Bhaiphonta- Snapshots from the field

Sweets being sold on Bhainphonta

Bhayer Kopale Dilam Phonta/Jomer Duare Porlo Kanta/Jamuna day Jom ke Phonta/Ami Di amar Bhain ke Phonta

The above rhyme is chanted in every household across Bengal while the sister offers her phonta ( a dot made of sandalwood paste and curd) on her brother’s forehead wishing him long life so that Yama i.e., Jom (God of Death) does not reach her brother. The last two lines of the rhyme indicate that even Yamuna (Yama’s sister- Yamuna/Jamuna) on this day prays for her brother’s long life.  Bhainphonta is celebrated after Kali Puja (Festival in honour of Goddess Kali one of the 108 incarnations of Goddess Durga) in Bengal. Across India, this festival has many different names, Bhaidoonj  in Northern India, Bhai Bij, Bhau-beej or Bhav Bij amongst the Marathi and Konkani-speaking communities in the states of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.

 Last year on the day of Bhainphonta , I was travelling down to Chandernagore in Hooghly district of Bengal for my field work. I was listening to the show hosted by Mir on Radio Mirchi where he asked one question. Name one sweet which is prepared across Sweetshops in Bengal. There were three options. The answer as most of us know is Khaja. Khaja – a fried sweetmeat made of flour, sugar and sugar syrup is prepared on this special day across sweet shops in Bengal. Each shop has its own twists to Khaja. For instance in Chandernagore, the Khaja has a small pink rose in the centre of this layered sweet meat. 

Khaja being rolled out


 While the customers stand in queues patiently for hours to purchase the best bite for the brothers; the workers toil day and night to cope with the production demands. Milk supplies come in frequently and often chchana suppliers fail to meet the demands. Nevertheless the show must go on.

This year, I was visiting Krishnanagar on the day of Bhainphonta. I took a rickshaw from my lodge around 7 am and headed for the city’s most popular sweet shop after it featured in an Uttam- Suchitra movie Sabar Upore. Though the owners claim to be inventors of Sarpuriya and which is debatable; the sweetshop is one of the important landmarks in Krishnanagar. It is named after Adhar Chandra Das. Claims and contestations regarding origins of sweets are part and parcel of sweet business and this shop is no exception. While I crossed Adhar’s shop I realised it was 7 am and there were people waiting to buy their prized possession. When I reached Gopal Mistanna Bhandar, it was 8 am. I realised I will not be able to get inside the shop so I decided to wait to make my way into the kitchen where the workers told me that they had been working the entire night.

Sweet shops become a visual delight during Bhainphonta as each owner introduces new items. So sweets of varied colour and sizes are available in sweet shops.  This year, in Gopal Mistanna Bhandar one came across sweets shaped like watermelon, to fish slice to what they called “pastry”.

Biography of Langcha- Burdwan or Krishnanagar

The genesis of Langcha as we all know goes back to an artisan  in Burdwan ( a district in West Bengal) who used to make Pantua ( fried sweetmeat made of flour and chchana dipped in sugar syrup) of huge sizes.  Langcha a sweet meat – in popular parlance was created by the erstwhile artisans of Shaktigarh in Burdwan. How did Langcha Dutta ( the artisan credited with this invention ) land in Burdwan? The noted novelist Narayan Sanyal in his historical novel “Rupamanjari” actually tells us a different story. Goutam Dhoni a noted journalist and correspondent of “Ekdin” a Bengali Daily tells me this fascinating tale in his house over a plate of Nikhuti ( a sweet famous in Krishnanagar).  In his latest article in Nadia Darpan( a local Bengali Daily) Dhoni brings to our attention how Langcha has travelled from Krishananagar ( a town in Nadia District) to Burdwan .

Drawing from Narayan Sanyal’s novel Rupamanjari Goutam Dhoni(2011) argues that the genesis of “Langcha” actually goes back to the matrimony alliance between the two seats of power in two different parts of present day West Bengal. A matrimony alliance between the royal households of Krishnanagar and Burdwan changed the genesis of “Langcha”. For those unfamiliar with Langcha; it is a fried oval shaped sweetmeat fried and dipped in sugar syrup. It is made from Chchana( cottage cheese- an ingredient common to most of the sweets in Bengal). The story goes that a girl from the then Krishnanagar royal household was married to a son from Burdwan royal household. When she became pregnant she lost her appetite and refused to eat any food. During this time she expressed a desire to eat “langcha” – a sweetmeat that artisans from her maternal home used to prepare.

The then ruler of Krishnanagar made arrangements to find out who prepared “Langcha” but none of the Modaks/ Moiras( The Bengali confectioner; a caste group involved in preparation of sweets) in Krishnanagar seemed to be aware of Langcha. Apparently even the lady did not remember the name of the sweet. She had mentioned “Langcha” because the artisan who used to prepare this specific sweetmeat used to limp and walk ( in Bengali Langchano means to limp). Then the artisan was summoned to the Krishnagar court and was sent off to Burdwan. He was lured with lands to settle in Burdwan so that he could prepare delicacies for the royalty. Currently Shaktigarh, Burdwan district of Bengal is credited with huge Langchas but the shops in Krishnanagar take a special pride in how “Langcha” has travelled from Krishnanagar to Burdwan.