Ganpati is a known epicure: just ask the snake around his full belly, tasked with preventing it from bursting. Shivani Unakar cooks up an elaborate feast for Ganesh Chaturti.
The coconut palm is central to cuisines and cultures throughout the coastal tropics. This holds true for coastal communities in India too. Nearly every part of the coconut palm is used, in inventive and exciting ways. This versatility is reflected in its Sanskrit name, kalpa tharu, which means the ‘tree that provides all the necessities of life.’
The Kanara Saraswats community, to which I belong, hails from the Konkan coast of Karnataka, where the coconut is so omnipresent, it even takes on the embodiment of our worshiped deities. Every year, during the festival of Ganesh Chaturti, the humble coconut becomes Lord Ganpati and Goddess Gauri. It is the festival I look forward to all year; this festival of the coconut gods.
Preparations for Gauri Puja and Ganesh Chaturti are a family affair. They begin a few days before the main event, and I help my grandmother make crisp spiral chaklis and sweet, half-moon neurio for prasad.
The day before the puja brings with it the paramount process of choosing the coconuts. We get ours from a wholesaler in the neighbourhood, since we live away from the coast, in the city of Bengaluru. His shop is piled from floor to ceiling with dry coconuts. Sitting coolly on a chair by the shop’s entrance is the vendor, watching as customers sift through the wares and make purchases.
My mother and I know exactly what we’re looking for: one perfectly spherical coconut, with a shendi — the little tuft of coir on his head — completely intact, will be our rotund Elephant God. And another one, long and slender, will represent Gauri’s femininity. Once we have found these two, we set them safely aside, and move on to pick out more — some to offer to as prasad, and others to cook the day’s festive meal with.
The coconuts are then taken home to be dehusked, and painted with representative features. A box of paraphernalia emerges — a tube of kajal, a small newspaper parcel of vermillion sindoor powder, a set of poster paints, and sticks of colourful chalk. The prasad coconuts are coloured with patterns of chalk. Ganpati’s trunk is painted with sindoor and water. When I was younger, I would use my little ring finger, dipped in vermillion, to carefully draw a line going down the centre of his face, then curving gently to the right, to mark out an elephant trunk. Now that I’m older, I use a paint brush, adding ears and small, wise elephant eyes. Gauri gets big, beautiful almond-like eyes, a sharp, slender nose and pink lips.
They are then dressed: a dhoti for Ganpati and a saree for Gauri. Her shringar set is brought out and set beside her; a box of kajal and sindoor, tiny glass bangles, and a small comb. Mother and son are adorned with jewellery and flowers. Then, seated atop a copper kalash filled with rice, the coconuts have transformed into gods, ready for worship.
The next order of business is lunch, and cooking begins with the grating of a large pile of coconuts. Nearly every dish on the menu calls for coconut. On the day of Gauri Puja, the meal is modest. At the centre of the menu is rice and dalitoy — boiled dal with a simple tempering. It is accompanied by cheppo kheer, made with rice and coconut milk, and interestingly, not seasoned with salt or sugar, but instead, fragrant from turmeric leaves added to the pot while cooking. Accompaniments include bhajji upkari, red and green amaranth leaves cooked simply and finished with grated coconut; and taushe kosombari, a raw salad of cucumber, coconut and chilies.
For a sweet ending, there is patholi, dumplings of rice flour, stuffed with fudgy jaggery, coconut and cardamom powder. Patholis are steamed between fresh turmeric leaves, and eaten warm, topped with ghee.
The spread at Gauri Puja is intentionally simple. But Ganpati is a known epicure: just ask the snake around his full belly, expressly there to prevent it from bursting! And so, on the second day, Ganesh Chaturti, we cook up an elaborate feast.
My cousin and I are tasked with bringing in leaves from the jackfruit tree nearby, and weaving little cups out of them. In these cups, we steam khotte idlis that are eaten with alle gojju, a chutney made with coconut and fresh ginger, and mudgane, a sweet kheer of rice flour and coconut milk, full of cashew nuts and tender chana dal. There's also a coconut-based vegetable curry, coloured bright orange with the paste of byadgi chillies. The meal is incomplete without rice and dalitoy. And last, but not least, are the phodio, a selection of vegetables (breadfruit, bitter gourd, teasle gourd, ripe banana, potato and sweet potato) that are sliced, coated with chili, turmeric and rava, and fried to a crisp!
“Why coconuts?” I asked my aunt recently. Coconuts are ubiquitous along the coast, she explained, they’re easily accessible to all and well suited to households. Big clay sculptures on the other hand, are reserved for temples. A proper Ganpati idol also demands elaborate, strict rituals. Using coconuts to represent Ganpati allows everyone to invite the elephant god into their homes each year, and celebrate him in their own style and capacity.
The puja at our home is always a simple affair. We sit down together and sing a few shlokas. Then we bow down to the coconut gods, and thank them for visiting our home this year. We offer them the feast we’ve prepared, and then finally, we sit down to enjoy the meal ourselves. I dig into the neurio and chakli with gusto, and we eat till we can’t move another inch.
When the two days of Puja have passed, it is time to bid Gauri and Ganpati adieu with visarjan. The copper pots on which they sit, are gently rocked from side to side to signify the start of their journey back home. And after their immersion in water, the coconuts in which the gods resided are washed and used to make prasad for all.
Shivani Unakar explores the traditional food cultures of India. You can follow her at @shivaniunakar.
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