Sunday, 21 September 2014

Doi Mishti Cupcakes

পুজো আসছে 

A couple of posts ago I had shared a glimpse of the ritual food offering or bhog at a few of Calcutta's illustrious family Pujas. I had also promised to share more about how Durga Puja is celebrated in these private quarters.

Although Durga Puja is deemed as the biggest street festival in this part of the world and notwithstanding the crazy obsession with pandal-hopping pushing through squirming crowds, after all Durga Puja is a very private affair, at least in essence. After all it is the homecoming of our beloved Uma from her husband Shiva's abode. And it is this intimate note that lies beneath the trappings of flamboyant festivity, which touches the heart. And this intimate note can be savoured, not in the showy pandals with their elaborate embellishments, but in the private quarters of some illustrious households of the city, for many of whom Durga Puja remains their connection to an iridiscent past and their bequest, for them to carry into the future.

          It is a lazy Sunday morning. Three weeks before the Durga Puja. The narrow North Kolkata lane is surprisingly quiet – no work-a-day scurry, no groups of garrulous college students flocking road-side tea stalls, no honking rickshaws. Inside the lion gates of the Shovabazaar Rajbari it’s quieter still. The pillared loggia, white with brick red border, runs along the four sides of the central courtyard flooded in golden September sunshine. Not a soul in sight. Three weeks from now the Naat Mandir would be crammed full with people who have travelled from different quarters of the city and from outside too, to witness the fabled Durga Puja at the Shovabazaar Rajbari.
         Once my eyes had become inured to the blazing sun, we spotted a few idols in the making lined up against the wall, mere figurines, the cracks on the desiccated clay prominent. Soon we are ushered in by a lungi-clad man, to meet eighty-year old Arati Deb, our host for the morning. On the way, the man who has been in the service of the Deb family for a long time, points to the Thhakur dalaan where a larger idol of the mother goddess stands in the shadows, streaked by slivers of sunshine.
       Every wall, every façade, from the steep stair well to the balconies and the high-ceilinged hallways, is a reminder to a past of great splendour and extravagance perhaps uninhibited profligacy too. This was where Raja Nabakrishna Deb hosted the Company masters, where famed notch girls of the time awed the guests with the rhythmic wizardry of their feet, where wine flowed unrestrained and music and laughter impregnated the air at all times. This was also where Nabakrishna chose to worship the supreme mother, although it is debatable whether it was the just the question of her benediction that urged his whim. A popular hearsay recounts how Raja had invited Robert Clive to his puja to seek the blessings of the Goddess after the victory of the Battle of Plassey. And Clive’s hesitation to attend the puja on account of being a Christian was assuaged by Nabakrishna’s assuarance. “That can be managed”, he had said.
          Arati Deb, at eighty, betrayed nothing of the growing years. Her age is confirmed only by the large repertoire of anecdotes she has to share and thorough knowledge of the complex rituals that the Maha puja entails. It is her bequest. Of course, there are the tales of freeing the Nilkantha birds, one when Durgas idol left the house and the other when the idol was immersed. Supposedly, the birds were messengers, one of which carried the news of Durga’s departure from earth to Lord Shiva in Kailash while the other returned home with the news of her safe departure. And yes, Arati Deb had also heard that cannons were fired to markMahashandhikkhan the beginning of Shandhi Puja, but that no longer happens. Although, the cannon still lies stock-still at the entrance to the Naat Mandir.

             Animal sacrifice is no longer a ritual of the household, although there was a time when goats were sacrificed. Arati Deb recounts, “Once, years back, it so happened that during the sacrifice, a goat came stumbling upon the feet of Radhakanta Deb, a scion of the family, who was sitting nearby.  He was shaken by the incident; it seemed to him, he said, that the goat was seeking refuge at his feet, as if crying out for pity. From that day onward, animal sacrifice was stopped.” However, symbolic sacrifice of carnal evils is a must. Hence nowadays, sacrifices are made of Magur fish, chhanchi kumro (squash) and sugarcanes. The Rajbari’s Durga pratima (idol) is special too. “The lion at Durga’s feet resembles a steed. You could say it is the combination of the two. The horse, you see, is the symbol of speed, strength and power, the beast of the war field,” explains Arati. I ask her about the other idols, a number of them, I saw on the way and she says, “The idol-makers from Kumartulli stay and make the idols here. That means they have to spend a lot of time here. So we let them make a few more idols here so than they can earn some more money. But I keep worrying about our ancestral moulds for the idols. I hope they don’t make copies of it,” says a concerned Arati.    
    It was quite by chance that I landed in the house opposite the Shovabazaar Naat Mandir, yet another old Calcutta mansion, my curiosity whetted by the sight of idol makers at work. Little did I know that this house, popular in the locality as Ranir Bari, was the residence of yet another bough of the Shovabazaar Raj family. This was where the family of Rajkrishna Deb, the younger son of Naba Krishna Deb. And here too Durga Puja is celebrated the royal way. With Aloke Krishna Deb proved to be quite a raconteur, guiding me through the traditions and elaborate rituals that are an integral part of the Maha Puja, also recalling days of lavish extravagance and abundance when the Brahman priests who performed the puja were endowed with land, cows and gold coins and nothing less than Akbari mohurs were used in the ritual called kanakanjali, in which the goddess considered the daughter of the house clears every debt she owes her parents in a symbolic ritual. “We had kept alive the tradition of freeing the Nilkantha birds for quite sometime unless it was forbidden by the Wildlife Preservation Act. But I have devised a unique way to keep alive the tradition. We make clay models of the Nilkantha bird and immerse with Devi Durga’s idol,” informs Deb with subtle pride. Although cannons are no longer fired during Shandhi Puja, cannon fire has been replaced by gun fire in this quarter of the Raj family.

Again, as was the custom at the time the puja started, when women were essentially purdah-nasheen, Durga too remains behind the purdah. Visitors and devotees have to see the Goddesse’s face through the flimsy chik that covers her face. Another intriguing tradition here is that Durga’s idol is carried to the ghat for immersion on the shoulders of the men of the family. “Hence forth in our family the body of a deceased is never carried on the shoulders as is the Hindu custom. Instead, we carry it on our arms,” informs Aloke Krishna.   

            My next stop was the impressive abode of the Dutt’s on Beadon Street. Interestingly, this lavish house, where Ajoy Dutt and his brother greeted me inside, was called Bholanath Dham – Shiva’s abode, literally. As the Dutt’s informed, for generations they have been staunch worshippers of Lord Shiva. Perhaps, quiet natural for a family that traces their lineage back to Chandradhar Banik, more popular as Chand Saudagar whose unflinching devotion to Shiva and refusal to worship any other deity earned him the wrath of Manasa, the snake goddess. But that’s another story.

However, for the Dutt’s Durga Puja is a much more than a religious obligation. For them it is the homecoming of their daughter Durga or Uma. Here Durga is not worshipped as the fierce, ten-armed Goddess slaying the wicked demon, the symbol of Shakti. Instead, she is still the seven year old Uma who married Shiva and accompanied him to Kailash. And every year when Durga arrives with her four children, she does not leave her husband behind. Shiva too accompanies her, on his favourite ox, the little princess Uma sitting on his lap, and at Bholanath Dham, Shibo-Durga is welcomed and worshipped with great pomp and ceremony. The idol, although made anew every year, the wooden frame is as old as is the puja, over a century.
          Uma is a princess Rajnandini; hence she has to be treated like one,” says Aloke’s Dutt. The bathing ceremony is especially astounding. “Uma is bathed in water collected from 41 different sources,” informs the Dutts, “water from seven seas, seven rivers, first drop of rain, first dew drop, water with lotus pollen, water from Gomukh, water in which you have washed eight metals and so on and so forth,” he adds. This list is not only long but staggering too. Another interesting ritual of the Dutts is Dhunoporano. It is a special ritual in which women sit on the Thhakur dalaan with dhunuchi with burning frankincense in their hands and on their heads, a votive offering, so that the Goddess grants their most desperate wishes.  

        Next destination, the lavish mansion of the Laha’s near Thanthania Kali Bari. Durga Puja at the Laha Bari is a tradition over two centuries old, although not even the family members can recall the exact year of initiation. At Laha Bari too the clay idol of Durga is different from the usual ten-armed, lion riding Goddess one sees in the pandals. Here too Durga sits on Shiva’s lap with her eyes shut. But this clay idol of the mother goddess is over shadowed at least in spirit by the Ashtadhatu idol of the household deity Jai Jai Ma, who is yet another visage of the divine Goddess. Jai Jai Ma journeys from the prayer house to the Thhakur Dalaan with much ceremony and it is only on Bijaya Dashami that she returns to her original seat.
           Many an interesting anecdote and mysterious tale lingers within the walls of the Laha Bari that are also the basis of many an interesting ritual held sacred in the family. Sandhya Laha, who is in-charge of the Puja this year, (since now-a-days, with the extension and segregation of the Laha family, different family units take turns in performing the puja) says, “On Bijaya Dashami, after Jai Jai Ma is taken back to the prayer house and once the idol of Durga leaves the precincts of the house, every door in the house in shut down. No one can leave and neither can anyone enter the house, until news of Durga’s immersion is brought home.” There is an interesting story behind this strange ritual of the Laha family. “According to a family legend, one of our forefathers had had a dream in which our family deity, Jai Jai Ma, that the pomp and festivity with which Durga’s idol is taken for visarjan, tempts her to leave the house and follow them, too. From that day onwards, every door in the house is closed once the idol leaves the gates and is opened only after the family members return after immersion. We knock on the door of the prayer house thrice, asking if Jai Jai Ma is still there and only then open the doors,” informs Sandhya Laha, before she warmly invites me to visit during the pujas, when hundreds of pandal-hoppers and tourists flock to the Laha mansion, for a glimpse of the regal celebrations.
              The tales and recollections of these households are only a small part of the innumerable tales and accounts, some strange, other intriguing that wait to be heard in some of the fabled houses of Calcutta where Devi Durga is worshipped with great splendour, but where she is less a goddess and more a dear daughter. And in these houses every year is spent in eager anticipation of her arrival. It might simply be a grand celebration for an onlooker but for these families it is a very personal affair, one of the heart. And their lives almost pivot around the nine days of Devi Paksh. An outsider can only sigh in awe.

Now about today's recipe. It is another one of my innovations. Now among us Bengali's, the best conclusion for a meal is doi-mishti. Doi, is yoghurt, but this is no ordinary yoghurt. This is Bengal's famous mishti doi, renowned for it divine sweetness and reddish colour. And by mishti, well we refer to the vast assortment of sweetmeats. Usually with mishti doi we would pair sweetmeats made of cottage cheese or chhana as we call it. Doi-mishti is this awesome twosome every Bengali swears by and no traditional festive bengali meal is complete without the two. This time I thought why not make the two one and hence came up with My Doi Mishti cupcakes. A layers of saffron infused sweetened cottage cheese topped with a layer of cardamom infused mishti doi, baked in cup cake molds. Two traditional delicacies = One awesome dessert. Try it.


Milk – 1 litre
Juice  of 2 limes (or I large lime)
Saffron strands – 1 tbsp + more for garnish
Condensed milk – 3 tbsp
Mishti Doi/Sweet curd – 200 g
Crushed crdamom seeds – ¼ tsp
Chopped almonds for garnish 


Bring the milk to a boil. Add the saffron and let the milk boil for a few minutes. The milk will soon begin to acquire colour from the saffron.
Now add the lime juice. The milk will curdle. Keep boiling on a low flame until the water separates and the beautiful saffron tinged cottage cheese/chhana floats up.
Drain the water and tie the channa in a muslin cloth, squeeze out as much water as possible, then hand it up for an hour, to release any remaining water.
Now knead the chhana, pressing it down and forward with the heel of your palm, repeating until it is smooth.
Add condensed milk and mix thoroughly, kneading it further until you have soft doughy mixture.
In a bowl whisk the mishti doi ad crushed crdamom together
Grease four muffin molds with a little vegetable oil.
Fill half the mold with the whisked yoghurt and the remaining half with the chhana mixture.
Bake in a preheated over at 120 degree centigrade for 25-30 minutes.
Cool just a little before unmolding.
Garnigh with saffron strands and chopped almonds and serve as a dessert! 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Priyadarshini ,

    This looks absolutely divine. Will make this soon and let you know. :)