The onset of monsoons marks the season to eat hilsa, and Bengalis rejoice over shared meals prepared with the ‘queen of fish’ from head to tail so says my friend, who hails from Durgapur. The indigenous variety of herring, which is easily every Bengali’s favourite fish, is in the news after the Bangladesh government announced it has permitted traders to sell nearly 4,000 metric tonnes of hilsa to India ahead of the festive Durga Puja season, officials said.
Hilsa plays a very important role in Bengali culture. In the past, it was customary for families of grooms to present hilsa wrapped in a red sari to the bride’s family. Bengalis consider fish to be very auspicious and lucky. During Jamai Shoshti, celebrated in May or June, mothers-in-law buy hilsa at exorbitant prices and playfully bully their sons-in-law into feasting.
Hilsa plays an important part during Saraswati puja too, when the Hindu goddess of learning is worshipped, pairs of the fish are presented to the deity as a sacred offering.
Hilsa also often features as a centrepiece in festivities like Poila Boishakh (Bengali New Year) and Durga Puja. Hilsa is quite literally considered a symbol of wealth too, as it is more expensive. So, serving one’s wedding guests would mean you’re making quite a statement.
Now Bangladesh’s decision to allow trade of 4,000 metric tonnes of hilsa has historic significance too. Bangladesh was once part of Bengal under undivided India. The partition separated the Hindu-majority West Bengal from East Bengal, which later became Bangladesh. This also displaced several families– a lot of Hindus were forced to migrate to West Bengal, while a lot of Muslims migrated to East Bengal.
Families divided by the border to this date argue, which side possesses the better-tasting hilsa. Is the one caught from the Padma river in Bangladesh better tasting or possess a better texture than one caught from the Ganga in West Bengal?
Where most brahmins in other communities shun away from meat or fish, Bengali brahmins gladly devour fish and meat. So, it isn’t surprising that any kind of fish, especially hilsa plays an important role in one the most significant festivals of Bengalis, Durga Puja. Hilsa is prepared in a variety of ways from jhol (simple curry) to pulao and bhapa ilish or the steamed variety.
The cultural significance of the fish extends to literature, art and folklore– renowned Bengali poets and writers, such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das, have penned verses dedicated to hilsa.