Yamuna Mataji

Yamuna Mataji

I HAVE STUDIED hundreds of kitchens in the last three decades, many of them exceptional, but none as grand as the kitchens of the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, Orissa. Awesome and gigantic, the Jagannatha Temple kitchens reflect centuries, if not millennia, of tradition. Without electricity or machines, a legion of skilled chefs work under oil lamps over open wood fires. Every day they prepare more than a hundred different dishes and offer them to the central deities Lord Jagannatha, Subhadra Devi, and Lord Balarama. Further, given only one day's notice the chefs can prepare a full meal for up to ten thousand guests at a sitting.

The Jagannatha Temple kitchens are exemplary in many ways, but three are of special significance: the preservation of ancient cooking standards, the training program for temple priests, and the highly efficient system for distribution of temple prasadam.

Lord Jagganatha Temple

About Jagannatha Puri And the Temple

The city of Puri also called Puri-on-the-Sea, Jagannatha Puri, Nilacala, and Sri Ksetra is considered equal to Vrndavana and Navadvipa (the birthplace of Lord Caitanya) as a dhama, or sacred Vaisnava holy place. For thousands of years great sages and other exalted persons have traveled to Puri on pilgrimage. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu chose to reside here for the last eighteen years of His life.

In Sri Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya-lila 5.144, purport) Srila Prabhupada gives some information about the temple: "The present temple of Lord Jagannatha was constructed by King Ananga Bhima. Historians say this temple must have been originally constructed at least two thousand years ago. During the time of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534), the small buildings that now surround the original temple had not been constructed, nor had the high platform in front of the temple."

The priests engaged in service at the Jagannatha Temple are called pandas or panditas and are brahmanas. The attendants of the temple's external affairs are called palas. Pandas, who begin training at age twelve, are the most reliable sources of information about temple procedures and tradition. Much of the information for this column comes from two interviews with a senior temple panda, Sri Kanu Charan Puja Panda Samanth. Since only trained pandas may enter the kitchen compound, we can glimpse the workings there only by hearing from a panda. Sri Samanth spoke about the kitchens with detailed clarity.

Kitchen Arrangement and Equipment

The kitchen compound, located several feet above and to the left of the temple's main gate, the Simha-dvara, or "Lion Gate," covers roughly one acre. The compound includes nine kitchens. Two of them are more than 2,500 square feet each, and seven are slightly smaller. The cutting, chopping, grinding, and so on, are done just in front of the kitchens, in an open area called the agana. (With binoculars you can get a partial bird's-eye view of the agana from atop the Puri Library, just across the street.) Numerous small storage areas make up the rest of the kitchen compound.

The kitchens house an astounding 752 wood-burning clay stoves, called chulas, each about three feet square and four feet high. To accommodate various sizes of pots, small clay knobs, called jhinkas, are judiciously placed at intervals on the stove's surface for support. A circle of five jug-shaped earthen pots rests directly on the stove's surface, kept in place with jhinkas. Three more pots go in the open spaces above the pots to form a second layer, and one more pot goes in the center on top, forming a nine-pot pyramid. In this way all nine pots receive lickings of heat and smoke from the wood fires below.

The new earthen cooking pots are called kudias. Most are jug-shaped (for the nine-pot pyramid), though some are shallow and wide, resembling Spanish paella pans or French saute pans without handles. As the food cooks in these unglazed pots, their thick walls become very hot. The pots provide amazing heat retention. Food stored in them stays piping hot up to four or five hours.

Kitchen Staff and Training

One thousand men work in the kitchen daily. Five hundred attain the status of executive chefs, called swaras, and are the only persons allowed to cook on the stoves. Three hundred "first-string" assistants are calledjogunias. They are allowed to enter the kitchens to assist the swaras, but they mainly light fires, fetch water from temple wells, wash and clean the earthen cooking pots, and finally fill the pots with ingredients. The other two hundred assistants, the "second-string," are called tunias. They are not allowed to enter the kitchens but work in front of them in the agana, engaged in such tasks as washing ingredients, cutting vegetables, grating fresh coconut into a powder, and stone-grinding herbs, chilies, ginger, and spice blends.

A special staff of men, called mahaswaras, have the single task of transporting hot clay pots of food from the kitchen to the offering area, called the bhoga mandapa. To lift a pot, the mahaswara knots the end of a damp jute rope and makes a noose around the neck of the pot. He places the pot in a basket and then deftly builds a stack of four or five pots. One basket is then hung at each end of a flexible five-foot bamboo pole. To carry the lot, the mahaswara gingerly lifts the pole at its center and rests it on his shoulder. Now with a silky gait, hips shifting from side to side, he transports eight to ten pots at a time to the offering area the pots bobbing rhythmically at either end the pole without a drop of food spilled.

All members of the kitchen staff begin training at age twelve, after they've received brahmana initiation and the sacred thread. They serve for life, or until they become too old to perform their duties.

I asked Sri Samanth to state the most important principles in focusing the mind for service to the temple deities.

He replied, "Number one, before beginning to cook one should eat sufficiently and feel no hunger, to enable mental and physical strength to reach a maximum. And number two, while cooking for Lord Jagannatha one should constantly remember His name, fame, pastimes, and qualities in a mood of devotion."

Offerings in the Temple

In the bhoga mandapa area the temple deities are offered food five times a day: Gopala Vallabha Bhoga at about twelve noon; Raja Bhoga at about 2:00 P.M.; Upadi Bhoga, the largest and most varied offering, at about 4:30 or 5:00 P.M.; Madhyama Bhoga at about 7:00 P.M.; and Sayana Bhoga, before the Lord takes rest, at about 11:00 P.M. The timings of the offerings are not rigid; on any given day, the offering times can vary by half an hour or so. The timings may also shift during festivals and according to season.

Offerings fall into two general categories: pakka food fifty-four varieties of "boiled" dishes, including dals, soups, stews, rice, kiccharis, and vegetables; and sukka food fifty-six varieties of "dry" food, such as cookies, biscuits, sweetmeats, pastries, and confections. Five kitchens are devoted to pakka dishes and four to sukka dishes.

Ingredients and Recipes

The standard for ingredients has remained constant for two thousand years: ingredients must be local, organic, and native to the area. Widely available "new-world" ingredients such as cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, papaya, cauliflowers, and hot red chilies are not used. But variety is not a problem; locally available are many types of beans, tubers, squashes, melons, leafy greens. Local spices include mace, cumin, fennel, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, mustard seed, and black cumin.

Note: Cooking class resumes next issue.

Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine; The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post andVegetarian Times. Write to her in care of Back to Godhead.

Mahura Jagannatha Puri Temple Style

(Serves 4-6)

I sampled a version of the following recipe right out of an earthen jug. I was not given measurements, only ingredients and procedures. The measurements I have included are only suggestions. Be creative with your own blend of seasonal produce and spices.

Some variety of this dish is made every day in the temple kitchens. The finished texture varies from that of a chunky stew to a broken down "vegetable butter" almost smooth except for the coconut texture. Serve with rice or char-flecked whole-wheat capatis.

1 teaspoon cumin seeds
a few black peppercorns
1 small cassia or bay leaf
½ cinnamon stick or ¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
½ cup grated coconut, preferably fresh
1-3 tablespoons ghee or cold-pressed nut or seed oil
2 pounds cubed mixed vegetables, such as yams, pumpkin, jackfruit, plantain, whole beans (at Puri potatoes aren't permitted, but you can use them.)
handful chopped cilantro or other fresh herb

Combine the spices and coconut in a mortar or blender and grind to a coarse powder.

In a heavy-bottomed pot, layer the ingredients. Begin with some of the ghee or oil, add some of the coconut spice blend, and then add some vegetables. Repeat the layering until all the ingredients are used. Pour water to cover ½ to ¾ of the ingredients. Cook, partially covered, over moderately low heat until the vegetables are tender and the desired texture results. Season with salt and stir in the fresh herb. Offer to Krsna.