In fact, it will be more correct to say “the Evening for the Dried Fish”. We could also say “The Dried Fish’s Day”. The dried fish we have in mind is a kind of small dried fish, which in Odia is called “pita sukhua” (bitter dried fish) because it tastes a little bitter. That’s because the gall bladder of the fish is not removed, when it is sun- dried. The fish is too small to be subjected to such mutilation. The day under reference is the ninth day of the month of Margashira – generally, late November-early December. But of this later. Now, let’s talk about dried fish first.
We can say of the people of our State that by and large, those who eat fish, eat also dried fish. Some of those who eat fresh fish but not dried fish do so because they considerthe latter to be tamasic food whereas the former is not, even when it is cooked with onion and garlic. There are others who keep away from dried fish because they believe that it causes skin diseases. This is why in my childhood days I wasn’t allowed to eat dried fish whereas the elders in my family ate it with much relish. I had felt cheated. Now, there are others who shun dried fish because they think of it as the poor man’s food. There is something irresistible about the smell of the dried fish. When the heady smell of the dried fish being cooked in the neighbour’s house reaches the nostrils of the shunner, he sometimes gets some dried fish cooked in his own but does not tell anyone outside that he had taken dried fish. The secret is known only to the neighbour. No matter how careful you are with it, while being cooked, dried fish would betray you. Now, these shunners mostly urban, educated and well-off people. I knew such persons when I was studying in Ravenshaw College but that was many years ago. By the way, it is not just in Odisha that dried fish had this soft stigma. A Kashmiri friend once told me that when asked what you cooked at home, quite a few well-to- do city-dwellers would say that they had cooked gaad (fresh fish), when they had actually cooked hagaad (dried fish). Hopefully, dry fish eaters from “Kanyakumari to Kasmir”, to use a cliché,have become more open in this respect these days.
Especially because modern studies on dry fish have shown that it is actually a healthy food: it is low-calory, protein rich and anti-oxidant and is in fact better than fresh fish. But traditional attitudes are often extremely resistant to change. Not very long ago, creationism was considered scientific in some scientifically and technologically advanced countries and was part of the school education there. But at the same time, dried fish may be healthy food, but it still remains a poor man’s food. Kanji may be a healthy food but it is not considered to be a well-to-do man’s drink. As far as I know, the star hotels in Odisha do not have dried fish on their menu. A friend from Bhubaneswar told me that he had heard that there is just one such hotel where dried fish is served but it’s only the dried ilisi (hilsa) fish. Lest I feel tempted to give it a try, he hastened to add that it’s a very expensive dish and only the very prosperous citizens can afford it. That closed our conversation on this topic.
Now, this fresh fish and dried fish distinction applies to the naivedya (food to be offered to the deity) for the goddesses as well. Goddess Kataka Chandi (Cuttack) is offered fresh fish dishes every Tuesday and Saturday. The dish is prepared without onion and garlic, which are considered inevitable ingredients for the preparation of non-vegetarian dishes. Instead of these, bel patra (leaf of the sacred bilva tree) is used. Goddess Kakatpur Mangala (Kakatpur) is offered fish curry,and as in the Cuttack Chandi temple, onion and garlic are not used in cooking fish. Goddess Ugratara (of Bhusandpur) is offered roasted fresh fish and fish curry. Goddess Bali Harachandi (Brahmagiri) is offered mustard fish curry every single day. And every single night before the goddess retires for the day, she is offered the sacred mahaprasad (Lord Jagannath’s prasad). And these are not the only Devi (goddess) temples where fish dishes are offered to the deity. But we must note that none is offered dried fish. I know of only two temples where dried fish is offered to the deity.
The deified Santha Arakshita Das (Olasuni), who was born as a prince but rejected worldly life, when he was in his teens, is offered dried fish by his devotees. His first devotees were the poor people. They offered him dried fish which was their food. To the dalma offered to the village goddess Dhabalabali of Govindpur, near Pipli, dried fish is added, recalls Jatin Nayak, well-known scholar and translator.
Now, fresh fish is not part of a worship, as far as I know, but there is one observance in which the dried fish is. On the ninth day of the month of Margashira, in the evening, the Kanji Anla (Kanji Amla) osha (a kind of religious observance)is observed. This observance is dedicated to goddess Shasthi, the protector of children. Only the married women who are daughters-in-law, observe this fast; mothers-in-law are excluded. Along with goddess Shasthi are worshipped seven small dried fish, who are dressed in yellow rags.They wear vermillion and collyrium, in the manner of a bride and are fondly called “sukhuabohu (dried fish daughters-in-law)”. Incidentally, there is at least one more observance dedicated to goddess Shasthi: “Shathi(colloquial form of the tatsama word ‘shasthi’) osa”. In this osa, no fish – fresh or dried –dish is offered to the deity, or is worshipped as in Kanji Anlaosa. The women of the families of the Brahmins and the Vaishnavas do not observe this osa because fish, neither alive nor dead, is allowed in their homes.
The connection between goddess Shasthi and dried fish in Kanji Anlaosa is unclear to me. Now, every osa or brata (vrata), both of which are religious observances, has a story associated with it. The Kanji Anlaosa story has a pumpkin in it, but no fish. In brief, the story is this: a pregnant young woman, expecting her first child,craved for a pumpkin grown in her neighbour’s place and she stole it and ate it. When the neighbour woman found her pumpkin missing, she suspected that her pregnant neighbour had stolen it and she pronounced a curse that the one who had stolen it would lose her baby.Not just one, the woman lost five babies. When she became pregnant again, her mother-in-law drove her out of the house. She delivered her sixth in a forest. The miserable woman was crying bitterly when goddess Shasthi arrived with all her children and returned them to her and blessed her. She advised her to do an osa for her and told her how to do it. Making dried fish part of the ritual was her instruction. And she expressly forbade her mother-in-law to observe the fast. Maybe she was displeased with her mother-in-law’s cruelty towards her and the displeased goddess denied her, her blessings.
Now, whatever be the goddess’s reasons, in effect she created an occasion to honour the poor man’s food. You may be embarrassed about telling others that you had dried fish at home but come the ninth day of the month of Margashira, the women in your family will dress seven small dried fish at home and pay them their respect. So, this is not just the day for the dried fish but the Dried Fish’s Day as well!
Time, we consider observing the ninth day of the month of Margashira as “SukhuaDibasa”. What do you think?
(The views expressed are the writer’s own)
Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur
Email: [email protected]
(Images from the net)