The practices for Navarātri are rich with connections between nature and ritual. In this lesson we will look closely at how these connections are expressed in the foods that are offered to the Devī as नैवेद्य (naivedya), and distributed as प्रसाद (prasāda), delicious, tangible vehicles for the blessings of the Supreme Goddess.
In reading the Devī Mahātmya, we see the Devī described as both the primordial energy from which all creation springs forth, and as creation itself. So as the earth, She brings forth life, and She sustains and nourishes all living beings. The rhythms of nature and the seasons arise from Her. One of Her names, Vaṇadurgā, the Devī of the forests, reflects Her intimate connection with the land, fields, forests and groves, and everything that grows there.
When devotees prepare offerings of food and flowers for the Devī, it’s easy to find yourself pausing and reflecting like this: Whatever I seek in nature to offer the Devī is actually a form of the Devī. I can only offer Her some of the exquisite fruits of Her own abundance, infused with my devotion and awe.
Traditional प्रसाद (prasāda) for the nine nights of Navarātri can vary from a few raisins mixed with pieces of rock sugar (miṣrī), to huge trays of delicious, nourishing, regional meals and delicacies. For many devotees, these offerings are created primarily as an expression of devotion, and great feeling goes into their elaborate preparation. For others, the emphasis is more austere, keeping their offerings sattvik yet simple, so they don’t require spending a lot of time in the kitchen.
Among the many traditions, we will go into more detail here about a few forms of prasāda that are fairly universal across different regions and communities: fresh seasonal fruits and some form of khīr (commonly spelled kheer) or milky sweet dish.
खीर (kheer), which is called pāyasam in South India, and pāyeśa in Bengal, is a sweet milk pudding typically made with either rice or vermicelli. Here we will learn about two other popular forms, one made with tapioca pearls, the other with opo squash (bottle gourd.) Any of these four types of kheer are ideal as Navarātri prasāda, while the two we will study here are suitable for people observing upavāsa, gentle fasting, for this Devī festival.
So knowingly, or simply by following traditions, many people prepare food offerings that are exquisitely attuned to Ayurveda’s health recommendations for śarad-ṛtu, autumn – the season in which this sacred celebration takes place.
In the lesson on the Ayurvedic approach and recommendations for śarad-ṛtu, autumn we saw that despite the weather beginning to cool down, fall is a time when the accumulated heat of summer is stirred up and seeking release. So we help this natural process by focusing on foods that are sweet, bitter and/astringent, and light to digest.
It’s fascinating to see how well the ingredients in the prasāda recipes below match with the recommendations of Ayurveda for this season.
So let’s look at the ingredients of these prasāda dishes, so we can understand how brilliantly – and deliciously – they have been designed. You may well feel inspired to befriend the less familiar ingredients and cook with them regularly, once you read about their great qualities.
Tapioca Pearls are made from cassava root and known as साबूदाना (sābūdānā) in Marathi and much of northern and western India, and javvarisi in Tamil. Ayurveda defines tapioca as मधुर (madhura), sweet and nourishing, तिक्त (tikta), bitter tasting, and easy to digest when it is fully cooked. This is an ideal combination in fall for calming and removing the excess heat that has built up in our bodies during summer.
From a Western perspective, tapioca is described as more than just a starch. It is rich in iron and potassium, a good source of dietary fiber, and provides sustained energy.
इक्ष्वाकु (ikṣvāku) or क्षीर्तुबी (kṣīrtumbī) – Opo Squash, Bottle Gourd or Calabash. Better known by its Hindi and Marathi names लौकी (lauki) and दूधी (dūdhi), chunks of translucent opo squash are a familiar sight in sambhār, the spicy lentil soup that is served with dosas and other popular South Indian dishes. They bring a welcome bite of something mild and cool to an otherwise pungent soup. In fact, bottle gourd is a staple in home cooking across India.
Ayurveda defines opo squash, or bottle gourd, as मधुर (madhura), sweet and nourishing, cooling, and easy to digest – qualities that are ideal for fall. When it’s cooked with milk and ghee, the combination has highly desirable effects: it creates sattva, a peaceful, luminous state of mind, and it also builds ओजस् (ojas), immune strength.
Opo squash is not only easy to digest but it also gives a boost to many aspects of our overall digestion, like relieving gas and constipation, and helping the liver function well. It’s interesting too that bottle gourd is both wonderfully refreshing and hydrating, and at the same time it has a diuretic effect, and it really helps with burning urination. These can be much needed qualities in autumn as we flush out the excess residue of heat from summer.
Ayurveda describes opo squash as great for reducing both pitta, what we can call the fiery forces within us that digest and transform everything we take in, and vata, the cool, airy force that propels movement within us. At the same time, it helps build healthy kapha, the earthy, stabilizing force that keeps building and replenishing us (i.e. it helps build healthy tissues without making you fat). From the Western perspective, opo squash may be very watery, but it’s still quite rich in minerals and nutrients.
दुग्ध (Dugdha) – Milk. Since ancient times, the warm milk of cows has been an invaluable form of sustenance that is revered as sacred. This is not only because cows are honored as a form of Lakṣmī Devī, the Goddess of wealth in the Vedic tradition, but also because cow’s milk promotes sattva, a calm, lucid state of mind, a state of inner peace and heightened spiritual sensitivity.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, दुग्ध (dugdha) or full cream, organic cow’s milk, is मधुर (madhura) sweet (meaning it is very mildly sweet in taste and nourishing), and cooling — ideal for this season — and wonderfully स्निग्ध (snigdha) or unctuous and softening. It is jīvaniya, life giving and rasāyana, rejuvenating and calming, and it strengthens not only the body but also the intellect and immunity.
घृत (Ghṛta), Ghee or clarified butter is a mainstay of health in Ayurveda. It is मधुर (madhura), sweet tasting (meaning that it is mild and nourishing), and शीत (shīta), cooling: ideal qualities for sarad rtu. At the same time, plays a very important role in keeping the digestive fire strong, which is much needed in this season. It’s a great source of nourishment, strength, and immunity, though in this season it needs be eaten in small quantities.
गुड (Guḍa), Jaggery is unrefined cane sugar, rich with minerals and earthy sweetness. It boosts both digestion and elimination, and gives a slow release energy boost. Ayurveda describes guda, jaggery, as मधुर (madhura), sweet and nourishing – wonderful in this season – but also heavy to digest in excessive quantities. It’s somewhat more उष्ण (uṣṇa), heating, than most of the other ingredients, but this is balanced by the cooling quality of the other ingredients
इक्षु (ikṣu), Raw Cane Sugar is more refined than jaggery. One of the big differences in its effect is that raw sugar is शीत (śīta), cooling, whereas jaggery is somewhat heating. These sweet, cooling qualities of raw sugar make it helpful in this season. Of course, it’s heavy so it’s always wise to eat it in moderation.
मिश्री (miṣrī) or खडी साखर (khaḍi sakhara), Rock Sugar is processed quite differently from the raw and white sugars we are used to seeing, and without the involvement of chemicals. So it has traditionally been considered the purest form of sugar to use in sacred rituals.
In Ayurvedic terms rock sugar is मधुर (madhura), sweet in taste, शीत (śīta), cooling, and लघु (laghu), light to digest, and very refreshing for both the body and the mind. These are ideal qualities for calming and releasing excess heat in fall. Sucking a few crystals is also a good way to relieve coughing.
एला (Elā), Cardamom is a delightful, fragrant spice. It is great for helping food get digested properly and avoiding gas, which is the role it plays in these two sweet dishes. Ayurveda describes cardamom as मधुर (madhura) slightly sweet, and also कटु (kaṭu), pungent, in taste. It is उष्ण (uṣṇa) heating – though not excessively, and तीक्ष्ण (tīkṣṇa) penetrating. It calms imbalances in all three dośas or forces within the body.
तरुणी (taruṇī), शतपत्री (śatapatrī), Rose is wonderfully cooling and light to digest, and while its may taste slightly bitter and astringent when you eat them, after digestion they create a sweet effect. So they are another friend for resolving the kinds of inflammations that break out unexpectedly in fall.
Roses have the प्रभाव (prabhāva), the special effect, of being a heart tonic, both for the heart organ and the heart where our feelings and emotions center. So just as rose petals help clear up patches redness in the skin, they help soothe anger and irritability, whether it’s caused by work exhaustion or political outrage. I have noticed that when people take rose petal jam, known as gulkand, for acidity, it also helps them becomes calm.
This is a gentle, liquid, mildly sweet dish that is both light and sustaining.
How to make it:
This is a soft, liquid, sweet dish that’s rich with the good qualities of opo squash. The combination of opo squash cooked in milk and ghee is highly sattvik: it is very pure and light, a promotes a calm, lucid state of mind. It is also very nourishing.
How to make it:
Note: If you want to make this dish thicked, you can double the quantity of opo squash. This version is a popular breakfast for kids.