My son has been asking for the ‘sugar cubes’ since he woke up this morning. No, it’s not that I feed him sugar cubes for breakfast. What he is referring to is this garland of sugar nuggets (cube is a wrong choice of words) that is hung up along with the ‘gudi’ to celebrate ‘gudi padwa’, the Maharashtrian New Year. Sweet festival this. ‘How many New Years do you have anyway’, ask Westerners who live in India. Honestly, I don’t know. I suppose there are as many New year celebration days in India as there are communities. Vishu (Kerala New Year), Ugadi, Cheti chand, Navroz. And we’re not even counting the tribes here! Mind-boggling diversity, that’s India for you. The only pattern I have noticed here is that these days are clustered in the months of March and April, which would be spring season in India. So I reckon that in India, we celebrate New Year when the winter ends and earth renews itself. It is around these times that farmers will prepare the land for sowing new crops. It certainly makes sense for agrarian communities to mark this time of the year as a new beginning and celebrate it. In this sense, Indian New year days are different from the Western New year, which is bang in the middle of winter and doesn’t signify any change in nature.
Maharashtrians hang out of their houses a contraption known as ‘gudi’. This is a stick which has a sari or a piece of bright cloth wrapped around it. Then it is covered with an inverted bowl. Some green leaves are put around it as decorations and also the said garland of ‘sugar cubes’. It kind of resembles a dressed up doll. I wonder whether that’s why it is called ‘gudi’- as ‘gudiya’ means ‘doll’ in Hindi. Hanging this outside your house is supposed to harbour an auspicious beginning to the year and to keep you safe and bring you luck. I have tried in vain to find the origins of this practice. Even if they don’t know the exact story of how and why hanging this ‘gudi’ started, many Maharashtrians will follow it anyway. My Marathi friend who migrated to New Zealand recently uploaded a picture of the ‘gudi’ perched outside her house proudly. I wonder what the kiwi birds thought of it, they must have been pretty confused!
More interesting than the ‘gudi’ to me is the spread that accompanies the festival. ‘Puran polis’ are the sine qua non of this spread. Since making of puran polis is a tedious affair, many Maharashtrians will resort to buying them from outside, but the puran poli has to occupy the place of honor in the spread that is offered to the deities as ‘naivedyam’. All the food that is prepared must first be offered to the Gods before it is touched or tasted by humans. It is very tempting, when fragrant smells are emanating from the kitchen, to slip inside and grab a bite of the goodies that are beng prepared , but to do so is to invite peril, because the grand old dames of the house will at best shoo you away and at worst smack your pilfering hand, if you attempt to taste the food before it has been offered to the Gods.
Puran poli is a roti (or a flat bread) that has been stuffed with a mixture of boiled dal (lentils) and elaichi (cardamom powder). It is a pretty heavy food, redolent of ghee. It is served along with a bowl of milk, in which you supposed to dip the bite of roti before placing it in your mouth where it melts.
Another staple at Marathi festivals is ‘shrikhand’. This is made of hung yogurt, sweetened with sugar. It has a sweet sour taste and is a huge favourite, especially with kids. Bhajji or vegetable fritters, dipped in a savoury mixture of besan (gram flour) and spices and is deep fried. They are also usually part of the spread. Potatoes, onions and zucchini are the most common vegetable used for fritters. These crunchy, savoury bites can be had on their own or dipped in a green chutney made of coriander and spices.
My personal favourite dish is ‘basundi’. This is nothing but milk boiled, reduced and thickened with sugar. It has a lovely caramel colour , creamy taste and is the tastiest way of eating your rotis- just dip it in basundi and demolish. Maharashtrians will also deep fry sabudana papad (papaddum) and variations thereof there are thin, spirals papad-like creatures called ‘kurdya’ which also grace the naivedyam. Very tasty but very heavy on calories. After this repast you really need a long nap to digest the food. Just as well that it is a holiday and most offices in Maharashtra are either closed or, if open, at least offer an optional off.
Generally the prayers for these festivals are carried out in the evening, when the entire family will gather around the deity of the house for an arti. That’s when the cymbals are rung, prayers chanted and a flame waved around the deity to pay respect and obeisance. In a conservative household, once the arti is done, the younger people will invariably touch the feet of the elders to seek their blessings.
And that’s how it’s done.