Prayers and Pethas in Agra

Agra’s claim to fame is the Taj Mahal. There is another speciality of the city – the translucent pethas, soft candies in novel shapes and flavours made with the local ash-gourd.

Known as kashiphal in Hindi, the ash-gourd is actually a fruit but is referred to as a vegetable because it is cooked and eaten as a vegetable. It has religious significance as well. Kashiphal is offered to the gods at religious ceremonies and is considered to be potent in warding off the “evil eye.” At some places, it can be spotted hung outside newly-constructed homes.

The petha is a sweet unlike other sweets. The use of ingredients like lime and alum in its preparation gives it an offbeat texture making it crispy, juicy, chewy or melt-in-the-mouth sweet. Petha, kesar angoori petha, petha paan and kesar petha paan are the names of some of the varieties sold in the market. Agra’s petha-making is a thriving cottage industry.

After admiring the Taj Mahal from close up and from behind the balustrade at Agra Fort, the objective of the family trip to Agra is fulfilled. Next, visitors search for shops selling the famed petha. The most famous is Pancchi Petha with the original shop in Sadar Bazaar and branches all over the city. Sadar Bazaar, a popular shopping destination, is not far from the Taj, Fort and Agra Cantt. Railway Station.

The chunks of syrupy pethas arranged in the Pancchi shop look very mouth-watering. The aroma of ilaichi (green cardamom), kesar (saffron) and kewra water (screwpine essence) floats lightly in the air as if trying to balance above the heavy fumes of the sweetness of sugar.

Other petha-selling shops try to match the competition. One is by innovation by finding new flavours such as chocolate, paan, khus, orange, pineapple, coconut, dry fruits and even a sandwich variety, which comprises of two layers of petha with a filling of khoya, cashew and cardamom. Another is by trying to mislead the prospective buyer by imitating the Pancchi brand name. Boards on lamp posts and rickshaws fitted with loudspeakers moving around the city announce the superiority of their pethas. But Pancchi leads.

Bhanwar Petha Bhandar, in the opinion of Agra’s petha-eating public, is the second best. It has never advertised, keeps its prices reasonable, makes just three varieties and has only one shop where its pethas are sold. The flagbearer 100-year-old shop, Bhanwar Petha Bhandar, is located in the Noori Gate area, home to nearly 1,000 cottage units manufacturing pethas.

Bhanwar started with the traditional dry petha and progressed to the kesar and angoori varieties. He earned his reputation by maintaining very high standards in the manufacturing process. After Bhanwar Lal’s death, his son Ranjit Lal took charge. He spared no effort or money to keep the flag flying high.

Then came India’s Partition in 1947. Taking advantage of the exodus to Pakistan, Ranjit shifted from his three-room accommodation in the back lanes of Noori Gate to a just-vacated haveli in the erstwhile Muslim–majority area. It was close to Thomson School which, in the same year, was renamed to Sarojini Naidu Medical College. This was where his wife Nandini delivered their daughter a few years later. They named her Bhanumati, the beautiful princess-wife of Duryodhana.

“According to Indian folklore, Bhanumati was known for her pitara (casket) containing wealth and goods that created happiness and surprises. It was known as Bhanumati ka pitara. Our 20th century Bhanumati will bring good fortune to our family,” a proud Ranjit would tell his workers. Gradually the 40-room haveli started filling up with relatives of Ranjit and Nandini. They helped the family’s petha business grow consistently as well as in further building up its reputation.

Bhanumati had no shortage of cousins, uncles and aunties. Laughter echoed in the corridors and aangan (courtyard) of the haveli from dawn to sunset. Bhanu would lead her sena (army) of cousins through the crowded lanes of Hing ki Mandi, Kinari Bazaar and Nai ki Mandi. They would run around the stray foreigners bargaining over models of miniature Taj Mahals, fancy clothing, Oriental jewellery and other knick-knacks. The children dodged rickshaws, tongas and burkha-covered women as they headed to nowhere in particular.

Bhanu, whenever she got some money from her father, would take her cousins for a treat to Chimmanlal Puriwale, a popular vendor on Daresi Road near Kinari Bazaar where they gorged on yummy plates of puri-sabzi-raita served in a pattal (leaf plate) and a sweet bowl of kheer (rice pudding). Little did she know then that she was destined to enjoy the plates of puris only. Her kismet had not included a shopping spree at Kinari Bazaar among her many achievements. The market offers a wide variety of Indian jewellery, trousseaus and other wedding wear.

Bhanu’s formal education started when her parents enrolled her in an English medium school. As she entered her teens, Bhanu took charge of increasing her knowledge about the family business. She would go to the Noori Gate factory and carefully observe the time-consuming process of preparing pethas in the traditional way as her grandfather had followed. The entire procedure took five days and the results were unmatched.

The procedure started with peeling and chopping of the ash gourd. This was followed by the overnight soaking of pricked ash gourd pieces in chuna (slaked lime) with water, the process of rinsing, the addition of phitkari (powdered alum) and again boiling the pieces in water, cooling down, and again cooking them in water mixed with sugar to give them a white coating.

Addition of kewra, repetition of the rounds of heating, cooking and cooling to allow absorption of the sugar took another 2 to 3 days. Crystallisation left the pieces firm from outside, slightly juicy from inside and very delicious overall. Seeing her determination of not getting trapped in the confines of a woman’s time-honoured role, her aunts would taunt her. “The petha is better than you. At least it is soft under the hard shell, and sweet too. You are hard all over and bitter as well.”

In a fit, Bhanu’s reaction always was: “Then why don’t you pay the rent for living in the haveli for the past ten years. Don’t forget the electricity and water bills as well. Then see how sweet I will become.” She did not take into account their contribution to the family venture.

“Don’t be rude to your elders, beti,” her mother would reprimand her. Bhanu would walk out of the huge wooden carved and metal-studded gates of the haveli in a huff. Her destination was always the Noori Gate factory where her confidante-cum-mentor, the toothless, white-haired Ghulam Ahmed, could always be found.

He had seen her grow up from yesterday’s baby greedily sucking her mother’s breast to the on-the-sly chewer of No. 300 strength tobacco paan (betel leaf) of today. “See Ahmedbaba, the masis and buas (aunties) are all jealous of my independent spirit,” she complained from the side of her mouth before squirting out a spray of red paan juice into the nearby drain. “Just wait till my day comes,” she said derisively and decisively.

Compassion and forgiveness were not part of Bhanu’s characteristics. Her “wait till my day comes” declaration arrived unexpectedly. The following week her parents went on a pilgrimage to faraway Vaishnodevi. The bus they were travelling in on the uphill journey skidded off the road taking the many lives of Ranjit, Nandini and all the other pilgrims. There were hardly any remains in the deep ravine.

Bhanu’s mourning ended on the 10th day after the tragedy. On the morning of the 11th day, she asked her long-staying relatives that if they did not pay her for their extended stay, they better pack their bags. “Give us a month to decide,” was their reply.

Three weeks later, while the haveli corridors echoed with the “gutur-goo” calls, the resident white-feathered pigeons had a haunted look about them. Bhanu’s relatives had departed or, so she wished, had turned into abominable spirits. She promptly recruited staff to fill up the vacant positions.

“I am soooo happy,” Bhanu informed the pigeons indoors and the squirrels outside the haveli busy nibbling raw green guavas hanging onto the branches of the guava trees. Her voice echoed so she repeated herself till she choked. She promptly walked down to her factory. On the way, she remembered a lesson Ahmedbaba had taught her.

During her schooldays, Bhanu recalled Ahmedbaba telling her that apart from the Taj Mahal, there were many other places to see in Agra. There was Sheesh Mahal Palace of Mirrors near Agra Fort, Ram Bagh, a few mausoleums and masjids. When one resides in a city permanently and is used to the daily sights and sounds, then the novelty of history fails to register. But Bhanu never could forget the uniqueness of one historic place.

In a bass tone, Ahmedbaba would start with the introduction. “Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of Emperor Akbar’s empire for 14 years,” he was very fond of repeating to Bhanu when she used to return from school and sneak into the shop to make off with a piece of petha when she thought no one was looking.

Then, to hold her attention, he would dramatically move his hands to illustrate his narrative. “The sight of the Buland Darwaza at the entrance to the courtyard of Jama Masjid and the tomb of Salim Chishti is mesmerizing.” Ahmedbaba always lowered his forehead and kissed his fingertips when he took the Sufi saint’s name.

The finale: the purpose of his narration. Looking into her eyes and in a singsong voice, he would intone: “The gateway of Fatehpur Sikri’s Buland Darwaza has an inscription in pharsee which reads: ‘Isa (Jesus), son of Mary said: ‘The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for Eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.’ So bitiya (daughter), remember this lesson. It is very valuable and Allah will be pleased.”

As she wondered about the meaning of the advice of Jesus to his followers, she reached the factory. “Ahmedbaba, salaam and shukriya (thanks) for taking care of the work as I could not leave the house.” Then in a whisper “Let’s have a paan together. Haan, and I want to meet that launda (youth) who got married recently and still has not found a place in Agra to bring his begum (wife) from her sasural (in-laws’ place).”

“Arre, here he is. Arre Anwarbhai, now there is lots of place in the haveli. If you are willing to pay a token sum as rent then why don’t you bring your begum over from the village and shift to the haveli this Friday?”

“Bhanuji you are so generous. My Noorjanu will be very blessed to be so close to you and be of some help,” was Anwar’s quick response accompanied by a dignified bow and an “aadaab.”

A week later, Anwar and Noor moved into one of the ground floor halls of the haveli. Pink-lipped, a fair complexion, slender figure, long hair and soft blue eyes, Noor was unable to hide her happiness as she stood in the indoor central courtyard with a verandah surrounding the living area. She threw her arms up in the air, spun around on her heels and embraced Bhanu till her excitement subsided.

The intricately-carved white-green-peacock blue painted stone jalis (latticed screens) bordering the verandah gave the rooms seclusion without depriving them of daylight. The high ceiling of the hall that the newly-weds were allotted gave the interiors a cool appearance. The floor was carpeted with white highly polished marble tiles and their four battered black tin trunks and one olive green dog-eared holdall looked out of place in this regal backdrop as did a large fan suspended from the ceiling.

“The fan is a recent addition. I got it installed three days ago just for you,” Bhanu informed them. “The light from the street lamps outside will shine through the massive windows and roshandans (skylights). So you better get used to sleeping in the roshni (light). Or just imagine it to be moonlight,” she joked.

“My drawing room is right above this hall. So don’t worry, I will not be disturbed,” said Bhanu, giving a quick wink to Noor. “If you people have any questions or need anything, just call out to me. Sound travels very well in this empty haveli,” she enlightened them with a laugh.

“You can roam around the entire ground floor and select which kitchen or toilet to use. There are plenty of choices. The water and electricity supply is not a problem. And don’t feel shy,” she added before heading for the wide arch-shaped stairs leading to the first floor. Then, as she went up the stairs slowly, she suggested: “It would be best if you sleep directly under the fan. It will take some time for the haveli’s musty smell to go.”

For the next one week, while Noor gained familiarity with the spacious haveli and the neighbourhood, Bhanu arranged for their meals to be sent from the nearby Zaki Restaurant and told her dhoodwala (milk supplier) to provide them with milk every morning. Anwar told Ahmedbhai of Bhanuji’s generous nature.

Ahmedbhai heard his bitiya’s praise and tears welled up in his eyes. He raised both his palms skywards and silently chanted his favourite Persian axiom: “The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it.” Rubbing his face with his rough, calloused palms, he thought: “Bitiya, you are great.”

That evening Anwar presented Bhanuji with a kulhar (earthen pot) of freshly made rasgullas as a ‘thank you’ gift. He needn’t have, Bhanu thought with a crafty smile. As the night progressed and silence reigned over the haveli, she switched off her bedroom’s chandelier and tiptoed to her drawing room. Rolling up the thick carpet from one side, she stopped at the point where the fan was positioned in the room below.

Patting down the carpet and lifting up the heavy tile above the fan, she lay down on her stomach, chin resting on her knuckles on top of the upraised rolled-up part. In a comfortable position, she had a clear view of the central portion of the room below. The bed of the newlyweds was visible from the space all around the fan’s cup attached to the 20-foot-high ceiling. Right below, she clearly saw Noor folding the bedcover and Anwar fluffing up the pillows.

Bhanu knew she did not have to wait for long. She had been observing the newlyweds every night for the past one week, all the way from the start to the finish. They kept the hall lights on and had not disappointed her even once as the Bhanumati ka pitara unwound and rocked in the hall below her. After all, she thought: “He who hopes for a day, may hope for Eternity; but the world endures but an hour.” She could wait for that long.

Waah, Ahmedbhai. Waah Buland Darwaza,” she muttered, moving her wet lips in silent prayer to the enterprising voyeuristic nightly entertainment. “Kya kamala ki cheez hai tuu,” she patted herself, feeling her body turning as soft as a petha. It was time well spent, she contented, as she could “Spend it in prayer for the rest is unseen.”

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