In the tradition of Bengali Hindus, the auspicious fortnight, or Debipaksha, ends on the full moon night with a prayer to Lakshmi, or Lokkhi in Bengali, the goddess of wealth, peace and prosperity.
In most parts of India, people pray to Lakshmi during Diwali. However, in Bengal, this is done during the festival of Kojagori Lokkhi Puja. This tradition dates back to an ancient king who had promised an artisan he would buy all his wares. The artisan had created an image of Alokkhi, or the anti-Lakshmi, and the king — not wanting to break his promise — bought the image, in turn bringing bad luck and financial distress to his kingdom. Finally, his queen kept a night vigil, fasting and praying to the goddess Lokkhi, who was pleased, and peace and prosperity were restored to his land.
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The festival of Kojagori Lokkhi Puja has been one of my favorites, mostly because of the silent power of this very domestic goddess, possibly an ancient measure of preserving the status of the homemaker. The goddess is of a silent and fastidious temperament and is said to favor a calm and peaceful household where there is no waste or turmoil.
The focus of this Puja is, therefore, on the peace and calm of the home and is usually done by the women in the household. In Bengal, a new bride or homemaker is likened to Lokkhi, with a hope of ensuring that careless treatment of her will bring bad luck to the household.
Lokkhi Puja is sandwiched between the flashy Durga Puja, a four-day festival of elaborate fanfare, and Kali Puja, the invocation of the powerful goddess of the night. Somehow these goddesses, with their multiple hands, weapons and fierce aspirations, seem too dramatic for me. The gracious Lokkhi, who stood on an open lotus (a common flower in Bengal) with her pet owl, seems approachable and very real.
In preparation for the festival
The first task for the festival, usually done the day before, begins with getting the Lokkhi figurines. However, unlike other figurines, the Lokkhi is never immersed in the Ganges. The morning of the puja begins with a scrupulous cleaning of the household, and I remember this being one of the days my grandmother woke me up early so as not to invoke the ire of the goddess, who is not partial to laziness.
The cleaned floors are decorated with alpona, or a traditional design made with rice flour paste that typically has a series of feet that enter the house and none leaving it. My grandmother would leave the rest of the design making to me (often shaking her head at my lack of symmetry in making these patterns), but made the decorations for the central prayer room herself.
Today, with my grandmother gone, none of the decoration happens, but I do have her silver Lokkhi, something she inherited from her mother-in-law.
The foods of the puja are slightly different from the traditional offerings of khichuri seen in other pujas. For Kojagori Lokkhi Puja, you typically see a repast of luchi, or puffed Bengali breads, and a variety of fried vegetables, most commonly potatoes and eggplants. While this may seem simple, eggplant wedges coated with salt, turmeric and cayenne and then deep fried to a soft and sensuous texture and enjoyed with crisp and puffy puris can indeed be something to appease a flighty goddess.
Other traditional offerings include coconut toffee balls, called narus, and various assortments of rice products, such as puffed rice, puffed rice coated with jaggery and, as in all occasions, rice pudding. In an agrarian economy where rice is the main product or crop, prosperity is indeed associated with rice, and it is considered unlucky to run out of rice in a household, probably accounting for my penchant for keeping at least one spare 10-pound bag around to this day.
The preferred flower for Kojagori Lokkhi Puja is the lotus, making it very difficult to procure unless you hit the flower shops first thing in the morning.
To help you bring some peace and happiness to your table, I share with you these recipes for coconut toffee balls, Bengali fried eggplant and potatoes, and my slow cooker rice pudding. As autumn turns into winter, may there be peace and prosperity in everyone’s life.
Narkoler Naru (Coconut Toffee Balls)
Recipe from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles”
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: 20 small balls
2 cups grated coconut (I use the frozen variety)
3/4 cup powdered jaggery (cane sugar)
1/2 teaspoon cardamom powder
- In a wok or skillet over very low heat, cook the coconut, stirring frequently, for 15 to 20 minutes. The coconut should begin turning light brown and aromatic and begin releasing some oil.
- Add the jaggery and continue cooking on low, stirring frequently, until the jaggery is melted and the mixture is well browned and very fragrant and toffee-like. Plenty of coconut oil should be glistening in the mixture.
- Stir in the cardamom powder and mix well.
- Remove from heat and let cool until the mixture is able to be handled.
- Shape the mixture into small balls. These balls keep well for a couple of weeks at room temperatures of up to 70 F or refrigerated. If refrigerated, they should be brought the room temperature before serving.
Begun Bhaja (Bengali Fried Eggplants)
Recipe adapted from “The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles.”
When choosing an eggplant, pick with care because a seedy eggplant is a recipe for disaster. Ideally, pick a smaller, smooth eggplant that feels light and has shiny, dark purple skin. This recipe can also be used to cook potato slices.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
1 medium-sized eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons rice flour (optional, but it gives it a nice crisp texture)
Oil for deep frying
- Cut the eggplant into slices or wedges and place them in a large mixing bowl.
- Add the turmeric, salt and red cayenne pepper to the bowl and toss the eggplant so it is well coated.
- Place the eggplant in a colander and let it drain for about 15 minutes.
- Spread the rice flour on a clean surface and lightly dip the outer flesh of the eggplant in the rice flour. The flour does not have to be even. It should be a light coating.
- Heat the oil in a wok. While the oil is heating, line a plate with plenty of paper towels.
- Carefully place a few of the eggplant pieces into the oil and fry for 3 to 4 minutes until very soft and golden.
- Drain the eggplant pieces carefully and place them on the paper towel-lined plate.
- Fry and drain the remaining pieces of eggplant.
- Serve hot with luchis (Bengali puffed bread) or rice and lentils.
Slow Cooker Saffron and Cardamom Rice Pudding
Recipe from “Spices and Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian Flavors”
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 hours (in a slow cooker)
Total time: About 5 hours
1/2 gallon half-and-half
3/4 cup short-grained rice, such as jasmine rice
6 green cardamoms, lightly bruised
3/4 cup raw turbinado or maple sugar (or more to taste)
1/2 cup chopped nuts such as pistachios or pecans (optional)
- Combine the half-and-half, rice and cardamoms in the slow cooker and set it to cook on high for five hours..
- After two hours, remove the slow cooker cover and give the mixture a good stir, ensuring the rice mixes well with the milk. Replace the lid.
- After another hour and a half, stir the mixture well. By this point, the rice should be fairly soft and meshing into the milk. Stir in the sugar and let the rice pudding continue cooking for another hour and a half.
- Stir well once it is done cooking. Discard the cardamoms if you wish. Let the pudding rest for at least 30 minutes and garnish with nuts before serving if you wish. Serve hot or cold, depending on your preference.
Main photo: Bengali Fried Eggplants, or Begun Bhaja. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rinku Bhattacharya