Jan 142020

Today is Maghi (or some variant), in many parts of the Indian subcontinent and SE Asia. It is an annual festival on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar, when the sun enters the sign of Makara or Capricorn. The eve of Maghi is called Lohri (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/lohri/ ). It is one of the seasonal gatherings of the Sikhs, and is celebrated at Muktsar in the memory of forty Sikh martyrs (Chalis Mukte), who once deserted the tenth and last human Guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur Sahib, but later rejoined the Guru and died while fighting the Mughal Empire army led by Wazir Khan in 1705. Sikhs make a pilgrimage to the site of this Sikh-Muslim war, and take a dip in the sacred water tanks of Muktsar. A fair (mela) called the Mela Maghi is held at Muktsar Sahib every year in memory of the forty Sikh martyrs. Before this tradition started to commemorate the Sikh martyrs, the festival was observed and mentioned by Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of Sikhism.

Makar Sankranti (or Pongal) is celebrated on this date in other parts of the Indian subcontinent by Hindus, always on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar. Hindus bathe in the Ganges or if that is not possible, in some other river, rivulet, canal or pond.

Maghi is celebrated by eating kheer such as roh di kheer which is an old dish in which rice is cooked in sugarcane juice. The dish is prepared in the evening before Maghi and is kept overnight to cool. It is served cold next morning on Maghi with red-pepper mixed curd. In some parts of Punjab, it is also traditional to eat kichdi (rice and moong beans) mixed with lentils, or raw sugarcane and jaggery.

Here’s a great video on preparing roh di kheer in a traditional Punjabi kitchen:

Jan 132020

Today is the festival of Lohri, celebrated by Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. It is observed the night before Makar Sankranti, also known as Maghi, which according to the solar part of the lunisolar Bikrami calendar typically falls on this date every year.  Historically, the festival has been both a winter crop season celebration, and a remembrance of the Sun deity (Surya). Lohri songs mention Surya, asking for heat and thanking him for his return. Other legends explain the celebration as a folk reverence for fire (Agni) or the goddess of Lohri.

Other Punjabi folklore links Lohri to the tale of Dulla Bhatti. The central theme of many Lohri songs is the legend of Dulla Bhatti who lived in Punjab during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar. He was regarded as a hero in Punjab, for rescuing Hindu girls from being forcibly taken to be sold in slave market of the Middle East. Amongst those he saved were two girls Sundri & Mundri, who gradually became a theme of Punjabi folklore. As a part of Lohri celebrations, children go around homes singing the traditional folk songs of Lohri with “Dulla Bhatti” name included. One person sings, while others end each line with a loud “Ho!” sung in unison. After the song ends, the adult of the home is expected to give snacks and money to the singing troupe of youngsters.

Lohri is celebrated with a bonfire. The lighting of bonfire during this winter festival is a longstanding tradition, as is true of midwinter festivals throughout the northern hemisphere.

In Punjab, the harvest festival Lohri is marked by eating sheaves of roasted corn from the new harvest. The January sugarcane harvest is also celebrated in the Lohri festival. Sugarcane products such as gurh (solidified and unrefined sugarcane juice) and gachak (recipe below) are central to Lohri celebrations, as are nuts which are harvested in January. The other important food item of Lohri is the radish which can be harvested between October and January. Mustard greens are cultivated mainly in the winter months because the crop is suitable to the agro-climatic conditions. Accordingly, mustard greens are also a winter produce. It is traditional to eat gajak, sarson da saag with makki di roti, radish, ground nuts and jaggery.  Jaggery is a solid brown sugar product made from cane sugar and toddy palm juice. It is also traditional to eat “til rice” which is made by mixing jaggery, sesame seeds and rice. In some places, this dish is called ‘tricholi.’

In various places in the Punjab, about 10 to 15 days before Lohri, groups of young and teenage boys and girls go around the neighborhood collecting logs for the Lohri bonfire. In some places, they also collect items such as grains and jaggery which are sold and the sale proceeds are divided amongst the group.

A popular activity engaged in by boys is to select a group member to smear his face with ash and tie a rope around his waist. The idea is for the selected person to act as a deterrent for people who refrain from giving Lohri items. The boys will sing Lohri songs asking for Lohri items. If not enough is given, the householder will be given an ultimatum to either give more or the rope will be loosened. If not enough is given, then the boy who has his face smeared will try to enter the house and smash clay pots or the clay stove.

During the day, children go from door to door singing traditional songs. These children are given sweets and savories, and occasionally, money. Turning them back empty-handed is regarded inauspicious. Where families are welcoming newly-weds and newborns, the requests for treats increases. The collections gathered by the children are known as Lohri and consist of til, gachak, crystal sugar, gur (jaggery), moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Lohri is then distributed at night during the festival. Till, peanuts, popcorn and other food items are also thrown into the fire. For some, throwing food into the fire represents the burning of the old year and start the next year on Makar Sankranti

The bonfire ceremony differs depending on the location in Punjab. In some parts, a small image of the folk Lohri goddess is made with gobar (cattle dung) which is then decorated. A fire is lit beneath it and people chant its praises. In other parts, the Lohri fire consists of cow dung and wood with no reference to the Lohri goddess.

The bonfire is lit at sunset in the main village square. People toss sesame seeds, gur, and sugar-candy on the bonfire, sit around it, sing and dance till the fire dies out. Some people perform a prayer while they circle fire. It is traditional to offer guests til, gachchak, gur, moongphali (peanuts) and phuliya or popcorn. Milk and water mix is also poured around the bonfire by Hindus to thank the Sun God and seeking his continued protection.

Here’s a recipe for gachak.  It’s not in English, but you’ll figure it out.

Mar 232019

Today is a feast day in the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community or the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at ( احمدیہ مسلم جماعت‎) an Islamic revival or messianic movement founded in Punjab, British India, on this date in 1889. It originated with the life and teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835–1908), who claimed to have been divinely appointed as both the promised Mahdi (Guided One) and Messiah expected by Muslims to appear towards the end times and bring about, by peaceful means, the final triumph of Islam, as well as to embody, in this capacity, the expected eschatological figure of other major religious traditions. Adherents of the Ahmadiyya—a term adopted expressly in reference to Muhammad’s alternative name Aḥmad—are known as Ahmadi Muslims or simply Ahmadis.

Ahmadi thought emphasizes the belief that Islam is the final dispensation for humanity as revealed to Muhammad and the necessity of restoring it to its true intent and pristine form, which had been lost through the centuries. Its adherents consider Ahmad to have appeared as the Mahdi—bearing the qualities of Jesus in accordance with their reading of scriptural prophecies—to revitalize Islam and set in motion its moral system that would bring about lasting peace. They believe that upon divine guidance he purged Islam of foreign accretions in belief and practice by championing what is, in their view, Islam’s original precepts as practiced by Muhammad and the early Muslim community. Ahmadis thus view themselves as leading the propagation and renaissance of Islam.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad established the movement on 23rd March 1889 by formally accepting allegiance from his supporters. Since his death, the Community has been led by a number of Caliphs and has spread to 210 countries and territories of the world, with concentrations in South Asia, West Africa, East Africa, and Indonesia. The Ahmadis have a strong missionary tradition and formed the first Muslim missionary organization to arrive in Britain and other Western countries. Currently, the Community is led by its Caliph, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, and is estimated to number between 10 and 20 million worldwide.

The Community is now entirely contained in a single, highly organized and united movement, but in the early history of the Community, a number of Ahmadis broke away over the nature of Ahmad’s prophetic status and succession and formed the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement for the Propagation of Islam, which today represents a small fraction of all Ahmadis. Some Ahmadiyya-specific beliefs have been thought of as opposed to current conceptions of Islamic orthodoxy since the movement’s birth, and some Ahmadis have subsequently faced persecution. Many Muslims consider Ahmadi Muslims as either kafirs or heretics.

I’ll leave you to explore Ahmadiyya on you own, if you are interested. At the very least, if you are unaware of the history of Islam, this post should help you see that the religion is divided into sects (much like Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism), so that trying to understand Muslims as a whole is a serious mistake. Meanwhile, let’s talk about Punjabi cuisine. Outside India, Punjabi cooking may be best known for the tandoor, a clay oven sunk in the ground and fired to high temperatures. Generic Indian restaurants in the West make breads baked in the tandoor, such as naan, tandoori roti, kulcha, or lachha paratha, and tandoori chicken is an enduring favorite. However, the Punjab is also noted for its buttery dishes and butter chicken is probably the best known. You may find it hard to get some of the ingredients, but they can mostly be found online if you do not have an Indian grocery nearby. The amount of butter is cook’s choice.  My amounts are just guidelines. The chicken is normally cut into serving pieces with bone in.

Butter Chicken


400 gm raw chicken, cut in pieces

First marinade:

2 tsp red chilli powder
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
2 tsp salt
2 tsp lemon juice

Second marinade

½ tsp garam masala
1 tsp kasuri methi
2 tsp mustard oil


2 tsp vegetable oil
3 gm cloves
1 cinnamon stick, crumbled
1 tsp powdered mace
7 whole cardamom pods
4 tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp ginger powder
1 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 ½ tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp kasuri methi
2 tsp honey
1 green chile, chopped
2 tsp cardamom powder
1 tbsp heavy cream plus extra


Put the chicken in a bowl with the ingredients for the first marinade and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile grind together the ingredients for the second marinade. Add this to the chicken, mix well again and refrigerate for an hour.

Preheat the oven to the hottest temperature you can.

Spread the marinated chicken on a roasting pan and roast for about 30 minutes, or until it is about three-quarters cooked. Meanwhile, make the gravy.

Heat 2 tsp of oil in a pan with 2 ounces of butter. Add the cloves, cinnamon stick, mace and cardamom. Sauté until the spices emit their fragrance and then add the chopped tomatoes, garlic and ginger. Mix well and cooked for 15 minutes. Then grind the mix to a paste in a food processor or blender.

In another pan, heat another 2 ounces of butter, along with ginger-garlic paste. Add the tomato puree made from the mixture. Now add red chilli powder, kasuri methi, honey and the roasted chicken pieces. Bring to a simmer and cook for several minutes. Add the green chile, cardamom powder and cream. Mix well and simmer for an extra few minutes. Serve in a bowl with a little extra cream drizzled in. Serve with basmati rice and flat bread.

Jun 162016


On this date, devout Sikhs honor the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, fifth of the ten Sikh gurus. His actual date of death is not known, but this is the conventional date of memorial in the Sikh calendar. It’s not a big festival day, but it is an important memorial because of the importance of Guru Arjan in the development of Sikhism, particularly as a martyr. His death spawned the militant branch of Sikhism that has persisted for centuries, spurring endless violence between Sikhs and Muslims, as well as with other sects. Let me state this emphatically at the outset. Violence in the name of religion is wrong – period. Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, you name it, are all religions that are fundamentally opposed to violence, yet numerous followers use their “faith” to conduct holy wars or acts of terrorism. This is just plain wrong, and is nothing more than using religion as a cover for their own brands of bigotry and hatred.

Guru Arjan (sometimes spelled Arjun) was born in Goindval, Punjab, the youngest son of Guru Ram Das and Mata Bhani, the daughter of Guru Amar Das. Guru Arjan was the Guru of Sikhism for a quarter of a century. He completed the construction of Amritsar and founded other cities, such as Taran Taran and Kartarpur. The greatest contribution Guru Arjan made to the Sikh faith was to compile all of the past Gurus’ writings, along with selected writings of other saints from different backgrounds which he considered consistent with the teachings of Sikhism into one book, now the holy scripture: the Guru Granth Sahib. It is, perhaps, the only Sikh scripture which still exists in the form first published (a hand-written manuscript) by the Guru.


Guru Arjan introduced the Masands, a group of representatives who taught and spread the teachings of the Gurus and received the Dasvand, a voluntary offering of a Sikh’s income in money, goods or service. Sikhs paid the Dasvand to support the building of gurdwaras and langars (shared communal kitchens). Although the introduction of the langar was started by Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan is credited with laying the foundation of the systematic institution of langars as a religious duty, one that has continued ever since.

Guru Arjan was arrested under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and ordered to convert to Islam. He refused, was tortured and executed in 1606 CE. Historical records and the Sikh tradition are unclear whether Guru Arjan was executed by drowning or died during torture. His martyrdom is considered a watershed event in the history of Sikhism.


Sikhism is not especially well understood in the West although it is easy to spot a Sikh male by his beard and turban. Sikhism ( ਸਿੱਖੀ Sikkhi), is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region of South Asia during the 15th century. The fundamental beliefs of Sikhism, articulated in the Guru Granth Sahib, include faith and meditation on the name of the one creator, unity and equality of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct and livelihood while living a householder’s life (marriage is an important obligation). Although one of the youngest amongst the major world religions, with over 25 million adherents worldwide, Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world.


Sikhism is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru, and the ten successive Sikh gurus. After the death of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, became the general spiritual guide for Sikhs. Sikhism emphasizes simran (meditation on the words of the Guru Granth Sahib), that can be expressed musically through kirtan or internally through Nam Japo as a means to feel God’s presence, and to have control over the “Five Thieves” (lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit). Secular life is considered to be intertwined with the spiritual life. Guru Nanak taught that living an “active, creative, and practical life” of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity” is above  metaphysical truth, and that the ideal disciple (i.e. sikh) is one who “establishes union with God, knows the Will of God, and carries out that Will.” Sikhs established the system of the langar, or communal kitchen, in order to demonstrate the need to share and have equality between all people. Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, established that the political/temporal (Miri) and the spiritual (Piri) realms should be mutually coexistent.

Sikhs also reject claims that any particular religious tradition has a monopoly on Absolute Truth. The development of Sikhism was influenced by the Bhakti movement, which developed out of the Vedic tradition of Hinduism. However, Sikhism was not simply an extension of the Bhakti movement, but a radical change in direction – rejecting polytheism, for example. Sikhism developed while the Punjab region was being ruled by the Mughal Empire. Both Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur, after they refused to convert to Islam, were tortured and executed by the Mughal rulers. The Islamic era persecution of Sikhs triggered the founding of the Khalsa, as a militant order to defend freedom of conscience and religion. A Sikh is expected to embody the qualities of a “Sant-Sipāhī” – a saint-soldier.

God in Sikhism is known as Ik Onkar, the One Supreme Reality. or the all-pervading spirit (which is taken to mean God). This spirit has no gender in Sikhism, though translations may present it as masculine. It is also Akaal Purkh (beyond time and space) and Nirankar (without form). In addition, Guru Nanak wrote that there are many worlds on which Ik Onkar has created life.


Guru Nanak further states that the understanding of Akaal is beyond human beings, but at the same time not wholly unknowable. Akaal is omnipresent (sarav viāpak) in all creation and visible everywhere to the spiritually awakened. Guru Nanak stressed that Ik Onkar must be seen with “the inward eye”, or the “heart”, of a human being: devotees must meditate to progress towards enlightenment of “higher” life. Guru Nanak emphasized revelation through meditation, as its rigorous application permits communication between God and human beings.

The Mul Mantar, the opening line of the Guru Granth Sahib and each subsequent raga, invokes Ik Oankar:

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ॥

Transliteration: ikk ōankār sat(i)-nām(u) karatā purakh(u) nirabha’u niravair(u) akāl(a) mūrat(i) ajūnī saibhan gur(a) prasād(i).

There is but one all pervading spirit, and truth is its name! It exists in all creation; it does not fear; it does not hate; it is timeless and universal and self-existent, You will come to know it through seeking knowledge and learning!

In Sikhism, only lacto-vegetarian food is served in the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) but Sikhs are not bound to be meat-free. The consensus is that Sikhs are free to adopt a meat diet or not as they choose. Sikhs, once they become Amritdhari (initiated) via the Amrit Sanskar (initiation ceremony), are forbidden from eating Kutha or ritually-slaughtered (Halal, Kosher)meat because it transgresses one of the four restrictions in the Sikh Code of Conduct. According to the Akal Takht (Central Body for Sikh Temporal Affairs), Sikhs are allowed only to eat Jhatka meat (meat from animals that are slaughtered instantly by a single blow).

Guru Nanak said it was pointless to debate the merits of either not eating or eating meat in the context of religion, as maintaining a strict diet does not make one blessed or elevate one to a superior status over another, spiritually or otherwise. Being a member of a religion incorporates not only one’s dietary customs, but the entire way in which devotees govern their lives. He advocated a life consisting of honest, hard work and humility, focus and remembrance of God, and compassion for all of humanity. These three key principles take precedence over one’s dietary habits.

I tend to agree with one branch of Sikhism which argues that both plants and animals have life, and so it is not rational to separate the one from the other by arguing that eating meat involves taking life whereas eating plants does not. Just because a carrot does not scream when you harvest it does not mean that it is less of a living thing than a cow. Humans eat living things – and they eat us. Such is the nature of life.

Nonetheless I’ll highlight a classic vegetarian Punjabi dish here, aloo gobi. It’s one of my favorites, and has taken me a long time to perfect. It’s a dry spicy dish made with potatoes and cauliflower. For a very thorough account of how to go about cooking it go here: http://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/aloo-gobi-recipe-punjabialoo-gobi/  It takes a lot of practice to get it right. The potatoes and cauliflower have to be cooked properly without boiling. The dish is very spicy, but dry, unlike the more usual heavily sauced curries you find in Indian restaurants that cover the waterfront from Goa, Kerala, Bengal, Madras, Gujarat, etc, but which can be highly generic.

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The principal seasoning of aloo gobi, added towards the end, is garam masala. I usually buy mine readymade, but it can vary considerably in content and quality. The basic ingredients are black peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, cloves, brown cardamom, nutmeg, and green cardamom. If you’re a real purist you can buy these spices whole and grind them together yourself. Ghee (clarified butter) is the preferred cooking oil, but plain vegetable oil is all right, and makes the dish vegan.


Aloo Gobi

1 medium cauliflower (450 g), cut into florets
5 or 6 medium size potatoes (350 g), pealed and sliced in wedges
2 inches ginger peeled and chopped
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp garam masala powder
coriander leaves for garnish
4 tbsp oil or ghee


You need a deep, heavy skillet with a tight fitting lid for a successful dish.

Heat the oil over medium-low heat and add the potatoes and cauliflower. Sauté the vegetables for about 10 minutes, but do not let them take on color. Stir continuously while cooking.

Add the ginger and turmeric and stir thoroughly to make sure that they are evenly distributed. Cover tightly and reduce the heat to low. Cook undisturbed for about 20 minutes. The water in the vegetables will steam them.

Uncover the pot, add the garam masala, turn the heat to medium high. You may need to add a little more oil at this stage if the pan is completely dry. Sauté for a few minutes to release all the flavors from the garam masala, stirring constantly to make sure the vegetables are evenly coated.

Serve with plain boiled basmati rice, chutneys, pickles, and flat bread.