Durga Puja & the Rise of Niramish Mansa

Bali Mansa from Kamakhya Temple in Assam

While sacrifice is an integral part of Durga celebrations in temple, the concept of ‘vegetarian’ meat itself predates the ritual. Here’s the story of how this unique offering came into practice, especially in
states of Odisha, Assam and Tripura

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy - and A Foodies’ Diary

As a kid, for me no Durga Puja celebrations will be complete in the armed forces without watching the Gorkha cooks from the regiment take charge of the kitchen. The coming of these happy faced soldiers flashing their khurki was a sign of the delicious things to come. In other words, a decadence of a feast made of sacrificial meat.

Cooked on wood fire, the team of skilled Gorkhas would turn the sacrificial meat into an unmatchable culinary fiesta – the highlight of which was a rice preparation made with mutton chops. The beauty of it all was the consistent taste that never, I mean never, changed even when my dad got posted pan India, and neither did the style of preparing it. It was only as a grown up that I began doubly appreciating not only the taste but the simplicity with which these dishes were prepared. The spices were minimal but fragrant along with ginger & pepper – loads of it. Each spice was smoked, roasted and hand pounded into a coarse powder or a fine paste. In fact, looking at the cooks go about their preparation one would wonder that the dishes will be an atomic bomb of spiciness – but the result was always a sublime bliss. Be it their kebabs made of warm meat or the stew, it had this amazing flavour play that appealed to a child and an adult, even those who loved their meat, hot – chilly hot.

Turns out that the recipe that these Gorkha cooks followed wasn’t a modern-day innovation but a technique that was perfected by the old tribes who religiously offered meat as part of their offering to their gods. In fact, as time passed and civilisations led to the creation of kingdoms and pagan rituals to more organised temple pujas, the one thing that glided its way into the rituals was the cooking style – and in many places, especially where the reigning deity was a goddess, the mutton too. Void of onions and garlic, which by the 12 century had became a standard fare in cooking meat in many parts of the country, the mutton preparation that varied from place to place earned the moniker of ‘niramish’ or vegetarian following the Brahmanical diktat of not offering the god anything that was tamsik. Incidentally, garlic and eventually onion, courtesy its taste, fit into this category – and so did the dishes with them. Ginger, however, remained out of this preview thanks to its balmy sweet aroma and taste.

Historically, the tradition of animal sacrifice dates back to the early AD when goddesses were considered not just the creator of all things living but also warriors that protected you from all evil. And in true tribal style needed sacrifice as offering. It was the same faith that made animal sacrifice an integral part of worship in many shakti peeths initially and in temples that had a goddesses as the reigning deity – be it the historic Ramkhapeeth Devalaya in Assam, Balaskumpa temple in Odisha, Durgabari temple in Tripura and the Kalimata Mandir in Kaliyaganj and the Ekarchala Kalimate Mandir in Goalpokhar in North Dinajpur of West Bengal. The lore behind the sacrifice was that when maa is in her rudra avatar, it is only meat and blood that would appease her and calm her down to her original nature of a creator and nurturer.

The long held belief found further credence when royalty too began following the same tradition. In Darrang for instance, says Assamese cuisine expert Geeta Dutta, “the last three days of Durga Puja – which is the Mahasaptami, Mahaastami and Mahanavami (when the temple is opened to commoners), there are animal sacrifices before the deity only at Gakhir Khowa Raja Howli that can range from a buffalo to goats, ducks and even pigeons. The sacrificial meat, especially that of buffalo is then given to the tribal people while that of the goat and others is consumed by the brahmans of the temple and the patrons.”

Fascinatingly, the Darrang Temple is one among the many temples across Assam where the tradition of sacrifice is followed, says Geeta, who has found its reference among the Jaintia tribe and temples that were built by the latter Ahom kings. The uniqueness of such practices in temples owned by royalty isn’t only in the North East states but in Odisha too. A classic case is the Kali Temple in Baripada where a goat is sacrificed on Mahaasthami and offered to the goddess to be blessed and distributed as prasad. Another temple that follows this ritual during Durga Puja, which is a rather ‘satvik’ affair in Odisha, says Odia cuisine chronicler Alka Jena, “is at the Balaskumpa Temple in Phulbani where during Durga Puja celebrations, one gets to sample the Bali Mansa made by the cooks of the temples.”

Incidentally, Bali Mansa, which today is a unique offering in a selected few temples, was a staple back in the history when it was considered one of the prized feast that needed elaborate preparation that began with choosing the sacrificial animal and rearing to be the perfect offering and ended with the creation of that unique dish that defined the character of the place and kingdom. And while the onus often fell on the priest of the temple to create that remarkable prasad – to get the priest who could do so well often demanded a wide search. At least, adds Geeta, “that was the case in Assam, where we got pujaris from Odisha and Bengal to create the Niramish Mangsho dish as they were adept at not only ‘chandi puja and its many rituals but the prasad as well.”

Odisha by then already had enough Niramish Mansa varieties that were made in accordance to the ritual and were considered ‘experts’ of this form of culinary cult. And yet, the Bali Mansa of both places are as distinct as the two states. The Bali Mansa from Odisha, adds Jena, “follows the ancient practice of cooking the meat with vegetables. Given that the goat chosen for the sacrifice is often an old (budha) one, the choice of vegetables has been done accordingly. The dish uses raw papaya, sankha mati alu (arbi shaped like shell) and raw banana, which lend not only the distinct taste but also the flavour to the meat. The second layer of taste comes from the rustic paste made with ginger, cumin, pepper and generous use of rock salt. Simple yet extremely delicious the Bali Mansa draws much of that calming aroma and balminess from the use of gua ghia to brown the meat.”

A far cry from this is the Nirmaish Mangsho made in Kamakhya Mandir, says Geeta, who finds the dish a closer peer of the Roghan Josh thanks to the kind of spice mix that is used to flavour the dish.“Here, we cook the meat in mustard oil instead of ghee, which is then generously peppered with chilly powder, coriander-cumin powder, and a mix of fragrant whole spices like bay leaf, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and a dash of hing that cranks up the deliciousness of the bhoger mangsho.”

In fact, continues Geeta, “it is a standard recipe for most of the meat dishes that are offered to goddesses across Assam and other parts of the North East. The beauty of this recipe however is that it

has the same result no matter whether the meat is a duck, pigeon, chicken or goat.”

The last tempering of course being the blessing of Durga Maa, which makes these dishes a must-have during Durga Puja.