The World's Largest Feast

Urvashi Bahuguna writes about the miracles, mysteries and myriad rules that surround the preparation of Mahaprasad at Jagannath temple. 

What is widely considered to be the world’s largest kitchen is located within the premises of the 12th century Jagannath Temple in the coastal city of Puri, Odisha. Puri is one of the four spiritual places believed to be frequented daily by the Hindu god Vishnu. He bathes in Rameswaram in the South, meditates in Badrinath in the North, and sleeps in Dwarka towards the West. But it is in Puri on the East coast, that he dines. The fifty-six items (chappan bhog), which include both savoury and sweet dishes, are offered to him and are later served to tens of thousands of devotees every day. The food that in any other temple would simply be called prasad has a pre-fix to its name in this temple: here, the food is considered so holy that it is called Mahaprasad. Six months ago, the Indian Postal Service issued the Mahaprasad, in addition to five other prasads, its own stamp, priced at ₹5.

Mahaprasad at Jagannath temple, Puri, Odisha

The food is first offered to an idol of Lord Jagannath (the Odiya variant of Vishnu), always served steaming hot. Though he is not physically seen to consume the food, it is believed that he inhales the aromas, and accepts the offering. The dishes are carried directly to the idols upon cooking. Even the sweets are freshly prepared, with no delay between the completion of its preparation and its presentation before the god. 

The priest offering the food fills his palms with water, and holds it out toward Jagannath in a way that the god’s reflection is glimpsed in his palms. The sighting of Jagannath in the water is a sign of his acceptance of the day’s meal. If he isn’t sighted (which has been known to happen – the food must be thrown away. If accepted, the food is next produced in front of the goddess Bimala, the guardian of the temple. It is only after the food is offered and accepted by Bimala, that the food becomes Mahaprasad.

The food’s transformation into Mahaprasad is a process overseen by three gods. Lakshmi hovers in the kitchen as 700 cooks chop vegetables, and do the cooking. The cooks must wear a tied cloth over their mouths; talking is not permitted because spit must be all avoided at all costs. If saliva were to enter the food, the food would not be fit for the gods. Every member of the kitchen staff must be a vegetarian. Some days, they must fast before cooking. If the food is not prepared in strict adherence with these rules, Lakshmi sends a dog into the temple premises. And if a dog is sighted within the temple, all the food must be thrown away and prepared again.

Mahaprasad preparations at Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha | Wikimedia Commons, Prateek Pattanaik

Mahaprasad preparations at Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha | Wikimedia Commons, Prateek Pattanaik

Before the food is cooked, a ceremony is performed by the priests that worship the fire on which the food is cooked, and Jagannath’s wife, Lakshmi, who cooks the food.

The actual cooking of the food is what my Odiya grandmother calls a miracle. The food is cooked over a wood fire. The logs are arranged in a triangle with an opening on each side to add more firewood. Three or more mud pots are piled one on top of the other. The utensils on top have holes at the bottom to allow for free movement of steam, allowing the food in all pots to cook, even though only the pot at the bottom is directly in contact with the fire. The food at the top cooks as well as the food at the bottom. My grandmother adamantly insists, “It won’t work if you try it at home.” Miracle.

The kitchen is set up to feed up to a lakh of people every day. The food never runs out. Miracle

The ingredients are as carefully controlled, as is every other part of the process. The water used to cook the food is drawn from a well on the temple premises, whose water is exclusively meant for cooking Mahaprasad. The well never dries up. Miracle. This ensures the water is pure. No tap-water, or any other water is permitted. Only traditional ingredients are used. Imported spices cannot be used or brought into the temple. No cloves. No potatoes, onions or tomatoes. Molasses are used instead of refined sugar. The gods have a sweet tooth. Molasses are added to the dal to make it thick and slightly sweet, and to the vegetables, to improve the taste.

There is a traditional Odiya dish called khata in which mangoes or tomatoes are cooked down to a pulp with sugar and spices. In the temple, it is made with dates or pumpkin. Five types of rice are made – lemon, ginger, sweet pulao, sweet white rice and an Odiya variant of curd rice called dahi pakhala. Other dishes use leafy greens, raw banana, and sweet potato. Pure ghee is allowed; butter and oil aren’t. Mustard seeds, jeera seeds, turmeric, and salt are used for seasoning. Because of the limited seasonings that are allowed, coconut is a key ingredient and is added to the vegetables, dal, and rice dishes. Puri is lined with coconut trees, and hundreds of coconuts are used every day. One of the most common dishes in Odiya cuisine is served at the temple – dal, vegetables, and coconut cooked together into a thick stew called dalma. The dry sweets are carried back by devotees, used for rituals like weddings, and a variant is put into a person’s mouth when they die, to ensure safe passage to heaven.

In the past, the gods have been known to reject the food. One of the oldest stories is about a devotee who tried to climb onto Jagannath’s chariot to catch a glimpse of the god. The temple priest wouldn’t let him in, and the man went away to the beach, where he built his own chariot out of sand. On that day, the temple priest couldn’t catch Jagannath’s reflection in the water in his palms because the god had decided instead, to show his reflection to the devotee who had been turned away. The temple food was thrown away. But the gods may reject food for other reasons; if a fight breaks out and blood is shed, it is believed the reflection will not be seen. If a small child relieves themselves on the premises, or if a devotee dies within the walls, the gods will not accept the food. Every day, the gods make an assessment. 

Urvashi Bahuguna is a writer whose work has appeared in publications such as Scroll, The Hindu Business Line, OPEN Magazine, and Harper's Bazaar.