The Beggars' Lunch

by Fr. Nascimento Mascarenhas

A wedding in a Goan village is an elaborate affair and everyone looks forward to these happy occasions. But none more so than those classified as “poor”. For, a couple of days before the wedding, preferably on a Tuesday, these otherwise unfortunate folk are treated to a lavish feast-known as Bikareanchem Jevonn or Beggars’ Lunch. This traditional Goa wedding custom persists even till today.

Although it is usually held before weddings, at the time of my ordination as a priest, my family too had a bikareanchem jevonn at our house in Saligao. As ezman (host or presider) it was my duty to serve the “beggars” and I remember the occasion quite fondly.

For the beggars’ lunch, seven or nine persons (always an odd number) are invited from among the poor of the village, although there are as such no objective criteria to determine who can be classified as poor.

The beggars’ lunch meal is a sumptuous banquet, with delicious preparations of pork, beef, fish, rice and a curry of a special type called samarachi koddi -- a heavily spiced aromatic concoction that is often quite pungent as well. Of course the dishes would vary depending on which faith the hosts follow, but invariably, the meal is washed down with ample quantities of the local brew — cashew or palm feni.

The special guests at the beggars’ lunch sit on a large souiem (bamboo mat) and a special potraouli (plate made of jackfruit tree leaves woven together with vir or sticks from coconut tree leaves) is placed before each one of them. Then the presiding bride or groom ladles out the food onto these plates as many times as required.

The bikareanchem jevonn has special significance among Christians and the intention behind the ceremony is to remember and pray for the dead ancestors of the family. Special masses for the souls of the departed are also offered in the village church on this important occasion. Generally the “beggars” are selected carefully, to correspond in sex and age to recently departed members of the family at the respective times of their death. Thus through the “beggars” at the lunch, the departed forebears of the family make their presence felt.

In the Hindu community, the beggars’ lunch ceremony, known as devkarem, is not intended as a remembrance of the ancestors of the family. During the devkarem, a married woman will serve the meal to the bride-to-be in the form of sivrak (essentially vegetarian preparations) and ghodxem (a semi-solid sweet dish), while also putting into her lap two coconuts and a sari. A puja (prayer ritual) is also performed before the family deity.

Muslims have a similar ceremony to the Christians, with similar intentions, except that it is held at night. This ceremony is also known as devkarem.

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