In the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between the act of preparing a meal and the act of ritual worship.
Food, and many delectable varieties of it, form an integral part of the worship of Bhagwan Jagannath. In fact, he is the only deity for who elaborate meals – mind-boggling quantities of them – are prepared and presented six times a day. There is a reason for this: according to the scriptures, the Parabrahman (or the supreme being) in the form of Bhagwan Jagannath does dhyan (meditation) and tapasya (penance) at Badrinath, is worshipped in Rameswaram, reposes in Dwarka, entertains himself in Vrindavan, bathes at Prayag, rules from Ayodhya and eats at Puri.
The process of cooking for Bhagwan Jagannath is as elaborate as the meals themselves. The doors of the large rasoi ghar (kitchen) are opened around 7 am and after cleaning it, a pujari conducts a yagna that takes about 15 minutes. Only after this ritual are the firewood-fed chulhas (ovens) – 240 of them – lit. Outside the rasoi ghar, on stone-paved platforms around it, the preparations for the meals – cutting vegetables (only wax gourd, pumpkin, raw bananas, brinjal, flat beans and yam are served), washing rice and lentils, grating coconuts and grounding the masala (black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and coriander) – are completed by the time the ovens are lit. About 60 to 70 water carriers draw water from two wells – named Ganga and Jamuna – throughout the day in large earthen pots (each pot carries 30 litres of water).
The process of cooking is unique here. The bhog is cooked in huge earthen handis. All the ingredients of a particular dish are put in handis and large dollops of ghee are then ladled on top before the handi is put on the fire. The chulhas are shaped like a big lotus with six openings over which the handis are placed. Three smaller handis are placed between them. “The main chulhas are for cooking the rice preparations. The dal and vegetable dishes are cooked in charcoal pits – each can accommodate six handis – in the rasoi ghar. It takes about 600 supakars, as the Brahmins cooks are called, to prepare each meal,” says Gopinath Suar, a senior cook.
The first bhog of the day is light and is called Gopal Ballav bhog or the rajbhog. “It is usually ghee bhaat (ghee rice), khichdi, arhar dal and pakhala (a mixture of rice, ghee, lemon and salt). This bhog is made in small quantities and is usually not available for devotees. This is followed by the largest bhog of the day called the bhoga mandapa where 56 dishes are served,” said Suar. These range from different rice and dal preparations, including the lip-smacking and the highly nutritious dalma (a famous Odiya dish made of toor or chana dal and vegetables and seasoned with cumin, ginger paste, turmeric and ghee), sweet dishes like khaja, gaja, laddu, Jagannath ballava (made of wheat, sugar and ghee), kheer, and khua manda (a milk, wheat and ghee preparation).
On an average day, 50 quintals of rice, 25 quintals of lentils, 150 quintals of vegetables, 200 tins of ghee (each tin contains 13 kilos), hundreds of litres of milk, a few quintals of sugar and huge quantities of other condiments are used to prepare the bhogs. About five truckloads (one truck brings in about 45 quintals) of firewood are required to cook the offerings to Bhagwan Jagannath and about 1.7 lakh earthen pots and handis of various sizes are required every day. The cooks have to cover their mouths and nostrils with gamochas (piece of cloth) and while transporting the handis with cooked food from the rasoi ghar to the mandir, if any devotee or non-supakar touches the supakar, the entire bhog has to be discarded and cooked afresh.
After offering the food to Bhagwan Jagannath, the prasad is then taken to Ananda Bazar – a courtyard just outside the inner perimeter wall of the mandir premises – where it is sold to waiting devotees. A large part of the prasad is given away to the poor and destitute and many devotees also buy the prasad to distribute it among the poor, who line up outside the mandir and other parts of Puri.
The third offering of the day is madhyanna bhog where, apart from rice and dal preparations, 11 varieties of sweet and salty pancakes, patties and fries are offered. This bhog is usually offered around 3pm to 4pm. There are no fixed timings for any ritual at Jagannath temple. The madhyanna bhog is followed closely by the second bhog mandapa where, again, 56 dishes are offered. Both the madhyanna bhog and the second bhog mandapa are made in large quantities for devotees.
The next two offerings are called mandira bhog and are in small quantities. Soon after dusk, sandhaya dhupa (a bhog comprising sweetened rice and rice soaked in water and mixed with curd etc) and sarapuli (milk boiled slowly and thickened for hours) is offered to the deity, and after other rituals, the final bhog of the day, called Barasimhara bhog, is offered. This bhog comprises sweet rice and wheat cakes, cakes of plantain pulp and wheat laddus. After this bhog, the rituals for putting the deities to sleep commence and at the very end, when Nidra Devi is taken to the inner chamber of the presiding deity, a very light offering of mitha pakhala (rice soaked in water and mixed with sugar) is made.
Bhog – cooking and offering it accompanied by various rituals – thus form an important and essential part of the worship of Bhagwan Jagannath, his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. And when these gastronomic delights are offered to the deities, the entire temple fills up with the aroma of the preparations. They are, as is said, dishes fit for the gods.
Read all articles of the Swarajya Utsav series here.