Saraswati Pujo in Bengal or Basant Panchami elsewhere in India – is the same festival. The devotees invoke the Goddess of Wisdom and Learning, and celebrate the advent of Spring
By Priyasha Bhattacharjee
Saraswati Puja or pujo as it’s called in Bangla, is celebrated with grandeur across India. Ma Saraswati is the Goddess of knowledge, higher learning and wisdom and revered by one and all. In Hindi the word Basant denotes Spring and Panchami is the 5th day of Shukla Paksha in the month of Phagun. On Saraswati Jayanti (as its also called) the puja or prayers start after sunrise and end midway at Purvahna kala as per Hindu traditions. This year Saraswati Pujo / Basant Panchami will be celebrated on Tuesday, 16 February.
Bengalis cannot go without festivals, as they add to flavours of bygone days and set the mood for future get-togethers. Every Pujo is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm and the food stalls in Pujo Pandals are a delight to visit. Spring across India is one of the best seasons as Mother Nature is at her beautiful best – with flowers all round, salubrious weather and romance in the air.
Goddess Saraswati is seated on a white Lotus wearing a white silk saree holding a book in her lower left hand. The eyes of the Goddess are full of compassion and her four hands denote four facets of personality namely mind, intellect, alertness and ego. The lotus in her hand symbolizes true knowledge of humanity and dignity. Her mount is a white swan and it is known for its peculiar capacity of separating water from the milk. So it indicates that we should also be able to discern the good from bad.
Goddess Saraswati is an integral part of the female Trinity i.e. Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati. They are consorts of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Mahesh or Shiva respectively. Saraswati is the wife of Lord Brahma and resides in Brahmaputra (the abode of Lord Brahma) as stated in Bhagwat Puran, one of Hinduism’s scriptures.
Saraswati’s favourite colour is white therefore devotees adorn her with white flowers and clothes in West Bengal. Prasad or offering containing white seasme seeds and milk is prepared and offered to the deity. It is then distributed among the devout. In Northern India yellow or shades of yellow or basanti as it’s called in Hindi, is considered pious and a colour of energy and positivity. Therefore yellow colours are offered to Ma Saraswati – especially marigolds.
Marigold is a symbol of Spring too as it is available in abundance during this season. The Prasad offered here is thus yellow coloured and sweetmeats like laddoos, meethey chawal (jaggary rice), keseria kheer (a sweet dish made of rice and saffron) along with Rajbhog (a sweet made of Paneer) and Khichuri(a dish made of rice and lentils) are the offerings on this day. Ma Saraswati is also offered seasonal fruits but Beror Jujube is her favourite and the custom is that fruit cannot be eaten before Saraswati Pujo is over. It is said that Ma blesses home-made delicacies like Naru and Moya-chaal-makha.
Hathe Kori is a ritual performed on Pujo and it is of special significance as children are initiated into the world of learning and education. They are made to write the first alphabet on this day and blessings are invoked from the Divine Mother to guide the child to become a good human being.
Everyone offers flowers at Ma’s feet to seek her blessings and guidance. During our student days, our implicit trust as kids was that no matter how less we studied, Ma Saraswati would come to our rescue during exam time! Though she is the goddess of learning, interestingly there is a rule not to study on that day and instead books and implements of learning like pens et care laid at her feet and her blessings invoked. Saraswati Pujo is celebrated in a grand manner in schools and colleges of Assam and Tripura also.
The cool wind coupled with the fragrance of Spring and soothing warm sunlight intensifies the feeling of romance. The air is loaded with vibes of joy, letting romance bloom among lovers. Saraswati Pujo is thus also called the modern Valentine’s Day. In our times, Valentine’s day was an alien concept. We had to focus on studies and emphasis was laid on becoming good humans and love and romance had to take a back seat.
Nowadays, young girls wear colourful sarees while boys and men deck themselves up in traditional outfits. The youngsters look stunning when they don these ethnic ensembles and spend the day with friends – often surreptitiously looking for prospective dates and someone to ‘hitch’ up with. The streets looks exuberant and glamorous with the smiling faces of these young folks.
Personally, I have innumerable memories associated with Saraswati Pujo. They are all varied and in different boxes of my memory. My father was in a transferable job so my friends and schools changed frequently. Saraswati Pujo was so different and unique then. Time flies but leaves its mark. One year, I remember wearing a yellow cotton saree, jharimara at para (colony) and waltzed into an innocent love affair with a tall, young dapper boy whose dimpled smile caused many a heart to miss a beat. The tragedy was that he didn’t reciprocate my sentiments and only thought about me as chubby para girl of the neighbourhood. Still, it was a special day.
There is a custom in Bengal to have jora ilish (or a pair of Hilsa Fish) on Saraswati Pujo. My father always had a tough time locating the jora ilish or a pair. He thus switched to bringing two identical Hilsa fish and then went ahead with the custom. My grandma used to cook the fish with eggplant and kalonji(onion seeds) and green chillies. Its the same recipe which has now earned me the sobriquet of ‘best cook ever’ among friends and family.
Earlier our parents’ vigil ensured that we bowed to Ma Saraswati with all our heart and soul on Pujo. Today, I want to make the festival as special for my children. For me, that will become an everlasting memory.
Siddhir Bavathume Sadha
Salutations to Goddess Saraswati, the one who gives boon and grants wishes
As I begin my education, shower me with the knowledge and intellect I need to attain wisdom.
Illustration of Ma Saraswati by Sid Ghosh
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Priyasha is an astrologer by profession, a foodie to the core, a shutki maachh ‘proselytiser’ , a mother of two beautiful souls, and the lead chef in her house. Singing and writing her dearly held hobbies. She writes to us from Bangalore