Rath Yatra A Caldron of Odia Culture

The oldest chariot festival of Odisha is the finest, most vibrant showcase of its ancient traditions- especially food.

By Madhulika Dash; Illustration: Kamal Kant Rath; Pictures: Alka Jena

Yes, it is the grandest – three 42ft tall chariots are especially built every year for this occasion; yes, it is the oldest –the festival is said to have taken inspiration from the early Buddhist Rath Utsav, and in some manner carries the legacy as well. But that is not the only reason why Rath Yatra, Odisha’s oldest festival, holds such fascination among people. It is also the premises the festival was built on.  Rath Yatra is perhaps is the only ancient tradition that breaks the boundary of religion as the Holy Trinity of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra step out of their temple to meet their devotees. For a week that follows, where the lords visit their aunt’s place in Gundicha (also known by the name Mausimaa Temple across Odisha) for the annual vacation much like the common man.  And during the time he does everything like a common man – from meeting friends, to eating whatever food is offered to even bearing the ire of his wife (Devi Vimala) who he had left behind.

In fact, when the lords are back to the temple, while the elder brother (Lord Balabhadra) and sister (Devi Subhadra) are welcomed into Jagannath temple, Lord Jagannath is made to spent two days at the Bada Danda awaiting Devi Vimala permission to enter their abode. And like a common man eventually the lord too sends gifts of peace – a large kudwa-filled with rasagola prepared by the priest of Shri Baldev Jew Mandir in Kendrapada and a Patta Sari – to finally get into his temple.  

Fascinatingly, the rasagola ritual, which is referred to as Niladri Bije, is one among the many ceremonies held during the festival that gives Rath Yatra its unique appeal – and relatability – with food being at the centre of each of them. Another such incident is when the Lord falls ill for nine days after the Snan Purnima where he takes bath in 108 pots of water. Like us mortals, he too has to forgo his daily feast and have simple delicacies like khichdi made with lentil and flavoured with gua gheeo made in house, and chuda ghassa, a sweet preparation of rice flakes, kapur, jaggery, fresh coconut and ghee, which as he recovers takes on a more gourmet avatar with seasonal fruits added to it. This version which is also offered to the devotees as a sign of the Lord’s recovering health is called Chuda Kadama and easily dates to the 5th century AD.

The day of Rath Yatra is celebrated with the making of Podo Pitha, one of Odisha’s oldest pancake that is steamed baked in a sal patta, and Kakara Pitha, a fried sweet pancake. These sweet pithas form an integral part of the travel food that goes along with fruits and khoi in the chariot to be offered to the lord and his devotees. The beauty of these rice-based pancake is not only that they are some of the oldest sweetmeats of our culinary ledger that have a long shelf life but also a meal as well. In fact, it is said that these pithas taste even better during the Rath Yatra much like the Sraddha Ladoo that is offered as part of the celebration by the Mausimaa temple on this occasion. A speciality of Baripada, where the second grandest Rath Yatra is held, the ladoo is made of season’s finest palm jaggery and channa dal. Made in the kitchen of the Mausimaa temple and widely distributed to devotees that gather in the pathway of the Rath, the recipe of this divinely delicious treat is a temple privy for ages shared only with the mahasuara (temple cooks) travelling with Lord Jagannath and his sibling to Mausimaa Temple as the rasoigarah stays idle for 13 days at the main temple. One gets to often sample these sweet globes on the day of the Bahuda Yatra, which is on the tenth day of the festival, where Jagannath temple makes these ladoos to welcome the trinity back.

Interestingly, this human-like ritual continues during the stay of the holy trinity in the Mausimaa temple. Here on the third day of the Rath Yatra with the three deities taken to the Adapa Mandap (the holy place where the lords took their idol life). To celebrate this day, the temple prepares the first mahaprasad famous by the name of Adapa Mandap Abhada.

Similar to that prepared in the rasoigarah of Puri temple, the Abhada at Gundicha temple though made in lesser quantity has all the dishes and is considered by many to be far more delicious than the one made at Jagannath temple. In fact, many believe that it was here that the idea of chappan bhog was created which was introduced in the Jagannath temple when Lord Jagannath married Devi Vimala. The Abhada is the finest showcase of a quintessential Odia thali that has a fragrant rice doused with ghee, meetha dali (sweet dal), lentil with vegetable (which is said to have created the famous Dalma), ghanta (a mixed vegetable preparation) saaga bhaja (stir-fried leafy vegetable), khatta (a kind of relish usually made with seasonal ingredients), sweet porridge like kheer. Steeped in the principle of wellness, this thali is considered a brilliant example of a complete meal with food that heals.  And it is. The thali not only comforts the mind and soul, but also digests with much ease – much like another temple thali called the Sadya.

The other delicacy that is made during this time is the Magaja Ladoo. A simple treat made with wheat flour, sugar and ghee, it is considered one of Lord Jagannath favourites, which he is seen indulging to his heart content. In homes, these ladoos are made for two reasons: one, of course is tradition; the second is the ladoo virtues. Rath Yatra usually marks the beginning of a monsoon season. It is a time when due to weather changes many can fall prey to the vagaries of the nature, and that’s where these ladoos play the sweet antidote. Not only do they make the palate happy, calm the mind but also warm up the immunity that can fight against cough, cold and fever. Another interesting treat that also is enjoyed immensely during this week is the Mohan Bhog. Made of semolina, these ladoos are known both for their sweet  palate play thanks to the seeds used and health – and is often served with the famous Odia breakfast called Chatua, an instant porridge made from roasted gram flour with jaggery and fruits. Thanks to the healing side, both the ladoos along with a fresh batch of khakra made both with rice and semolina are among the many treats that the aunt packs for his nephew on his travel back to the Jagannath temple.    

Of course, there are many treats that are offered to the lords by their devotees during Badhua Jatra that ranges from the various kinds of pithas to fruits and even Khai Laddo and Ukhada. But the most unique of them is a Pana (Odia Kashayam) called the Adhara Pana. Made of dahi (yogurt), milk, misri and cardamom powder, it is one of the few drinks that relief travel exhaustion. But in true giving style, the pana that is made on the chariot itself is poured over the lord and is offered to devotees as his blessing.

The Badua Jatra that follows a different path to the temple comes to an end on the 13th day of the festival when Devi Vimala happy with her gifts allows the lord to return to his home – and  throne – dressed in his royal finery.  It is a day when fresh khaja (a filo-pastry style sweet) is distributed as sign of happiness from the kitchen around the temple. It’s also the day when the temple main kitchen resumes work to once again create the Mahaprasad, Jagannath temple is so famous for – thus ending the festival that witnesses the Lord take on a human existence for almost a week.