I am going to Puri to write about Maha Bhog—the pinnacle of all prasadams; the lord’s food, which will be served to his devotees with his blessings. It is kind of a futile exercise really, because I will not be allowed into the temple kitchens.
As someone who was kept out of cricket fields by my neighbourhood boys while growing up, I smart at this discrimination. In Puri, though, this isn’t about gender. No outsider is allowed inside the temple kitchen except the 1,000 male cooks who make 56 different kinds of offerings—called Chhappan Bhog—to serve to the gods, six times a day.
The list of dishes isn’t just 56; it runs to the hundreds. The lord, and his people, like variety. There are over 50 types of sweet dishes alone, including several types of laddoo, malpua, kheer and rasagulla, making this a diabetic’s nightmare. Thankfully, there are boiled rice dishes, dals, vegetable curries and several permutations and combinations of these. Food is central to worship in this temple because, you see, Lord Vishnu dines here.
It is a great exercise in imagination to connect an activity with worship in the four greatest Hindu pilgrim sites: Rameswaram, Puri, Dwarka and Badrinath, collectively known as the Char Dham, or the four abodes of god. They were created by Shankara, an 8th century genius who grew up in Kalady, Kerala, where I almost drowned in the Periyar river as a 12-year-old. A word to those who contemplate death by drowning: it isn’t painful. It is like falling asleep.
Shankara, the story goes, wanted to become an ascetic. His mother wouldn’t let him. One day, while bathing in the river, a crocodile caught hold of his leg and didn’t let go. Shankara told his distressed mother to let him go and become a monk. Only then would the crocodile leave his leg, he said.
His mother should have questioned the whole story. Why would the crocodile hold her son’s leg without simply biting it off or killing the boy? But a mother in distress doesn’t think. She said yes. The crocodile opened its jaws. Like Jackie Chan walking away from a bombed car, Shankara walked away from the jaws of death, quite literally.
India in the 8th century was in the throes of Buddhism. Shankara travelled the length and breadth of India, trying to rejuvenate and revive Hinduism. He established ashrams and pilgrimage sites all over India: a kind of tourist-cum-religious circuit.
Puri was one of them. Vishnu has a bath in the seaside temple of Rameswaram in south India. He comes up to Puri for a meal; goes onward to Badrinath, where he meditates for the welfare of humanity; and retires in Dwarka. Since he eats in Puri, this temple serves Maha Bhog, or the lord’s food, to all devotees. That is why food is a big deal in this temple. It is literally the place where Lord Vishnu dines.
The kitchens are vast—spread over an acre. If you stand on the roof of the Puri library across the street from the temple kitchens, and bend over till you almost fall down, you can see the courtyards leading into the kitchens using a pair of binoculars.
This is where 200 junior cooks, who are not yet allowed to enter the kitchens, do the prep work. They grate hundreds of coconuts: a tiring, thankless job, made tolerable by chanting the name of the lord. They chop a mountain of vegetables and wash the earthenware pots that are used.
Inside, it is said, are multiple rooms—some say nine, others say 32. Here, 500 main cooks or suaras, as they are called, do the actual cooking along with 300 assistant cooks. Even by the standards of the grandest Indian wedding—where thousands of guests are fed at one go—the production capacity of the Puri temple kitchens is staggering.
There are 752 chulhas, or stoves, lit only with charcoal and wood, as it was done in the olden days, imparting a dense, smoky flavour to the food. These stoves, made with mud and brick, are hexagonal—and tantric—in shape. They are quite large—about 4ft in diameter—and equally deep.
On the floor of the stoves is a nine-chakra yantra or drawing. Every morning, before the fire is lit, the sun god and the fire god are invoked through chanting and homams. (Homams are imprecisely translated as fire sacrifice, although the only things sacrificed are ghee and grains.)
All the cooking is done on earthen pots, which are stacked on top of each other in groups of nine, cooking the food in a kind of sequence. Nine is an oft-repeated number in rituals. There are nava grahas or nine planets; nava dhaanyas or nine grains; nava Durgas or nine Durgas; and so on.
Things that take the longest to cook like rice are stacked in the bottom pots, while lighter vegetables that cook easily are placed at the top. Only indigenous vegetables and fruits are used; which means that the list of vegetables that cannot be used is long. No potato, tomato, green chilli, cabbage, cauliflower or any other foreign vegetable.
Coconut, ghee, rice, dal and milk products—yogurt, home-made cheese, ghee and milk—are used in abundance. Molasses and date palm are used instead of sugar; black pepper instead of green chillies; rock salt instead of iodized refined salt.
Spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and saffron flavour the sweet dishes, while mustard seeds, fennel, cumin, fenugreek seeds, ginger, asafoetida, turmeric and tamarind are used for the savoury dishes.
Oil is used for deep-frying certain dishes, mostly sweets. Much of the food is boiled or steamed in earthenware pots over long periods of time with drip-holes for the excess water. This is slow cooking at its best.
I am not sure about the point of all the secrecy. Is it because outsiders will make the kitchens ritually impure? It is certainly not to protect the recipes, which are simple, and involve a combination of ingredients in well-known proportions and slow cooking them over a wood fire.
The dishes are fairly standard: a variety of rice dishes, flavoured with milk, lemon juice, tamarind and yogurt. There is khichdi, a bland mixture of rice and lentils; vegetable curries; and a variety of dals made with different local lentils and flavoured simply with salt, ginger and turmeric. Green bananas or plantains are a particular favourite, as are locally available gourds. Raitas made with radish or winter melon are served in the summer months.
Drinks made with milk, jaggery, dried ginger, buttermilk and fruit juices are part of the offering; as are a whole variety of sweets. There are no complicated techniques—Ferran Adria’s kitchen, this is not. Any housewife in India could make any of these dishes with her eyes blindfolded. Then why the secrecy?
The very fact that I am asking this question shows that I don’t get it, at least according to believers. In a Hindu kitchen, food isn’t just about ingredients and techniques. It is about energy. The flavour of temple food comes from the quality of the local ingredients, the water from 10ft-deep temple wells called Ganga and Jamuna; the slow cooking; and most important of all, the purity of intention of the cooks.
“Thought stamps,” they call it in Tamil. “Enna pathivugal.” It means that the thoughts of the cook, or even of random passersby, can stamp itself on the dish, thus affecting its “energy”.
Hindus are obsessed with how a dish is made—not just the ingredients used and the cooking techniques, but also the mood and character of the cook and his environs.
If the cook is angry, my grandparents used to say, the diner will get heartburn. If the cook is hungry and salivates after the food that he is preparing, the person who eats will not be able to digest the food properly. If a cook is sad, the dish that he prepares will cause tears in the eater. A mad cook? The eater will get aggressive or rajasic after the meal. And so it goes.
And it is not just the cook. The thoughts of anyone who is around the food can get “stamped” on the food and affect the eater. For this reason, babies are spirited away and fed in private. The logic is that young souls are extremely sensitive to other people’s energy. Having someone stare enviously at a baby’s delicious food will give the infant stomachache.
My grandparents were extremely careful about where they ate; carrying home-cooked food across long distances rather than risk eating food that was cooked improperly. If you ate at the home of a person who has made his money improperly, through bribes for instance, then his bad karma would come to you through the salt, they would say.
My grandparents, needless to say, would have a huge problem dining at modern restaurants with yelling cooks, macho energy, flaring egos and flying swear words. In their mind, the temperament of the cook translates directly into the quality of the food that he is serving. A serene disposition was essential for the food to nurture body, mind and soul.
This is why temple cooks are told to do two things: enter the kitchen with a full stomach so that they don’t salivate after the food that they cook; and chant the name of the lord while they work so as to induce a peaceful disposition.
In Puri, they go further. They believe that Mahalakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu, actually cooks the food. They are mere prep and line cooks, who do the work. The actual flavour comes from Lakshmi’s hands.
“You can hear the jingle of her anklets in the kitchen,” one cook told me.
Offering the food to the deities involves dance and balance. The cooks carry a long bamboo pole on which hang two rope baskets at either end. Once the food is cooked, the cook lassoes the top of the earthenware pot with a wet jute rope, lifts it up in one swift motion and places it inside the rope basket. He places two or three more pots atop it. The same applies for the other rope basket. Once this is done, he places the middle of the bamboo pole on his shoulders and begins a sinewy, even walk—hips swaying from side to side—from kitchen to the sanctum sanctorum so that not a drop of food spills on the ground.
“Even if we think for one second that we had anything to do with the making of the food, our pots will shatter en route to the garba griha,” said the cook. “For this reason, we have to tame our egos at all costs. We have to be mere vessels, carrying out the work of the goddess.”
I guess this is why temple cooks are different from your average Masaharu Morimoto or Daniel Boulud, who love putting their name not just on the dish but on the entire premises. The talent in temple cooking is not just about technique; it is about temperament, about taming your ego. You have to be pure of intent, joyful in nature, chanting the name of the lord in total supplication.
Legend has it that the food carries no fragrance on the walk from kitchen to garba griha. (Or womb chamber, a more appropriate translation than the more common sanctum sanctorum.) Once it is offered to the gods, the Maha Bhog smells divine. In Puri, the food is first offered to Lord Jagannath; then to the goddess, Bimala, his wife, before the devotees are served.
Each cook and his family get a portion of the prasadam. This is their livelihood. They carry it to the Ananda Bazaar, or Pleasure Market, and sell it to the 5,000-odd devotees who visit the temple daily. On festive days, of which there are many, this number swells to about 100,000 people. The Puri Jagannath temple is the largest vegetarian, sattvic kitchen in the world—one that no outsider has ever entered.