One usually associates Navratra fasts with a test of will and a bland, sparse platter that's supposed to cleanse the body of toxins. But come to Agra and indulge in the fasting treats of paneer ki jalebi and malai ki poori that are finger-licking good.
"No more bland kuttu ke aatey ki pakoris and singhare ke aatey ka halwa for me," said Sudhir Gupta after feasting on a special 'upvas thali' for Rs.200 at Bikanerwala as he hurried to office.
Many office-goers like Gupta are discovering the virtues of the halvais in Agra who are making special preparations for the Navratras -- the nine-day religious festival.
Kuttu, a bean collected from the wild, ground into flour to make pakoris or pooris has normally been the staple food of the 'upvasis'.
For sweets, people conventionally go for 'khoye ki barfi' or 'singhare ke aatey ka halwa' while some even go for 'aloo (potato) ka halwa'.
"But now the scenario has drastically changed," says Bankey Lal Maheshwari, a shop-owner at Johri Bazar.
"The Navratris are now a festival time and we have ample varieties of fruits and juices to make the mood merry. One needs lots of energy to keep awake late nights for the bhajans or dancing to dandia beats," Maheshwari told IANS.
Potato chips have replaced packaged chips at some local halwai shops.
"Fruits, boiled potatoes fried with a dash of 'senda namak' and lime juice no longer satisfy the grown-ups and the kids at home; so we have to come up with new ideas that would motivate everyone to keep the fast," admits Renuka Bansal, a housewife.
Meera, a schoolteacher, says: "Earlier people used to eat only once, but now they keep eating the whole day. More so, they want something different every time."
But those of the old-school order who are sticklers for untouched purity, continue to live on plain water and fruits. "But their number is dwindling," comments Tulika Aryashri, who runs a coaching institute.
Speaking to IANS, Siddharth Mishra, a homeopath, said: "Fast and feasting go together. We celebrate all events, including death. Eating is crucial to celebrations. So I am not surprised if the Navratri fasts are changing into some kind of festivity. Having said that, a fast is generally meant to reduce caloric intake, to cleanse the system of toxins and train or control the mind."
Surendra Sharma, owner of Goverdhan hotel, says: "In our days, elders lived on just bananas and plain water. Of course they just relaxed at home and hardly ventured out as people today have to."
"These days everyone is fasting, many doing more out of fun than with any serious intent to turn spiritual or religious," he added.
At the Bhagat Halwai, the special Upvas thali costs Rs.160. At Suresh Plaza, another outlet is offering one for Rs.100.
"At kitty parties, the new status symbol is 'upvas thali' and the lavish offerings of delicacies like paneer ki jalebi, arbi ki imerti, malai ki poori, kuttu ki sohan papdi," says socialite Padmini.
Anand of Bhagat Halwai says "we have special upvas items like sama ke chawal ki kheer, saboo dane ki khichdi, various kinds of paags, falahari gulab jamuns, kuttu ke aatey ki pakodis, fruit and cream salads and juices."
Shishir at the Suresh Plaza outlet, which sells a special thali for Rs.100, says there's a big demand from office-goers. "They prefer to get it packed for offices."
The delicacies are usually prepared in desi ghee and therefore not cheap. Paneer ki jalebi costs Rs.300 a kilo while the special dry fruit paag is charged Rs.600. Kuttu ke pakode is priced at Rs.260.
But many purists see it as "degeneration of values and perspectives".
Agra's leading activist and gynaecologist Shivani Chaturvedi said: "Outsourcing of food on festivals and special vrats (fasts) was never acceptable in our society. Now it's all commercialised. Our children would never know what is cooked and how.
"These nine days of fasts were observed twice a year -- in the beginning of summer after Holi and before winter, to cleanse the body and prepare for the new season."