“I think the best memories I have are from the times when I would see all the women cook together”, my aunt said. And the story she told me is how I came to know about Sanjha Chullah.
Sanjha Chullah is the age-old tradition, in Punjab, of setting up communal ‘tandoor’ or oven that families could make their food in. It was a practice originally started by the Sikh spiritual teacher Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the Punjabi villages of Pakistan to provide relief to the poor, as not everyone could afford an oven to make their bread. A communal oven was made available where the women would come with ‘atta’ or kneaded flour to make their bread. For the Sikh communities, who first developed these communal values around food, this was an expression of the equality and oneness of all humankind, and a strong rejection of the evils of the caste system that prohibited people from lower castes from eating with those of a higher caste.
The Sanjha Chullah tradition has been a part of my family’s history too, living as they were in Pakistan before partition. And when they had to leave everything behind, it was one of the traditions they brought with them as a part of their culture to their new home in Haryana. Two decades later, in the 70s, my aunt, Priyanka Gupta, got to witness this as a child.
“The community cooking days were really exciting. We’d all gather around the tandoor. You would have such a variety in food. One day you could have someone bringing khambeera atta (sourdough) or another person with methi atta (flour flavored with fenugreek). They would all make delicious naans and we got to sample them all.”
Since families were big and everyone lived jointly, community was definitely a big part of their daily reality. Speaking about the earliest living space she remembers living in, my aunt says, “We were living jointly with four other families, all related to us. Each family inhabited a private room, and shared a large courtyard space called a ‘Veda’. The courtyard is where the kids played all day and women spent their time doing things together. It is where our lives intersected”. The men would be away at work, working at their modern professions and the women would be at home, correcting the chaos of the household, raising multiple kids along with handling matters of cuisine and consumption. Food was the thing that brought all of them together. Different aspects related to it like procuring food, cooking food, preserving food and finally eating food were all transformed when done as a group. The kitchen was always active because there were so many people to feed. At any given meal, food was being prepared for 8-10 people easily. There were so many tasks involved in the cooking, that it was difficult for one person to do it alone. So, many women did it together and a sisterhood came into being that supported each other in these duties.
“The gift of community is that you can do things without them becoming a chore. When there were power cuts at the house, the women would gather under the Peepal tree on the street where the breeze would bring them some relief. They would spend the afternoon prepping the fresh produce that the grocer had brought in that day. I can almost see them again, unpeeling branches of Chholiya (the Urdu word for green chickpeas) while discussing the daily rounds of life.”
How Was Food Procured?
If we talk about the procurement of food, it was common to purchase large quantities of food from the market keeping the community in mind. You can say it’s from this practice that the kids game ‘Atta Bori’ may have originated. ‘Atta Bori’ translates to a sack of flour. In the game, you give a piggyback ride to someone, the way a person might carry a sack of flour at the market. Non-perishable goods like oil, lentils and flour could be stored, but perishable items like fruits and vegetables would need some quick processing. So, a lot of the activities the women undertook together depended on the season and the produce coming in. There were times during the year when the market would be flooded with a certain fruit or vegetable, and they would accordingly find a way to make the most of it. “Like making mango pickle!”, my aunt chimes in, “Every North-Indian loves their ‘Aam Ka Aachaar’. And in the summer, we would help our mothers make different kinds of pickles using the traditional recipes.”They would similarly make time to make homemade tomato ketchup when tomato season arrived, or the Shikanji, a traditional Punjabi lemonade when lemons were abundant. The values around food were quite different from today. In those days, it was preferred that everything be made at home. The time and effort that went into making all the food for the family was enough to imprint everything with love. It is no surprise that if you ever go to a North Indian household, the first thing they would do is feed you. Food is, after all, their love made visible.
Life After Growing Up
A person’s childhood remains with them for the rest of their days, and it is no surprise that my aunt carries these lessons of community living and eating in her present life as a mother and businesswoman. She lives away from the familiar streets of Faridabad, and currently resides in Nevada, USA, with her husband and two children.
“It has definitely shaped how I think about food. Since I grew up with it, I know the importance of good homemade food. Though we have busy lives and we are surrounded by different approaches to food in US, cooking is still a big part of our lives. Making food and eating food is far from a purely functional activity in the household. It is a time for the family and a time for togetherness. With the kids, who are 10 and 12, I’ve tried consciously to turn food preparation into an engaging activity, the way they would experience things at a hobby class. This way they learn a lot about cuisines, ingredients, cooking processes. They also understand how to share responsibility. If they’re not helping with the making of food, they lend a hand in cleaning up. I’ve discovered that when we’re all eating together, we tend to eat healthy. “
“Having experienced a vibrant community back home, we have also tried to create our little community here. We participate in a potluck, where Indian families, who are all dear friends, come together once a month. It’s really enjoyable. People cook various dishes belonging to diverse Indian traditions and it is a real celebration of food.” In this way, the spirit of Sanjha Chullah travels lands, times and generations where it continues to helping people connect to their food and to each other.
Text by Nayanika Bhatia
Illustrations by Uma Goyal (email@example.com)