This article is about the syrup derived from the Bengali date palm tree, Phoenix sylvestris , which is processed for use as a sweetener. This sweetener, called khejur gur , is an important item in Bengali gastronomy because of its distinctive aroma and flavor. References to the use of khejur gur and the date palm tree can be found in ancient Sanskrit texts. The trees are tapped in winter, between December and February, a process that requires considerable expertise. The harvested syrup (collected in clay pots suspended from notches cut in the trunk) is boiled down to achieve different consistencies ranging from liquid to solid. Most Bengali confectioners substitute khejur gur for cane sugar in making sweets during the winter months. The undying popularity of khejur gur has also given it a notable presence in the literature and culture of the Bengal region, including the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh.
This article is an analysis of the varied ways in which the meal has been used as a tool for appeasement and propitiation in Bengali Hindu society from ancient times. Bengal is a region that is naturally fertile and yet is often subjected to the fearsome destruction of floods and cyclones. The uncertainty of life has always been palpable here. The numerous rivers that make the region a delta also made Bengal the last hinterland of Aryan exploration and settlement in ancient times. Pre-Aryan inhabitants, whom historians describe as proto-Australoid, subscribed to animistic beliefs, which blurred the line between this world and the next. Their funerary practices involved serving food to supernatural creatures who inhabited the earth. In such a region, the imposition of the Hindu caste system, which attributed preeminence to the Brahmins and the males, further increased the sense of vulnerability on the part of a large section of the population'women and members of the lower castes. Mythic notions of food as something with which to appease a dangerous creature eventually translated into the social custom of serving carefully prepared meals to gods, Brahmins, males and other beings with power and superiority. The article presents examples from mythology, religious texts, literature and even film, to illustrate this custom. Widows were particularly vulnerable in Bengali Hindu society. They were not allowed to remarry and also blamed for the death of their husbands. The rituals and deprivations of a widow's life provide the most poignant instances of appeasement through food. One of the best-known rituals of propitiation is the Bengali feast of Jamaishashthi, when the son-in-law is invited by his wife's family and served an elaborate multi-course meal. He is also given expensive gifts. The purpose of the ritual was to ensure that he treats his wife well and protects her from being treated too abusively by his mother and sisters. The practice has survived in modern times even though it has lost much of its potent significance.