Modak: The little purse of happiness

Text By: Madhulika Dash 

Modak: There is no doubt about its deliciousness and the obvious association to Ganesh Chaturthi. After all, it is Lord’s favourite sweet and we have the legendary beliefs on how it became his beloved sweet after he earned it as a prize after winning a challenge thrown by the God to be the first one to revolve the universe. 

Lord Ganesh, using his wit, instead of actually circling the universe like his brother Lord Karthikeya actually did, circled his parents. Later when asked, he is said to have replied that for him, his parents were the universe. This earned him the magical modak, which is said to have contained within the secret to knowledge, happiness, joy and love. It is, if religious texts (especially Rigveda) are to believed, from that day that Lord Ganesh was called Viganharta (one who steals worries and problems), and also the Supreme Ganas (divine beings). 

But has it ever crossed your mind as to where did modak originate, and why that particular shape? One explanation to this could be sustainability. Back then – even if we take the era of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj where many believe Ganesh Chaturthi celebration began – food habits, and this included those offered to the God as well, were developed on what was readily grown and available in that area.  

And since it had to be distributed on a larger quantity, the food had to be simple too. So the choice of using coconut, rice flour and jaggery was obvious. But then rice based desserts were a common thing for most states on the coast and down south during the time. And just like Maharastra has ukdiche modak, Odisha had monda pitha and Kerala had undrallu: each with the same ingredients and preparation style. Of course, depending on the rice used and the place, the taste differed a bit – but when it came to the dessert they had more similarities.  

Which brings us to the earlier question, so how did modak originate and reached its current avatar? Unlike what’s commonly believed, the tradition of Ganesh Puja is, if not more, a 7,000 year old ritual, which makes it as old as Indus Valley Civilisation. Ancient temples across India and the ruins of Hampi stand testimony not only to the old tradition of praying to Lord Ganesh but also celebrating his being annually.  

In fact, most Chola Kings temple though had Lord Shiva as the presiding diety, Lord Ganesha was equally revered and was offered specially made prasadam, which incidentally made of rice. A living example today is the Madhur Mahagapathi Temple in Kerala, where appams are offered to the lord annually and once in every 160 years, his idol is covered with a mixture of sweet rice and ghee called Moodappam. The last one took place in the mid 1990s. Those who have tasted it equate it as a closer cousin of ukdiche modak.  

The difference is of course in the rice used to making the appam mixture. But could Moodappam be the inspiration behind modak – in name perhaps. So what about the design? A far-flung association of the modak shape could be with the Japanese, even as close as Gangtok. Believe it or not, it wasn’t only Buddhism that reached the Orient and other parts of Asia, Lord Ganesha too, who in Japan is worshipped there as Kangiten – the lord of prosperity, happiness and love. It is said that young couples pray to him for happiness and love.  

A more plausible reasoning could have been Ayurveda. As a science that literally shaped our food and food habits, it had a significant role in influencing the way each food is served as well. And there is a good chance that modak followed the modak suit of Abhiayadi Modak and Shatavari Modak, which could treat any health condition, and thus were called the Happiness Modak. The other reason why the shape was chosen is because: One factor- It looked like a gift and second - made distributing easy. Of course, there are stories abound on how a priest habit of playing with the prasad while chanting the prayers could have led to the shape, what negates it that most traditional modaks across Maharashtra have that little something encased within the sweetened rice flour mould. Clearly, it was a dessert that was well thought of, since it had to convey the message hidden in the various stories and folklores. 

Fascinatingly, like all Indian sweets, modak, too evolved over the years from the first slightly rustic, sticky (thanks to the steaming) avatar, it did take on a very smooth appearance; thanks to the addition of khoya and maida. And then came all the innovation with even a chocolate modak available today. What however, didn’t change was the simplicity and local ingredients. Even today, a good ukdiche modak depends on the choice of rice, how well it has been cooked, the coconut and jaggery mixture and eventually the steaming. 

In Picture: Fig and Khoya Modak