By Sandra Melwani
On the occasion of Diwali, Sandra Melwani decodes the deep spiritual message behind the sweets we ravenously gorge on during festivals
The Sanskrit word for festival or utsava comes from two words. The first ‘ut’ means ‘removal’ and the second, ‘sava’ means ‘worldly sorrows’ or ‘grief.’ As Indians, we are familiar with the many ways of removing grief through rituals, fasting and feasting. Most Hindu festivals celebrate events from mythology, while marking seasonal changes.
Teej, the festival of swings, is a two-day celebration that also symbolises growth. It sees married women praying for a long and happy married life, and men praying for good rain and crop. The widely-held belief is that on this day Goddess Parvati reunited with Lord Shiva after a long separation. Those who pray to Parvati on this day see their desires fulfilled and receive her blessings.
Ghevar is a traditional sweet associated with Teej. Sometimes it is called Rajasthani ghevar because it is believed to have originated in Jaipur. It consists of fried round cakes of wheat flour batter and comes in several varieties including a paneer version. Ghevar is associated with marriage and fertility, and Sanjhi who likes to eat ghevar. Many theories exist as to who exactly Sanjhi is. One among these is that she is Parvati, Shiva’s consort; another that she is one of the forms of Durga. At the heart of all the interpretations is the fact that she likes ghevar. This famous sweet, garnished with pistachios, almonds or ground cardamom, is created in the form of concentric circles. It is believed that these concentric circles represent the cycles of time. Ghevar is usually made for Makar Sankranti, Gangaur, Teej and Raksha Bandhan. Perhaps the concentric circles also allude to the unending bonds that are strengthened by the tying of rakhi.
In India, rice is of great spiritual and ritual significance. Rice is revered as a potent symbol of auspiciousness, prosperity and fertility, mainly due to its inherent quality of sustenance. In particular, it plays a key role in harvest festivals. Onam is one such festival that is celebrated with great enthusiasm in Kerala. The ten days of merriment encompass a variety of activities and rituals, followed by a sumptuous feast or ‘sadhya’ which is traditionally eaten on plantain leaves. The history of Onam is rooted in the mythical story of King Mahabali – a great and noble king who was an asura. Onam is also synonymous with the unforgettable aroma and sweetness of pradhaman or payasam. While the better-known payasam (kheer in North India) is cooked with milk and sugar, the former is prepared with coconut milk and jaggery, often with the addition of jackfruit or banana. The word payasam is derived from ‘peeyusham’ which means ambrosia or nectar – no small wonder.
Historically, payasam could date further back than 400 BC because of its use of common ingredients. More significantly, this pan-Indian dish has deep spiritual roots and is considered to be the food of the gods. From the Valmiki Ramayana comes the famous story of how King Dasharatha is blessed with a multitude of children after his wives partake of the payasam that emerges from the sacrificial fire. According to a modern-day spiritual leader, the overflowing sweetness of payasam represents Divine Love that should spill over from our hearts and extend towards all of creation.
Krishna, the lord of creation and the epitome of pure love, would smile down from the heavens if we remembered this on his birthday, Janmashtami. Ashtami or half-moon is symbolic of a perfect balance between the seen and unseen aspects of reality; the tangible and the intangible. Krishna’s birth on ashtami signifies his mastery over both the spiritual and material worlds. And what is the significance of his love for butter? Human lives are a process of many events that have to be churned through, much like milk is churned to produce butter. Better the process of churning, better the chances of a refined outcome. Butter is likened to Krishna, who represents the finest outcome, the pinnacle of spiritual growth, and the essence of every living being.
Modaks are to Ganesha what butter is to Krishna. Modaks are considered to have spiritual significance too and the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi would be incomplete without these sweet parcels of coconut and jaggery. One interpretation is that ‘moda’ means bliss and ‘ka’ means a small part. Therefore a modak is a small part of bliss. Modaks symbolise the happiness and joy a seeker gains on the path of spiritual pursuit. Another view points out that modaks are also called ‘dnyanmodak’ because they visually represent spiritual knowledge (jnana). The little tip of the modak signifies the small amount of knowledge that one possesses at the start of a spiritual journey. With much personal effort the base of spiritual knowledge spreads and increases, much like the base of the sweet. The sweetness of the modak is akin to the bliss gained through spiritual knowledge. The sweetness is also regarded as a blessing bestowed by Ganesha as a reward for those who dedicate themselves to acquiring spiritual merit.
Belief also goes that the food at the feet of Lord Ganesha symbolises material wealth and power. Simply put it means that those who choose to live a life of higher quality acquire merit in their respective fields of activity, and those with merit seldom go unacknowledged. In return such people command respect, power and wealth even though they may not desire it.
Ghee, sugar, kheer, white pumpkin or kushmanda, banana, honey, jaggery and sesame. Nine revered foods over nine days to celebrate triumph and offer respect to Goddess Durga. Kushmanda is her fourth form, as creator of the universe at a time when total darkness prevailed. “A little”, “energy” and “cosmic egg” read in that order make up the meaning of ‘kushmanda’. It is one of her favourite foods and finds mention in the Devi Bhagvatam. A combination of kushmanda, cucumber and sugarcane is one of the key offerings during Navratri, an auspicious time, and symbolises the power that the goddess embodies. A time-honoured specialty of the festival is kushmanda halwa. Apart from being sweet and easy on the digestive system, kushmanda is believed to act as a coolant for the body, according to ayurveda.
Jalebi and karanjis
Spirals may be viewed as symbols of positive change and progression, of life cycles. Jalebis, sweet and sugar-soaked and in spirals, are made with a variety of flours ranging from plain to lentil depending on geographical location and tradition. Their time-honoured presence during the celebration of good over evil on Dussehra appears to signify the passing of old to make way for the new.
Come Diwali and karanjis or gujiyas are a familiar guest in many homes across the country. These crescent-shaped fried pastries are filled with ingredients ranging from khoya (dried milk) and dry fruits, to coconut, poppy seeds and jaggery depending on which part of the country they are being made.
As one of the oldest symbols in existence, the crescent shape of these traditional savoury-sweet morsels represents the moon. On wider interpretation, silver is ruled by the moon and associated with feminine energy and the properties that are contained therein: divine wisdom and perception. On Diwali, one of the many ways that Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth is worshipped, is by also washing silver coins in milk.
India has one of the oldest known civilisations in the world. Its traditions and beliefs stretch far beyond our modern concept of time and the recorded pages of history. Symbolism plays a huge role in the area of religion in this country. It has for that long, and longer, believed in the transcendental and accepted that all existence is a play of the Divine. May the festival season provide an opportunity to find a deeper meaning to the celebration and feasting, and offer lasting sweetness.
About the author : Sandra Melwani is a Mumbai-based writer who strives to share the benefits of an animal-free diet and lifestyle, alternative healing methods and Vedanta.
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