This year Vasant Panchami fell on the first day of February. Literally, Vasant Panchami means fifth day of spring. It is a Hindu Spring Festival which falls in the Indian lunar month of Magha which in turn, coincides with the Gregorian month of January or February.
On this day, we Bengalis, worship Maa Saraswati, the Goddess of learning, art and knowledge. I think we are the only race on earth which is so earnest about education, awareness and enlightenment (no offence to any other race intended). I am told some worship the God Kama, the Hindu deity of love, on this very day too.
In West Bengal, traditionally Saraswati Puja (i.e. worship of Goddess Saraswati) is the prerogative of the students or those who are associated with academics, art and culture. Nonetheless, Maa Saraswati is worshipped privately at homes and also as community worship. In Bengal there is at least one Puja performed in every gully. The Puja is also done in schools, colleges and other educational institutes. The day is dedicated to prayers. There is a peculiar custom of placing all the books, note-books, pens and pencils (in fact, the entire geometry box) at the feet of the deity. Custom has it that on this day no student should study. If they do then Maa may get angry and rob him/her of his intellect. The inner meaning of this practice must be that on this fine day of spring all knowledge seekers should devote a whole day’s time to praying and meditating and perhaps also introspecting on the knowledge so far gained, harnessed and yet to be sought. However, down the ages the true meaning has got morphed into something different. For me, like all other children, on this day the most enjoyable part has always been that of not studying rather than praying.
My aunt, who was quite orthodox in her ways, would tell me about another funny belief related to Saraswati Puja. Those who trim their hair on this day and place the pruned bunch under the wheels of the chariot (vehicle in modern parlance) which carts the deity to the place of worship shall grow long tresses like Maa Saraswati. Thank God there is no such belief surrounding the worship of Lord Ganesha, e.g., placing a broken tooth under the wheels of the chariot of the Lord to have stronger teeth. Had it been so, all the children of India would have grown curvy trunks.
This is also the day when toddlers are taught to write the alphabets in vernacular (in today’s time it must be English) for the very first time at the feet of Maa Saraswati. The idea is to seek her blessings for the child who is about to embark on his/her journey of life and varied pursuits. Since every Bengali has to become somebody someday this is really very very important, especially for the parents and of course the infant, who does not yet know what lies in store for him/her in near future.
Vasant Panchami also earmarks the beginning of the season of Spring (though it is the fifth day of the month). Harvesters delight in seeing the crops growing in the fields after a grueling winter.
Saraswati Puja has its own charm and colour. Little girls are draped in white sarees with red borders (the traditional Bengali attire) or in various shades of yellow. Young boys and men look handsome in the traditional attire of dhuti and paanjaabi. The deity is always in white which signifies purity of pursuit. She holds a musical instrument called the Veena in both her hands and rides on a beautiful swan. She has fine long tresses, as I have earlier mentioned, which cascade in waves down the length of her waist. There is an aura of pristine beauty about her. Traditionally, she is worshiped with white and yellow flowers.
The prevalence of yellow on this day, I am told, signifies fresh and flourishing harvest of mustard (sarson). Vasant Panchami or Basant Panchami is also celebrated in the Northern part of our country, again by Hindus as well as Sikhs. The harvesters rejoice the coming up of fresh crops and dance and sing in groups and fly kites.
For us, Bengalis, no celebration is ever complete without good food. Every festivity is marked by a particular dish which is a must have on that particular occasion. On this day, the ritual is to have khichudi ( a mix of rice and pulses garnished with flavoured spices) with Joda Elish ( a pair of Hilsa fish which is a delicacy for Bengalis). Thin slices of fish are deep fried to go with the spicy khichudi followed, of course, by dessert i.e. none other than payesh, which is made out of condensed milk, fine variety of rice and sugar or jiggery made out of date juice with a generous sprinkling of dry fruits on top. And believe me it is darned yummy.
The true blue Baangaali can never get over Saraswati Puja. As it is, we are a race, fabled to have thirteen festivals in twelve months, i.e. all around the year, each month marked by one or the other celebration or ceremony. Since childhood every Bengali kid is taught to fear Maa Saraswati who is supposed to be famous for her royal rage. “And if she gets angry you’ve had it…” is what every child has to hear when he/she is found shirking studies. The utmost dread of a Bengali being loss of or getting robbed of his/her intellect, he/she cannot dare miss this occasion of paying respect to Maa Saraswati even if he/she is hundred years old. Ritual is to not to break the fast till the Pushpanjali (i.e. paying tribute with flowers) is over. Then line up for the prasaad (a portion of the fruits and sweets offered to the deity – token of her blessings which is to be eaten with all humility). Thereafter, it is all fun and frolic.
So being true to my race, this year too I had to rush to the nearest pandaal to pay my respect to the deity (although I have long passed the age of learning having said that, I would also add that there is no end to learning). Earlier, I would take an off from work but it was damn difficult to make the boss understand why it was so important not to work on this day! Nowadays, I go to office a little late. At home, I decorate my little temple with fresh garlands of marigold and offer fruits and sweets to the deities. Light up the incense sticks and pray for a while. A simple ceremony performed with whole lot of earnestness. Thereafter, I rush to the community gathering for the Pushpanjali. It is a real treat to see the children all decked up like adults (in sarees/dhuti panjaabi) and sprint around in delight. Maa Saraswati does not like much noise. So, there is no drum beating which is a hallmark of Durga Puja. The atmosphere is sober and serious and Puja is done with all sincerity. Believe me, it is a most enjoyable and humbling experience. And when the chorus of “saraswati maai kii jai” tears the sky, mother cannot help but smile benevolently beholding the fervor of her devotees. One thing about Bengal, even the resident non-Bengalis take part, perform pujo and enjoy the celebrations as fervently as the khaati Baangaalis (the true blue Bengalis), if not more.
The next day one has to again get immersed in regular work. But not before writing “Om Shri Shri Saraswattai Namoh” thrice at the back of one’s favourite (or the one belonging to a dreaded subject’s) note-book. I am sorry to say but I generally forget to do this writing bit and that is why perhaps success in all my intellectual pursuits does not come by easily. Just a thought! No superstition intended.
This year too, like every time before, I rushed to the community Puja which I always visit during all the festivals (sometimes I used to visit my school pujo too but not now anymore due to sheer lack of time and nothing else though I long to do so). However, this time it was a little different. This time the prayers that rose from my lips had a touch of sadness to it. I prayed not only for the coming years but also for all the bygone days which seemed to have just passed by without achieving anything concrete. I prayed for all my fruitless efforts. I prayed for all my unfulfilled dreams. I prayed for all my unattained aspirations. I prayed for what I wanted to be. I prayed for what I could not be. I prayed for what I wished to be. I prayed because I did not know whether those wishes would ever come true. And above all, I prayed for Maa’s eternal blessings. I prayed through tears from the depth of my heart and soul. I prayed with wistfulness that I had never felt before. I prayed as though life was at its very end. I prayed like I had never prayed before. When I opened my eyes Maa was looking at me through a film of mist.
Was she listening?