced by anyone in the family.

Today, pithe is ritualistic each time we visit home or parents come over. A visit to my Pishi (aunt – dad’s sister) in Guwahati is also ritualistic each time I go home, and she will invariably have some pithes in store for me. Some of which would be prepared in a special manner for a longer shelf-life so that I can bring them back to Bangalore to savor at leisure.

Back in Bangalore, it was Chana Daal Pithe that Sunday afternoon and it didn’t stop at that. Puli Pithe, Lobongo Lotika, and Sureshkhowa happened on the following days. All of that prompted me to write about pithes, as I know for sure that pithes will soon become a thing of the past. Even now, the world swears by roshogollas as Bengali sweets, not many know about our exotic pithes.

I’ve already described Chana Daal Pithe, here are few more pithes that are popular at my home:

Patisapta: White elongated rolled pancakes made with milk, refined flour, and semolina, stuffed with coconut or khoya or both; often served by dipping in kheer.

Lobongo lotika: Dipped in sugar syrup, stuffed with khoya or sweetened coconut shreds, the square-shaped parcels are created by neatly folding flaps of kneaded and rolled out flour, the ends of which are secured with a clove; and the clove in turn brings in a sudden pungent and spicy burst of flavor that sharply contrasts the sweet taste.

Puli Pithe: Semilunar flour parcels, folded with a definitive pattern at the edges, stuffed with kheer or sweetened coconut or both; optionally dipped in sugar syrup.

Malpoa: Round flat, fried pancake dipped in sugar syrup, Fluffy inside with crisp edges made from khoya, flour, fennel seeds; often served by dipping in kheer.

Aloo Pithe: Perfectly rounded reddish brown balls can be easily mistaken for gulab jamun; made by mixing boiled potatoes, kheer, refined flour and immersed in sugar syrup.

Dudh Puli: Rice flour dumplings with a stuffing of coconut and date palm jaggery boiled in thick milk, which is again flavored with date palm jaggery

SureshSureshkhowa: Small oval balls made by mixing flour, semolina, coconut, with an optional sugar syrup coating; this can be stored for a longer duration

 

 

 

For the Love of ‘Shidol’

Loved by a few, loathed by many…

The pungent smell filled up the air as I sniffed the familiar mouthwatering aroma. Shidol Chutney it was! You don’t need a sharp nose for a smell as strong as that. I ventured to the kitchen for a quick glance to make sure I was right. And, Oh yes I was! Lunch time was a good two hours away and I wondered how to divert my attention and control my already salivating tongue till then.

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Pic 1: The spicy and pungent Shidol Chutney

It was that time of the year when my parents were visiting my home in Bangalore. Food is always a top priority during their stay here. Going with the firm notion of their daughter being deprived of all the good food life has to offer, every day during their stay is nothing but a feast. Their misbelief, fueled by parental love and affection, is true to a certain extent especially considering the authentic, indigenous food that only moms and aunts can cook. And in my case, Shidol Chutney (also known as Shidol Bhorta) is definitely one of them.

Shidol Chutney is a heavenly mishmash of Shidol, onions, and garlic spiced up with a generous dose of red chilli powder.

Savored with white rice, this and its variant Shidol Bora fall in the category of most eagerly looked forward to dishes from Ma’s kitchen.  Shidol is a traditional fermented fish, popular in North East India. It is nothing but the freshwater Punti fish, the scientific name for which is Puntius sophore, and the common English name is Pool Barb.

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Pic 2: Fermented Puntius ready to be cleaned and cooked

I never bothered before, but just learnt from Google that Shidol is prepared by stuffing earthen pots with the sundried fish. The earthen pots are then sealed airtight to provide the anaerobic conditions for fermentation and stored at room temperature for 3-4 months. Bamboos are also used sometimes instead of earthen pots. Pretty interesting, isn’t it!

I am not a foodie, but when it comes to Shidol, it’s a different story altogether. My Shidol affiliation has to be attributed to my lineage – the Sylhet district in Bangladesh. Sylheti Bengalis are tad touchy about their Shidol and I am no different. In fact, without my love affair with Shidol, I may lose my credibility of being a true Sylheti*!

Many Sylhetis lovingly call it ‘Hidol’. Shidol is our pride and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Shidol Chutney and Shidol Bora have evolved to become a cultural identity for us.

*Sylhetis are an ethno-cultural group of Bengalis, who speak the Bengali dialect Sylheti. Native to the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and Barak Valley in Assam, they have a significant presence in Meghalaya and Tripura.

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Pic 3: Shidol Bora with white rice

And, being a Sylheti with roots in Shillong, my craving for this dish can only be understood by fellow Sylheti Shillongites. Shillong supposedly has the best quality Shidol in the country (maybe world, for all you know). And with an epidemic of Chayote (called squash locally) plants all over, the popularity of Shidol becomes even more pertinent. After all, the leaves of Chayote plants are considered the best for preparing Shidol Bora. Pumpkin leaves (Kumro pata) are otherwise used.

Shidol is also popular amongst the communities of Khasis, Tripuris, Kacharis, and Manipuris, in North East India. I am not quite sure how they cook their Shidol though.

Back home, the pungent appetizing aroma was only growing stronger as Ma had closed all the doors and windows to prevent our neighbours from having to put up with something they may find rather repulsive. During the process of cooking, Shidol emanates a rather obnoxious smell. And that smell is definitely not for the faint-hearted! It’s strange to think that a delicacy for one becomes nauseous for another. The pungency of onions and garlic balances out the smell in the cooked dish.

Finally, the much awaited lunch time arrived and I gorged on a sumptuous meal of white rice and hot and spicy Shidol Chutney even as tears streamed down my face and my nose ran. Only a Shidol-lover will understand the utter joy of my gastronomical delight. My mouth waters even as I write this. Can’t wait to have it again, which can happen only when I go home or Ma comes here. I haven’t tried my hand in preparing it yet….  Too used to the taste of Ma’s hands. The dish has to be prepared well in order to taste well and not everyone prepares it well. Hopefully, it’s in my genes and I’ll do good!

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Pic 4: Loitta or Bombay Duck

Besides Shidol, something else that truly delights a Sylheti is Loitta or Lotka (dried Bombay Duck). Shidol and Loitta, collectively known as Shutki mach can be prepared in various other ways – combined with brinjal (eggplant/aubergine), or with a variety of vegetables, or simply with potatoes. While my Shidol favorite is the chutney and the bora, my Loitta favorite is the roasted dry fish mashed with onions, mustard oil, salt and chilli powder…………….slrupppp!

Here’s Ma’s recipe for the adventurous you:

Shutki process

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The Story of Osla

It was a bright sunny April afternoon when we were on our way towards Har ki Dun, walking alongside river Tamosa. As we took a turn in the valley our gaze instantaneously fell upon a bunch of beautiful wooden houses on the mountain slopes. The haphazardly arranged houses almost appeared to be rolling down the mountainside in some form of a disarrayed haste. This was Osla!

Awestruck we were by this neat little village tucked far away in the Himalayas. We took a spontaneous decision to visit the village on our way back with the help of our guide, who had friends and relatives in the village.

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Haphazardly arranged homes on the mountain slope and river Tamosa that flows below.

Situated in Uttarakhand, in Western Himalayas, every little thing about this quaint little village intrigued us – the city dwellers.  Stuck in some bygone age, this unfrequented and relatively unseen village has millions of stories to tell.  As we set foot into the village through the narrow pathway lined with randomly arranged stones on one side and a mountain slope on the other, we noticed the place was dotted with apple trees all over. Just a few meters and the narrow pathway ended at the village temple.

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The wooden village temple as seen while entering the village, a view from the back.

Beyond this there was no clearly defined pathway.  Dedicated to ‘Someshwar Devta’, the unique wooden temple has a charm of its own.  The area around the temple appeared to be some sort of a village square. Young men were idling around, smoking ‘beedis’ while playing cards without a care in the world, children with cheeks as red as cherries chased one another as they ran around unmindful of the dust all around.  Some people say the temple used to worship Duryodhana*, who was a well-loved king in the region but the villagers deny this.

*An important character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, whose desire and ego blinded him leading to the famous war of Kurukshetra.

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The temple as viewed from the front.

The beautiful wooden homes that had caught our attention earlier had roofs made of flat stones that were apparently procured from some faraway place. The stones provided the much needed protection during the harsh winter months. With wood appearing to be the primary source of firewood, furniture and construction, a rapid discussion on deforestation ensued between us, the cognizant city dwellers, only to die down quickly as our focus was on the villagers and their lives.

The indigenous people of the village stole our hearts in an instant with their hospitality, innocence and simplicity. Untouched by the vices of the modern world, the love and respect they showered on us was overwhelming, something we can never experience in the cities. Almost everyone we met invited us for tea or dinner. A young girl, Shamita insisted we go to her home for a cup of tea and we had to oblige.  The teenagers, Kashmina and Krishna weren’t tired of showing us around the village. They even got their best clothes to dress up my sister in their traditional attire – something that the whole village gathered to see and which they found profoundly amusing.

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The villagers dress my sister in their traditional wear.

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She poses with Kasmina (right) and Krishna (left). Notice the flat stones that make up the roof of the homes.

The concept of community living and the self-sufficient people truly appealed to us. There were villagers who were spinning yarn from sheep wool. The sheep is again reared by themselves and they use the yarn to weave their own warm jackets.  They proudly announce that their wool is priceless and cannot be found anywhere in the world – a claim that perhaps cannot be denied.   We notice that almost everyone in the village was busy doing something or the other, not many are seen idling time away. We were amused to see a lady stomping her feet in a large wooden basin that had clothes and water. That’s a community laundry where everyone goes to wash heavy clothes like blankets. Also, we were astounded to find children barely 7-8 year old busily washing clothes in the only tap in the village. Tap would be a wrong usage, it was rather a pipe through which water flows out constantly into Tamosa.

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Villagers spinning yarn from sheep wool.

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The yarn is processed further and colored with organic dye.

There is just one tiny little shop in the village which sells a few packets of chips, toffees, and potatoes. There is no grocery, no vegetables. The hard working villagers cultivate and grow their own rice, rajma, and potatoes. These constitute their staple food. Besides, some thorny leaves, bushes, and roots gathered from in and around also constitute a part of their food. There is no concept of storing these items, they are simply plucked as and when required. Cows, sheep, and mules constitute their livestock – cows for milk, sheep for wool, and mules to ferry things from outside. The mules also cater to trekkers like us to carry necessities like food, tents, etc. and in some cases carry our bags as well, enabling us to walk light.

A typical well-to-do home constitutes three floors – upper floor for people, middle one for sheep, and the lowest one for cows. Mules stay outside. Upper floor typically has three rooms alongside a long balcony overlooking the snow-clad mountains. The rooms are minimalistic having only cotton mattresses and quilts. Most of the homes however are smaller, constituting of just one room that serves as the bedroom, kitchen, living room, and everything else.

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A typical well-to-do home with three floors. Notice the apple trees on the side.

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An ordinary home that has just one room.

The tough life of the villagers brought tears to our eyes. The village has no network and hence no phones, Internet is out of question. There are no toilets, no roads, no electricity. A few homes do have solar panels that provide some basic not so bright lighting. Young girls barely 12-13 year olds carry a minimum of 20 Kgs of firewood regularly from the forests and walk 11-12 Km with that load.

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An old woman carries firewood and she must have walked 11-22 Km or more with that load.

In spite of such adversities, the village folks wore a happy smile complementing their unparalleled hospitality. As we bid goodbye the next day, they packed rajma for us in keeping with their tradition of not sending off visitors empty-handed. With an experience of a lifetime we left Osla.

It is incredulous to think that even after 70 years of independence, such remote and backward villages still exist in India. This is strikingly contrasting to the digital India and smart cities that we are supposedly moving towards.

There is a primary school but children are uneducated as the teacher is always drunk. A few children have the good fortune of being educated in other villages or in cities but mostly can’t afford the cost. In some families, especially those with several children get only one or two of their children educated while the rest remain in the village either because the parents cannot afford to educate them or they are needed to run the chores of the home. Amidst all of this, we happened to meet a young man who was completing his Masters in Botany at Dehradun and who had come home during the holidays. This was so refreshing and hopeful indeed!

The worst part is the village has no clinic or dispensary. The nearest medical help is 27 Km away. With no roads, seriously ill patients are tied to a chair that is then carried by four people, who walk 16 Km to reach ‘Taluka’, where they get transport and then drive another 11 Km, and that’s the nearest medical help.

We are back to our comfortable city lives with precious memories of Osla etched in our minds forever. However, each time we remember the lovely time we spent at the village it is accompanied by pangs of guilt as our mind does a spontaneous inadvertent comparison of our comfortable lives with the difficult lives of the villagers. The innocent villagers continue their daily struggle relatively oblivious to all the amenities of modern living.

Note: I am not quite sure I have been able to express myself well enough to do justice to the wonderful experience we had in the beautiful village of Osla. Hence, sharing a few more pictures below with the hope that you might be able to relate to our surreal experience at the village. (All pics are clicked through phone and are unedited raw photos.)

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Pic 1: A patch of green encountered just upon setting foot onto the village.

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Pic 2: A lady busy weaving at her home with several apple trees in her yard.

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Pic 3: Not quite sure about the purpose of these houses, probably a storehouse for wooden planks.

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Pic 4: Beautiful jewelry and rich deep wrinkles that must be harboring millions of wonderful tales!

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Pic 5: There’s just one or two such community taps rather pipes through which water flows out constantly.

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Pic 6: The wooden basin for washing clothes, the community laundry area, where clothes are washed by feet stomping.

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Pic 7: A wooden stairway leading to the upper floor of a 3-storied house.

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Pic 8: The balcony overlooking snow-clad mountains, a view that I could die for!

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Pic 9: There is no proper pathway as you go around the village. It’s like an obstacle course as you pass by somebody’s yard, jump over a pile of stones, walk through stone steps and so on…

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Pic 10: A lovely group photo with some of the village kids!

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Pic 11: Dinner being prepared over a ‘chulha’ in the minimalistic kitchen, which also serves to make the room warm during winters.