In Bengali there is a saying “baaro mashe tyaro parbon” (13 festivals in 12 months) and it’s more than true. We have way more than 13 festivals in a year. But the biggest one is Durga puja, followed by Lakshmi Puja and Kali Puja. Early to late autumn is the festive season for Bengalis. Lakshmi is considered to be the goddess of fortune and will be worshipped on the full moon of the autumn called Lakshmi purnima (purnima=full moon).
In Bengali culture, food is an integral part of any religious ritual, so Lakshmi puja is no exception. Being the goddess of fortune, she is offered rice, cooked and uncooked. Rice was the main agricultural product during the ancient times in Bengal and was probably considered to be a measurement of fortune.
Every year we celebrated kojagori lakshmi puja at my parents place. Some years we had enough money to have a big idol, some years just a tiny one. I was never religious but Lakshmi puja was and still is very special to me. The preparation started the day before the actual puja with coconut grating. I was the designated coconut grinder. The sweetened product was then transferred to me to make balls which are called naru. Maa cooked the coconut with either gur (molasses) or sugar and made either gurer naru or chinir naru. I gulped down a few as soon as they came to shape. It was so much fun.
On the day of the puja, Baba (my father) used to go to the market to buy the fruits and the idol. I used to always nag and ask for a goddess with a real saari and hair on her (I mean a real fabric sari rather than a painted one, and black fiber for hair rather than paint). I used to eagerly wait for Baba to come home and un-wrap the idol. Sometimes the unwrapping made me happy, sometimes sad. I was the person who did the alpana (traditional Bengali floor painting) as well. The paint was made from rice dust dissolved in water to make a paste. I held a cotton ball or sometimes a piece of fabric in between my fingers and squeezed the paste and drew the alpana around the idol. I was always asked to draw a pair of footsteps on our doorstep and then one foot at a time to the idol. The footsteps had to make sense, no random steps were allowed. The meaning was to bring goddess Lakshmi at home for good fortune. Next to the footsteps, I drew ears of un-husked rice or dhaner chhora. These two were mandatory. The alpanas were spontaneous and no prior design was available. You can see a little bit here too.
The puja used start at some auspicious time and was done buy a purohit (Brahmin priest). The Sanskrit slokas made no sense to me and all I was interested in the khichuri (rice and lentils cooked together) and prasad (fruits and sweets offered to the goddess) served after the puja. Maa read the panchali (the recital of the mythical story of goddess Lakshmi) in the evening and that was the final part of the puja. It’s been more than 6 years I have been home during Lakshmi puja but the memories are still fresh and alive. If I close my eyes, I can still hear my Maa reading the panchali, the aroma of the dhup (incense stick), dhuno (a kind of sweet smelling agar) and chandan (sandalwood).
I made some narkol naru as a memory of those days and hope all of you have a great festive season.
- Freshly grated coconut: 2 cups
- Sugar: 2 cups
- Cardamom seeds from two pods, coarsely ground
How to cook:
- Mix the grated coconut and the sugar thoroughly with hand.
- Transfer them to a clean wok/kadai, sprinkle the cardamom powder.
- Cook it on low heat and stir constantly.
- The temperature is very important here. If you cook it on high heat, the coconut will be dry and crumbly and it will be impossible to form balls.
- Cook them for several minutes and stir constantly. It will look like a sticky paste and the sugar will start oozing out.
- After 10-15 minutes (depending on how much coconut you are cooking), wet your palm and try to grab a small portion and see if you can form balls from the coconut paste. If you can, take it off the heat and keep it covered. Form balls from the mixture. The narus are approximately ¾” diameter. You can make them smaller or larger, doesn’t really matter.
- If you cannot form balls (they are too moist/sticky), cook for few more minutes checking it in between.
Notes: If the coconut is very dry, add a couple or few spoons of milk, it will help the coconut stay moist. You can add kheer/mewa/milk solid and the texture will be smoother in that case.