Today we get to learn about how babies are introduced to solid food in West Bengal, India – through a traditional ceremony called Mukhe Bhaat. This post is courtesy of Enchanted Schoolroom, a blog that chronicles the after school learning adventures of a working mother with her two young children – a space “where chaos, love, laughter, magic, fun and learning all co-exist”. Here are three posts I love from this blog: Asian Inspired Montessori Pouring and Transferring, Learn Letters and their sounds using your sense of smell, and Science Behind the Shamrock Green.
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World Culture: Mukhe Bhaat Ceremony in West Bengal, India
The First Grain of Rice
How do you celebrate the milestone of baby’s first initiation into solid food? Let me introduce you to the traditional way of celebrating this high point in India, and specifically, in West Bengal. Welcome to Annaprashan, a Sanskrit term which means “grain initiation”.
Annaprashan celebrates the transition to solids, and is celebrated in most parts of India. In Bengal, the ceremony is called Mukhe Bhaat (literal meaning – rice in your mouth, also known as the Bengali rice ceremony). For baby girls, Annaprashan is performed on odd months (of their life, not the calendar year), generally the 5th or the 7th month. For boys, the ritual is performed on even months, either on the 6th or the 8th month. What follows is specific to Mukhe Bhaat, and other regions probably celebrate a bit differently.
Traditionally this ceremony is carried out in the child’s paternal home where Mama (Maternal Uncle) or Dadu (Maternal Grandfather) does the honor of feeding the ‘First Grain of Rice’!
An auspicious date is selected from the Panjika (Almanac). Ceremonies are performed, which relate to paying homage and respect to the gods and goddesses, your ancestors, the wellbeing of the house and the child’s wealth and happiness. But first things first, let’s set the scene. A beautiful cloth seat (Ashon) is placed on the floor. Lamps (Prodeep) are lit the old fashioned way, with oil, and a cotton wick. In Hindu tradition, lighting a lamp is considered lucky; it represents all that is good. Incense is burned to purify the atmosphere.
The food is presented on silver plates and bowls, with a silver cup for water and a silver spoon for the child! The centerpiece of the food is the Payesh, a sweet dessert made with rice, milk & sugar – traditional rice pudding. The importance of the Payesh cannot be overstated for Bengali. It is the first solid that goes into a Bengali child. It’s like cake cutting on birthdays, a must for all special occasions.
But that’s not all. For the baby who is not even teething yet, a majestic introduction into food is waiting. Before you go any further, there two things to keep in mind: Bengalis are foodies, and we initiate the little ones early on. No half measures for us!!
Baby’s first ‘solid food’ consists of a royal seven course meal. Of course, there is the Payesh. There are 5 kinds of bhaja or fries , which could include aloo bhaja (potato fries), begun bhaja (eggplant fry), kumro bhaja (pumpkin fries), ucche bhaja (bitter-gourd fries), saag bhaja( spinach or other kinds of greens fry), and machh bhaja (fish fry)! The fries are decorated all around a small mound of rice in the middle along with luchi (puffed wheat shells) on the silver plate. A few drops of Ghee (clarified butter) also grace the plate.
Next, in bowls surrounding the plate, we have Shukto – a bitter vegetable preparation ; Daal – a lentil soup; some kind of Tarkari – a dish with mixed vegetables; and the main attraction, the Fish dish – sometimes including the fish head and the tail. Then there is Chaatni (chutney) – an elegant finish to the meal, generally fruity and sweet and sometimes a combination of tart and sweet with a hint of spicy. And last but certainly not least, Dessert – sweets or mishti and mishti doi or sweet yogurt with caramelized sugar.
Waiting for my mouth to stop watering. OK.
Enter the main protagonist of the play, dressed in their finest traditional attire (a girl as a mini bride, and the boy as the mini groom), and sometimes decked in pint sized jewelry and flower ornaments. They don makeup with small dots of sandalwood paste (chandan). It is a very cute sight to watch. For the baby, not so much.
Now comes the fun part, at least for the onlookers. Mama (Maternal Uncle) is seated on the floor on the Ashon, and the baby is placed in his lap. Mama places a tiny amount of Payesh on the silver spoon.
The first spoon of Payesh enters the mouth.
If the little one does not get distracted and annoyed with all these sounds, he just might get to taste the teeny tiny amount of food, and then break into howling from displeasure. Could be he does not like the taste, or likes it, but is disappointed with the portion size. This is followed by tiny pinches (read non-existent) of the other dishes.
After that, elders bless the child, giving the child a teeny tiny dot of payesh in the spoon. Blessings are accompanied with a few ‘dhaan’ (rice with husk seeds) and a few blades of durba (green grass stalks) on the head – a symbolic wish for prosperity and vivacity respectively.
The child is showered with kisses, hugs, love, and more interestingly, gifts :)
It is indeed a brave baby who can withstand all these.
The ceremony is followed by a fun game. The baby is offered a tray (or a banana leaf, traditionally) which contains certain ritual objects: a lump of earth (symbolizing property, also signifies fertility and prosperity for girls), a book (symbolizing learning), a pen (symbolizing wisdom) and a silver coin, or a tiny silver box as pictured (symbolizing wealth). Family members cheer (read scare) the little one while she makes her choice. Traditional belief: the object picked up by the baby represents his area of interest in the future.
Wait a minute, the biggest and the most colorful thing on the tray is the book! Well, no one said I couldn’t!
All that food? Mama or Dadu gets to finish it off :)
Now on the scrumptious feast for everyone else. Traditionally, everyone sat on the floor, and ate using their dexterous fingers on banana leaf plates. Way to be green! But it is more of a buffet nowadays for the feast.
Mukhe Bhaat is considered the last of the rituals associated with birthing, which starts with the Shaad (Bengali version of baby shower). It also serves as a social introduction of the newest member into the community. Delectable food, great company, a host of cute pictures for posterity, and countless moments to treasure. What’s not to like?
Thank you to the Enchanted Schoolroom blog for this post – what a neat way to introduce a child to solid food and to the community! Thank you so much for sharing this tradition as part of this series!