The ritual of Pratham Astami is rather simple: It is a day when first-born are celebrated. Prayers are offered for the long life and prosperity of the eldest, and a rare feast of enduri pitha (also called haldi patra pitha) and kheere is made. The ambience is a lot like a second birthday, complete with new clothes and the works.
But that is a modern avatar of the ritual that began more as a pre-harvest festival, where Goddess Lakshmi was worshipped. Pratham Astami back then marked the time when the paddy fields were ready to be harvested – and often signaled the start of the new season for farmers. According to old text it was what our ancestors considered the New Year for business – and Lakshmi was worshipped as the harbinger of wealth and prosperity to the village with often the next in line (an elder son or daughter) sitting down for the rites. Symbols of goddess made of cow dung, grain and a gold coin were worshipped.
This is the reason that even today dhaan (rice paddy) is a key ingredient of the ritual. So how did it become a festival of first-borns?
The explanation to this works out a slew of interesting folklore and thoughts. Some say, it is because Lakshmi is seen as the eldest child of Goddess Durga; and is believed to be the legacy bearer - a role that is traditionally envisaged for all first-borns in the family. Another legend believes it to be the day when Lord Lingaraaj leaves his temple and travels the world looking to end all evil and ills. Since he too is considered eldest, hence the celebration.
Yet another folklore credits it to the practice of the 14th century, when every year, this day, the eldest of the family would be reminded of his supreme duties as the first born towards the family (and society), through a ritual, during which he/she is informed about their legacy, the right path to life and of all the virtues that he/she has to inculcate for the betterment of the family – and society at large. Interestingly it is the 14th century practice that is followed till date, and even finds favour among modern-day psychologists who believe that the first born are mostly the healthiest, happiest child and often can influence their siblings more than the parents. Hence, can ably create a good framework.
Interestingly, while much of the festival has changed from its ancient avatar as a pre-harvest festival, it still remains the best occasion to taste some of the delicious ancient dishes, thanks to the food offering of Ensuri Pitha and Bhaja Kheeri (roasted rice pudding). In fact, Pratama Astami is the only occasion that the famous Enduri Pitha is made. The reason for this are two: First, it is the only time of the year that the turmeric leaves are readily available; and two: The leaf that grows are potent enough to fight any health issues that could be result of the weather change as it is a time when winter sets in the East. This explains why Enduri Pitha is considered to be the healthiest of all the sweet pithas made during the year in Odisha – and is the best example of farm to table concept when it comes to ingredients as well. It is the time when one can find enough ripe coconut strewn at the base of a coconut tree – and are sweeter than the rest of the year.
Traditionally, Enduri Pitha, which often identified with its interesting yellow tinge, is made by spreading the fermented batter on the softer side of the leaf, followed by the filling of freshly grated coconut before wrapping it to resemble a closed shell. This is steamed over a hot bath of water in an open mouth mud pot, covered with a lid made of bamboo. This interesting use of vessels also gives the pitha its sweet earthy aroma and taste. Since the batter is prepared using both old and new rice, it does have a different taste. Over the years of course, the filling has seen variations that range from chenna (ricotta cheese) and coconut to coconut and sugar, one made with jaggery, coconut, clove and cardamom to even a savoury one. But the one thing that isn’t changed is the making, and the way fresh ingredients are procured.
Women still go on the search for the turmeric leaves with the break of dawn and only choose ones that are unblemished. And often people are encouraged to take a bite of the pitha with the turmeric leaves both as a good omen and so that the goodness of the leaves actually reaches the body.
The kheeri too is made differently on this day. Against the usual practice of boiling milk and rice together, on prathamastami, the rice is dry roasted first with aromatic spices in a vessel. And only when it changes colour to a nice brown that milk is added. This little detour not only gives the kheeri a velvety, pearl like hue to the kheeri, but also an interesting taste. In fact, kheeri cooked this way adds its own sweetness making it one of the healthiest versions to have too!
Text By: Madhulika Dash
Picture Credit: Delectable reveries