Pandals will print out their bhog timings and queues, metres long, will build up as service begins. For many, it's the part not to miss, especially if you are away from home or living outside of West Bengal. For the bhog is quintessentially vegetarian home-style food but one cooked without onion and garlic for the festival. The higher the budget of the pandal, the more variety in the dishes, but the following are most common.
Bengalis reserve a special place for khichudi which is the main dish of bhog and is made with moong dal and atop chal, a fine variety of rice. It is accompanied with vegetable fries, labra (assorted vegetables), tomato chutney and, if it's asthami, payesh (kheer).
This is a sample of the more elaborate meal that would have been served to Ma Durga earlier and one whose menu changes through saptami, ashthami and navami. Any Bengali will verify that pujo-er bhog simply tastes different even though it's made of things that make an everyday meal. And after a long wait in the line, to sit down for a hot, simple yet uniquely tasty meal is a thing of joy.
Amitava Baksy, who runs the theatre troupe ENAD in Bangalore, has precious memories of bhog.
"The skill is in retaining flavour even as you cook in bulk. When I was a student at the Ramakrishna Mission School in Asansol, bhog was a huge affair. In class ten, I was made in-charge of bhog. I remember getting up at 3.30 am to check if all ingredients needed for the day were in. We fed 5,000 people, so you can imagine the scale of work that was required. By the end of the five days of puja, I would be suffering from pain all over the body but it didn't matter because being part of it all was such a high," he says.
Bhog is a great social opportunity too. While a closed group of usually women cook the bhog, with preparations starting early in the day, it's volunteering to serve bhog that draws the young and the old from the community.
(Inputs from Aparna Chandra and Saloni Mital)