“Rather let those belonging to the upper ten, who do not earn their livelihood
by manual labour, not take meat; but the forcing of vegetarianism
upon those who have to earn their bread by labouring day and night
is one of the causes of the loss of our national freedom.”
— Swami Vivekananda, letter to Sarala Ghosal, April 1897
In March 2017, the Trinamool Congress-run civic authorities in Nabadwip made an appeal to its entire population to turn vegetarian for three days during the Dol Jatra festival. Nabadwip is one of West Bengal’s most-famous pilgrimage towns known for being the birthplace of the 15th-16th century spiritual leader and social reformer “Mahaprabhu” Chaitanya.
By that time, political interference with culinary culture had become a matter of countrywide debate with an alleged attack on non-vegetarian food in general and beef in particular by Hindutva political forces. The TMC supremo and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had already expressed her concerns and had said that food was a matter of personal choice.
However, such an appeal by her own party-run local administration did not trigger any protest in the locality or a controversy in the media except for stray criticism on social media platforms.
For three days during the Dol Jatra – Chaitanya’s birthday, pilgrims arrive in the Nabadwip town from different parts of the world. As during these three days, religious processions travel through almost every part of the town, the civic authorities urged the sellers to keep their stalls shut so as not to cause visual discomfort to pilgrims.
The practice has been going on uninterrupted since then – all meat and fish shops remain shut for the three days – without making headlines in the regional or national media. Even though Nabadwip is predominantly populated by the upper caste Hindus, the majority of its population are non-vegetarians.
Pundarikaksha Saha, who has been the local TMC MLA since 2001, said that there was no controversy because nothing was forced on non-vegetarians.
He said, “No one is going to look into people’s kitchens or intimidate or thrash people for having non-veg food. Mahaprabhu is an epitome of magnanimity. We made an appeal to honour Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and our guests who come from all around the world. The traders’ association agreed. Local people had no problem either.”
A local journalist, who did not want to be identified, echoed Saha in saying that only a handful of people criticised the move on social media in the first year but people in general had no objections. He added Nabadwip residents willing to have non-veg food during those three days can cook items stored earlier or visit restaurants that are not barred from selling non-veg food.
He further explained, “Though the majority of the town is non-vegetarian, fish and meat shops remain mostly empty every Saturday. My mother has been a vegetarian for 40 years but she cooks non-veg for us and then there are days when we tell her we are going to have the same food as her. There hasn’t been any conflict.”
Such a sweet blend of vegetarianism with non-vegetarianism, however, is no exception in West Bengal, a land where more than 98 per cent of its population identify themselves as non-vegetarians, according to the Sample Registration System Baseline Survey 2014.
For Swami Vivekananda, arguably the most famous saffron-clad monk from Bengal, food was much more about nutrition than religion. Even though his guru, Ramakrishna “Paramahamsa”, was a strict vegetarian, he never opposed any disciple’s non-vegetarian habit. Vivekananda continued to consume meat and fish even after taking up a monk’s life and encouraged many new monks to give up vegetarianism.
As a result of initiatives by both Vivekananda and Ramakrishna’s wife Sarada Debi, the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission, perhaps West Bengal’s most influential socio-religious institution, are often non-vegetarian, even though there also are vegetarian monks. Food is a matter of personal choice there. Only Sunday is a vegetarian day in Ramakrishna Mission’s all religious, social and educational institutes.
“In Bengal, have rice and fish curry and pursue sadhana (worship). If there is any sin in it, that will be mine,” Jiban Mukhopadhyay quoted Sarada Debi as telling her disciples in his book Biplaber Pratik Sri Sri Maa Sarada Debi.
Just like in the Ramakrishna Mission, vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism have largely peacefully coexisted in Bengali society for centuries. People with different food habits live under the same roof – some “strict non-vegetarians” requiring their non-vegetarian meals every day, semi-vegetarian who take fish and eggs but not meat and having specific vegetarian days, and some complete vegetarians using the same kitchen.
According to Indologist Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri, an expert in ancient scriptures and puranas, no such divide as a Vaishnav-Shakta or Bhrahman or non-Brahman works in Bengal when it comes to fish.
He told Outlook, “Nature shaped Bengal’s food habits more than religion. Our innumerable rivers gave us an abundance of fish. Later, the popularity of Shakta traditions had some role in popularising meat. Our own religious practices did not come in the way of food habits and even when there were attempts to remove fish from the diet, the attempts failed.”
Food as Identity
Sumptuous was the menu in Behula and Lakhindar’s marriage party, indeed, if we consider the description in Padma Puran, the late 15-century Bengali poet Bijoy Gupta’s narration of the story of the Chand Saudagar, the Shiviite merchant.
The menu included 18 types of fresh fish curries and fries of chital, magur, koi, mohashol, chingri, Ilish, rui, katla, padba, shol, boyal, bacha, bhangna, puti and ritha fish, cooked in different styles with a wide range of ingredients – ginger, black pepper, cumin, mango, clove, tamarind etc. Besides, there were five types of meat – deer, goat, lamb, pigeon, and tortoise.
However, highlighting only this menu would result in straightjacketing and generalisation of the Bengali culinary culture. Bharat Chandra Roy’s Annadamangal mentions 22 vegetarian preparations.
The Bengalis love their fish and meat for sure but they love their veggies no less. Ask them to be strictly non-vegetarian and they will rebel the same way. From tento (bitter) and saak (leafy veggies) to curries of different genres such as shukto, ghonto, chorchori and torkari, leave alone the fries, they have an extraordinary range of veg dishes. They use at least 14 types of leafy greens, including pnui, palang, lau, kochu, paat, mulo, shorshe, methi, dnata, laal, kolmi, and many types of gourds to speak of.
There is a long list of non-veg items cooked with a lot of vegetables – hilsa with brinjal, prawn with taro leaves or bottle gourd, koi fish with cauliflower. Aloo is also an ingredient in most curries.
Take the story of daal, or lentil soup. In ancient Bengal, rice, veggies – especially saak or leafy vegetables, and fresh fish curries made up a standard meal. Historian Nihar Ranjan Roy had pointed out in his landmark book Banglir Itihas: Adiparba (A History of the Bengali People: Early Era) that he found no mention of pulses in the literature of ancient Bengal and that it was missing from the long list of local produces. He assumed that daal came to Bengal with the Aryan civilisation and that too only in the middle-ages or 13th century onwards.
By the 16th century, it had become a popular item. Daal gained a significant popularity among Gaudiya Vaishnavs of the 16th and 17th centuries with Chaitanya’s followers accepting daal in the diet as the source of protein to replace fish in the platter. Over the years, daal became as integral to a usual Bengal meal as fish curry.
Eventually, the preparation called machher matha diye daal (lentil soup with fish heads) became one of the most popular recipes across the land.
Historian Jayanta Sengupta has shown in his article on food culture in India, published in Food in Time and Place: The American Historical Association Companion to Food History, that the concept of ahimsa or non-killing had already began to resonate with a significant number of people in western and northern India by the time Buddhist Emperor Asoka of the Maurya dynasty made it into a moral compass of the state.
Sengupta wrote, “This received strong endorsement from influential reformist and devotionalist schools of Hindu philosophy in early medieval India between around 800 CE and 1,200 CE and consequently Brahmans — with the exception of those living in Kashmir, Bengal, and a part of Karnataka — were gradually obliged to become vegetarians.”
In his 1959 book Food And Drink In Ancient Bengal, Taponath Chakravarty wrote that works like Brihad-dharma Purana and Prakrta-Paihgala “leave no doubt that with the exception of some orthodox Brahmanas and puritan widows in Hindu society, some austere Buddhist and Jain monks and some orthodox lay Buddhist and Jain householders, the people of Bengal were even at an early age mostly non-vegetarians”.
In this overwhelming dominance of non-vegetarianism, the Bengalis accepted cuisines from all outsiders – Hindus and Muslims from northern and western India and Christians from Europe.
But when it comes to outsiders criticising the non-vegetarian food practices, the Bengalis have not been sweet to them.
For example, in September 2017, a Bengali vlogger got “trolled” by a section of presumably north Indian Hindus for sharing a Durga puja special egg roll recipe – the “trolls” thought celebrating non-veg food during Navratri, the north Indian way of Durga worship over nine days, was a sin – a section of the Bengali Hindus on social media launched an aggressive counter-attack to protect their food from what they said was “Hindutva vegetarian aggression”.
There has been an uproar on social media from the Bengalis every time there is news of localities in states like Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi banning non-veg foods at public places during Hindu festivals.
A couple of lines from Roy’s Bangalir Itihas may reflect on this psyche: “The Aryan civilisation and culture never looked at the Bengalis’ love for fish with any fondness, nor do they do it today; their attitude of contempt is rather clear.”
Roy wrote: “When Tirthankara Mahavir was travelling in the Rarh (southwestern Bengal) region with his disciples, they had to survive on inedibles. No doubt the tribal culture of having fish and meat from hunted animals, the plant-based veg dishes of that time, and their ancient cooking methods had triggered disrespect among the vegetarian Jain acharyas who came from outside. That disrespect continues till date.”
A good number of Bengalis still share the sentiments that Roy’s writing reflects – a bad-tasting awareness of the Aryavarta-dwellers’ disdain for Bengali gastronomic practices.
“Bengalis have no conflict with their own vegetarian cuisine but there exists a general sense of anxiety over north Indian people's habit of forcing their culture and language on others,” said Arindam Biswas, a physician by profession and a member of the Sheersho Porishad, or highest body, of Bangla Pokkho, a Bengali ethnic rights group.
“Now with a political force in power at the Union level that believes in one language, one religion, and one culture across India, food-related interventions in their land would trigger reactions in our Bengal," Biswas added.