Can an Assamese be a complete vegetarian?

Except for temple food, no special Assamese meal can be imagined without at least one meat dish in the menu.

Published : Nov 08, 2023 14:59 IST - 5 MINS READ

A man from the Mising community prepares traditional food during the harvest festival, Ali-Aye-Ligang, in Guwahati on February 17, 2021.

A man from the Mising community prepares traditional food during the harvest festival, Ali-Aye-Ligang, in Guwahati on February 17, 2021. | Photo Credit: D. Talukdar

“Whose daughter is this one?”

A grey-haired man serving khisiri, the quintessential Indian gruel, to a crowd of devotees at the revered Nabagraha temple in Guwahati, asked.

It was in response to my query whether he also had khisiri without the meat.

On someone uttering my father’s name, the man called out an aide. A few dollops of “vegetarian” khisiri (khichdi) soon landed on the banana leaf in front of me. “Nirami-x khisiri is prepared in small quantity, only for Bamun widows and devotees with high blood pressure,” the aide said curtly.

Khar, a traditional Assamese dish prepared with Rohu fish-head.

Khar, a traditional Assamese dish prepared with Rohu fish-head. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Assamese Brahmin (Bamun) widows traditionally abstain not only from non-vegetarian food but also vegetarian fare traditionally considered tamasik (food that raises body heat). I was in none of the categories he named but was still glad to have got a few ladles of the vegetarian khisiri.

Typically, khisiri in Assam is served as a special praxad, blessed handout, to believers gathered at a temple. Though the Assamese are believed to have been introduced to khisiri after coming in contact with the Muslim invaders in the medieval era, one is not sure when the dish crept into the Hindu temples to be served as praxad to the devotees. Anyway, often, a call on whether the khisiri should be vegetarian or otherwise at some temples in Assam is taken depending on what is offered by the devotees to the goddess that day. At Guwahati’s Ugra Tara temple, fish curry over steamed rice is regularly served as praxad since devotees offer fish to the deity.

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That night at the Kali Puja in the Nabagraha Temple in Guwahati, a sizeable group of goats, ducks, and pigeons were sacrificed to the goddess in quick succession to the deafening sounds of bell metal chimes and uruli, the ululating sound made by women in eastern India in commemoration of the deity worshipped or to usher in good fortune. I had joined the congregation on the condition that my extended family would neither force me to watch the horrific sight nor to eat the khisiri prepared with the meat of the sacrificed animals. As a child, I had once locked eyes with the head of a freshly beheaded goat placed before the goddess at a Kali temple. The picture of brutality committed on that hapless animal by my kind left an indelible stamp on my nascent self and I began avoiding the meat of ritually sacrificed goats since.

Offerings of eggs made on the occasion of Me-Dam-Me-Phi, a festival celebrated by the Ahom people on January 31 every year in memory of the departed.

Offerings of eggs made on the occasion of Me-Dam-Me-Phi, a festival celebrated by the Ahom people on January 31 every year in memory of the departed. | Photo Credit: D. Talukdar

In my family temple though, a long da, a machete, wrapped in a piece of old yellowed cloth, had been a perennial presence. People would regularly come home to borrow it for use in temples nearby. My father had once told me that there would regularly be animal sacrifices at our Shiva temple in praise of his consort Durga till his mother intervened. “Since then we have followed the ritual symbolically by sacrificing a kumura (ash gourd) to the goddess but the da has remained in the temple.”

Even as I was re-circulating those thoughts in my head, a woman sitting next to me at the dining hall of the Nabagraha temple whispered into my ears, “Are you a vegetarian?”

No, just avoid mutton.

She seemed relieved at my answer, and repeated that an Assamese can never be a complete vegetarian. “Unless one is a Bamun widow or a Keoliya Bhokot (celibate Assamese Vaishnava monks, too, avoid tamasik food).” Pointing at a piece of meat on the leaf in front of her, she added, “Eating this is our culture, age-old practice.”

That woman proffering me a quick primer on non-vegetarian fare as the core of Assamese food habits was not far from the truth though. Leave aside temple food, no special Assamese lunch or dinner can be imagined without throwing in at least one non-vegetarian dish into the menu.

The significance of eating non-vegetarian food for the Assamese can perhaps also be gauged from the list of animals endorsed for sacrifice in Shakta Hinduism practised in Pragjyotishpur/Kamrup. The list mentioned in the revered texts written in Pragjyotishpur/Kamrup—Kalika Purana (eleventh–twelfth centuries) and Yogini Tantra (sixteenth–seventeenth centuries)—is exhaustive. Not far from the Nabagraha temple in Guwahati, at the Kamakhya temple atop the Nilachal hills, a major Shakta Hindu peeth, buffaloes are a common sacrificial offering to the goddess even today. In Axomiya Manuhor Itihaax, a treatise of sort on the community, noted writer Nagen Saikia had pointed out that the list of animals certified for sacrifice in Kalika Purana and Yogini Tantra were noticeably different from that of the rest of Hindu India. These old texts are often referred to in order to better comprehend the food habits of the early inhabitants of Kamrup. Saikia had noted that the sacrificial meat is consumed by Brahmins, too, in Assam as praxad.

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Yogini Tantra not only mentions that shunning of non-vegetarian food was not a requirement but also that celibacy (brahmacharya) was not a requisite in Kamrup, thus emphasizing the presence of an altogether different socioreligious cultural order in that swathe of land. The existing food habits of people since the ancient times is the reason why even Assamese Brahmins consume not just sacrificial meat but other non-vegetarian food too, just as those in North and South India do not because they had not been meat eaters since the Vedic era. Sarbeswar Rajguru, in Medieval Assamese Society(1228–1826) had underlined the point on the intersectional and overlying tribal influences on the non-tribal Assamese food habit, “The predominance of the non-Aryan inhabitants and their inclusion in the Hindu fold may rightly be inferred as one of the strongest factors for which not only caste system but also the dietary system had to be made more liberal.”

Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from Chapter 7, The Assamese: A Portrait of a Community by Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.

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