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Monday, November 15, 2021

Decoding the Habisa Dalma




















Panchuka or the five days of abstinence in the Odia calendar. As the holy month of Kartika draws to a closure, the religious fervor goes up by a few notches, and folks who had not given up nonvegetarian food for the entire month turn vegetarian. Even onion and garlic are struck off the menu. It is easy to get into a debate about the actual period of Panchuka with one group advocating that it begins right on the day of 'Anla Nabami' while another one claims that it begins on Ekadashi. But we will not get into the details of it because it is purely a matter of personal belief rather than something which is backed by evidence. And belief mingled with a need for validation can sometimes give rise to urban legends. Like the one which says that even the crane gives up fish during these five days. A story that is likely attributed to another mythological tale that mentions Lord Vishnu awakening from his slumber after four months on the day of Ekadashi and taking the disguise of a fish to reclaim the Vedas stolen by the asura Hayagriva.

But 'Panchuka' or for that matter, the month of Kartika is not just about abstaining from food. While it explicitly calls for giving up non-vegetarian food, certain vegetables, grains, and all greens except Agasti, that is just about the easy part of it. It is marked as a period of abstinence from everything that keeps one from attaining Moksha. Right from consumption of intoxicating substances to restraining one's speech and sexual conduct. A person is expected to immerse himself/herself in the scriptures or chant the name of the Almighty. So, one can say that in some ways it is similar to 'Paryushan Parva' of the Jains. Both are a time to introspect on one's actions and purify oneself from the accumulated sins. However, with the passage of time, Panchuka or even the month of 'Kartika' has been reduced to a period that calls for dietary restraints or if one is more religiously inclined, reading the Kartika Mahatyma. 

Coming back to the food practices followed during the month of Kartika, it is interesting to note how different regions have modified the ingredients used in the Habisa Dalma, an almost iconic dish prepared during this time of the year. Shorn of the golden glow of turmeric, this spartan dish is symbolic of the 'Habisyali' or widows who flock to Puri to perform the most rigorous version of this 'Vrat', subsisting on just a single meal taken before sunset for an entire month. With a little effort, one is able to uncover regional variations of this iconic recipe. I am unwilling to dwell on the topic of authenticity at this point for certain reasons. The variations are perhaps an attempt to assimilate more of the seasonal produce of a particular area. But that does not explain why certain commonly available ingredients have gone missing from it. Making it appeal better to the taste buds? Possibly. Substituting with newer ingredients available to one? Why not?  For example, most of us cannot imagine the ideal Habisa meal without the 'Kandhiya Pagaw', a kind of citrus mashed together with salt and green chilis. But chilis are themselves a 'New World' ingredient and were not available a few hundred years ago. What did our ancestors use instead? A good amount of ginger perhaps to provide the right amount of heat minus the excitement offered by the chilis. 

The most striking departure in this study has been the discovery of a version that I would like to call the Sagaw dalma, another Karthik month specialty in some parts of the state but one that uses 'Kosala saga'. Most interesting because the 'Kartika Mahatmya' explicitly prohibits any kind of green except for the Agasti or Agastya Sagaw (leaves of the Hummingbird tree). Digging a little deeper or rather after asking a dozen of questions, I figured out that most people in that particular region were not aware of the Agasti plant. But that hardly explains the usage of Kosala leaves in the Kartika dalma. Except for pointing to the most primitive practice of offering the first harvest of any crop to the Gods. 


 [ The image represents the Habisa Dalma prepared in most homes in and around Puri. Made with split green moong dal and a few vegetables like elephant apple, taro, yam and plantain, it is sans turmeric and any kind of tempering.]


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