Banana: How the Food of our Devatas became an Inseparable Part of the Sanatana Social Life

The banana is such an inseparable part of the cultural and social life of Bharatavarsha that we have taken it for granted and do not pause to inquire into its hoary history and imprint
Banana: How the Food of our Devatas became an Inseparable Part of the Sanatana Social Life

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Banana: How the Food of our Devatas became an Inseparable Part of the Sanatana Social Life
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Banana: How the Food of our Devatas became an Inseparable Part of the Sanatana Social Life

AND NOW, WE RETURN TO WHERE WE BEGAN this essay series: the unbroken sanctity of the banana in Bharatavarsha. Its primacy as the food of the Devatas and the Rishis naturally evolved with the flowering of the Hindu civilisation, culture and society. 

A common sight that greets our eyes throughout Bharatavarsha is the pair of the banana plant with its leaves smiling widely, tied on either side of the gate or door of homes and offices celebrating an auspicious event or festival. Among other things, it signifies abundance and prosperity.

When the Upavasa became intermixed with the daily life and lifestyle of Hindus, milk and banana were regarded as the purest foods to be consumed on those days. The practice has remained unchanged in orthodox Hindu homes.

Banana and rice balls (piṇḍa) are mandatory offerings made to the pitṛs (departed ancestors) during the annual śrāddha (honouring the departed ancestors) ceremonies.   

Banana also holds a special reverence in both India and Nepal for a — literally —  divine reason. It is the favourite fruit of the Goddess Shashti, the Devi who protects infants and assists childbirth. Depending on the region in India, she is worshipped on the sixth or tenth or the twenty-first day after childbirth. Among the items offered to her as Naivedyam, a whole cluster of banana is absolutely mandatory.  The auspicious Chhath Puja celebrated in Bihar is in her honour, along with the Puja of Surya-Deva. The word Chhath is a corruption of Shashti.   

In the grand Durga Puja celebrated in Bengal, a banana tree is tied together with a branch or stem of eight other sacred plants and worshipped. These are respectively pomegranate, rice, turmeric, Aruna, Bel, Asoka, Jayanti, and Bijadya (Bijora in Hindi; Citrus medica). They each represent the Nava - Durgas. 

About a century ago on the last day of the Pushya month, it was a custom in Bengal and Odisha to make toy boats from the lower leaf-stalks of the plantain tree. The boats were tastefully decorated with marigold flowers and filled with sweets. The mother would then perform Puja of one such boat to the Deities at her home. After this, she would give the boat to her young son(s) to float in the village tank or river. While this endearing custom is evidently bathed with sanctity, its origins lie in the legend of a fabulously wealthy merchant named Srimanta Saudagar (an eponymous name meaning, “wealthy merchant”). He was a maritime trader who took his fleet of ships to Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka and acquired a huge fortune. Making those banana toy boats and offering them to the Devatas were the moving prayers of those mothers who wanted the Gods to bless their boys with similar wealth. 

Just like Gods, even ghosts were fond of bananas. The annals of our profuse folklore all the way up to the delightful Chandamama comics authoritatively declare the fondness of ghosts for milk, sweets and plantains. Ghosts can be invoked or made to leave after satiating them with this feast. If a ghost is feeling particularly greedy, it possesses a man or woman and departs only after a gluttonous bout. 

A real-life episode illustrating this ghostly propensity occurred sometime in the late 19th century in Kolhapur. One night, a woman named Sita tripped and fell. She was spotted by the ghost of a dead sepoy who was lurking around in the area. It immediately took possession of her, and Sita became a changed woman at that instant. Eventually, her family realised that she was possessed and scoured the whole land for exorcists. None of them was successful. Finally, Sita’s husband brought a reputed exorcist from a faraway land.  After sustained exorcism, he had the ghost in his thrall and threatened to harm it grievously. The ghost begged his forgiveness and promised to leave Sita. But before that, it confessed its story: “O Venerable Maharaj! I am a Pardeshi Sepoy. I was a soldier in the 27th Regiment and I was killed when my Regiment mutinied against the Firangs. I wandering near the pond when I saw this woman fall on the ground and I possessed her. Now I’m leaving her. But before that, feed me a good dinner comprising rice, roti, ghee and bananas.” The Sepoy-ghost ate the dinner and left Sita forever.

Series concluded

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