The heart of Odiya food

Ananta Vāsudeva is not only the second most important temple to Krishna in Odisha but also the home of Bhubaneswar’s best cooks. We didn’t know this when we planned our visit, otherwise we would have gone a couple of hours later. My first clue came when I saw two men sleeping in the shady space between two of the shrines. I took their photo and walked a few paces to the right and came to an unmistakable bustle.

On the other side of the temple was a line of busy kitchens. I saw a cook adding masālā to a large earthenware pot filled with chopped vegetables before lifting the pot with a grunt and carrying it into the kitchen. The pots on the chulhās told me that the cooking was done in these earthenware pots. This is, of course, the traditional and sanctified way to cook. It stood to reason that all the food being cooked in the temple would follow these rules.

From the kitchens the hot food is carried into the temple where it is offered to the threefold deities, Krishna, his brother Balarām, and his sister Subhadrā. After that this the prasād is carried into a separate enclosure. The pots had to be extremely heavy, and, as I later found, rather hot. In retrospect I’m really amazed by the physical fitness of these traditional cooks and their helpers.

The enclosed courtyard across the wall was lined with rows of shops selling prasād to anyone. I suddenly realized that this was the origin of the once-famous brāhmin cooks of Odishā. I was staring at the core of Odishā’s wonderful culinary tradition. What did they have in these pots?

I didn’t have to search far for the answer: rice, dāls, two different kinds of vegetables, and rice kheer. I asked The Family, “Do you want an early lunch?” She hesitated. We’d had a late breakfast, a heavy one, less than an hour ago. “Do you think you can eat? I can’t”, she said. We settled for one serving of the kheer. It was given to us in one of the smaller pots that you can see behind the seller in one of the photos. It’s a large helping. We could pay cash or by scanning at QR code! The kheer was piping hot. We sat in the courtyard and ate it slowly. We decided that we have to come back here to taste the food the next time we are in Odishā.

Bindu Sagar

Bindu Sagar is the focus of most of the religious activity in Old Bhubaneswar. This rectangular spring fed tank is perhaps the oldest existing structure in the vicinity, predating the current form of the Lingaraj Temple with which it is associated. I’m pretty certain that keeping the water clean would be a big job, although going by the number of people swimming and taking a bath in it, the water is safe enough for an occasional dip.

The temple in the center was the first thing that I noticed. I’ve heard it called the Brahma temple, but it is more properly called Jagati. Every May the images of Lingaraja, Parvati, Rukmini and Basudeva are taken to this temple every day in a ritual called the Chandan Yatra. Going by the sweltering heat of late March when we visited, the crowds here in May would be rather unbearable. The photos that I’ve seen are so colourful that I’m still inclined to do the trip one year.

After exiting the Ananta Basudeva temple I stood near the tank and looked around the tank. The embankments and steps were made of dressed blocks of the local laterite, bound in dry mortar. People were sitting in the shade around the tank, or going up and down the steps to take a dip. There was a constant stream of activity around the tank.

I heard some chants from nearby. Looking over the parapet I saw a small ritual going on. A priest (with his back to the camera) was performing some puja for the man in front of him. Their voices, when they spoke, was a murmur, and I could not figure out what the rituals were.

We walked around to the Mohini temple on the southern bank of the tank. From there The Family took the photo that you see above of the place we had come from. You can see some of the deuls (spires) of the Ananta Basudeva temple in this photo. It was still too early to go back there and eat the prasad that we’d seen being cooked in the kitchens of the temple. I was pretty sure that the food would be wonderful.

Love and war

Chāmunda is the reigning goddess of the Mohini temple. This small temple on the south bank of the Bindu Sāgar tank is usually overlooked by the visitors who walk between the Lingarāja and the Ananta Vāsudeva temples. We had to walk down some steps from the road to the path around the tank, and then climb a short flight of stairs up to the area of the temple. I’d read two blogs, one from 2015, and another from 2020 which implied that the temple was surrounded by houses. They are now cleared, and a unimpeded view of the northern elevation greeted us. It is a small temple, just the jagamohana in the east (the lower spire in the photo alongside), less formal and religious in purpose, and the sanctum behind it, with the high spire. The temple is said to date from the 9th century, and is ascribed to the queen Mohini Devi of the Bhauma-Kara dynasty. Perhaps the history is more complicated.

We walked around it looking at the sculptures on the exterior. There were lovely carvings of Ganesha and Kārtikeya. But my eyes snagged on the sculptures of the dikpālas, the vedic gods who guard the various directions. Varuna, identifiable by the noose (pāsa) faced east, instead of the traditional west. Indra (armed with lightning and riding an elephant) and Ishāna (armed with a mace and riding a bull) faced west. They are usually seen facing east and northeast respectively. On the northern side of the temple was a sculpture of Yama riding his buffalo. I would have expected him to face south. It looked as if the temple should have been rotated 180 degrees. Had I made a mistake? I looked at the sun. I looked at my watch. I confirmed with the GPS on my phone. No I hadn’t. The dikpālas facing in the wrong direction is a great mystery about this temple, and someone with a much deeper knowledge of history than me is needed to solve it.

This photo shows another woman’s figure on the northern side of the temple. I was struck by the beautiful modelling of the figure. The figures from the frieze at the base of the temple seemed to be less well modelled than the ones on the outer wall of the jagamohan. You can see an example in the shown in the featured photo. I found this bit particularly interesting— the figures of the people making love are twice the size of those engaged in war. If people had built around the haphazardly, then possibly the base would have been subject to more damage than the upper parts. Perhaps that’s what I saw.

The Family had found the sculptures above the entrance door of the jagamohan. The nine figures represent the navagraha, the nine planets. These include the five visible planets, the sun and the moon, and the two mathematical entities which are called Rāhu and Ketu. Interestingly, the first seven figures looked the same to me, but Rāhu and Ketu were quite different. The two represent the points at which the orbit of the moon crosses the ecliptic (the path of the sun in the sky). The point at which the moon enters the northern hemisphere is called Rāhu, the one where it crosses going southwards is called Ketu. Eclipses can only occur when the moon is at these two points, which gives rise to the associated story of Rāhu and Ketu being two demons who try to swallow the moon and the sun.

I’d grown up with stories of these demons even before I understood the science behind it. It strikes me now that this conversion of mathematics to stories is a wonderful way of preserving scientific knowledge. These days when the love of knowledge is being overwhelmed by a war against it, perhaps this could be adopted as a deliberate strategy for passing hard won knowledge down to the future.

Krishna forever

Translating Ananta Vāsudeva (ଅନନ୍ତ ବାସୁଦେବ in Odia) required a little thought. Vāsudeva (sanskrit: वासुदेव) is Krishna of course, the son of Vasudeva (sanskrit: वसुदेव) and ananta exactly translates into endless. The title of this post is a close translation into modern English. That’s the temple in Bhubaneshwar which you see in the featured photo. The temple’s genesis is known precisely due to a carved stone tablet which says that it was dedicated in 1278 CE by the queen Chandrika Devi, daughter of king Anangabhima 3 of what we call today the Eastern Ganga dynasty. The tablet can be seen in the Royal Asiatic Society collection where it was taken after it was hacked out at the behest of Major General Charles Stuart of the British East India Company. It is believed that the current temple was built over the foundations of an earlier temple to Vishnu. It was extensively renovated by the Marathas in the 17th century.

Although it is nearly as large as the nearby Lingaraj temple, it is not as popular with worshippers and tourists. That made it ideal for a short visit. The date of construction of the Ananta Vāsudeva temple makes it a contemporary of the more famous Konarak Sun temple. It was not a far stretch to imagine that some of the same artists could have worked there. In fact the human figures that I saw on the base and on the walls of the temple were equally well modelled. I will probably post later with some more photos of the figures on the exterior. There was an interesting, and very visible, difference between the stone used for the base (gallery above) and the spires (gallery below). The strength and weight of building materials are always considerations for an architect.

We spent much longer at this temple than we’d thought we would. It is a working temple, with granite sculptures of Krishna, his brother Balarama, and sister Subhadra in the garbagriha. I’m glad that we stayed longer, because we noticed the enormous amount of food being cooked in the kitchens, and got to taste some. But that is a story for later.

The sacred hearth

Two structures slightly separated from each other: one red the other white. Was this one hut or two? I had to read the information board to figure that out. The white structure is the main living space. The red is the kitchen,c alled a lal bangla. It’s a sacred space, and only the mistress of the house decides who has access. Normally unmarried daughters have access to the kitchen, but once married, the daughter is the mistress of her own, and therefore barred from her mother’s. I learnt later that the notion of the purity of the kitchen is so strong that it has to be burnt down and rebuilt if the wrong person enters it.

The house was a replica of those used by the Chuktia Bhunjia, a small tribe about whom I’d known nothing earlier. After seeing that hut and reading about it, I was not surprised that their chief deity was the goddess called Suna Dei, who is worshipped at Dusshera. The tribe has a homeland in the Sunabeda plateau, around the Sunabeda National Park in the northwest corner of Odisha.

I was curious about their level of technology. They were traditional farmers after all, with seasonally rotating farmlands. A gold armlet and an axe were constructed well enough. It wasn’t at the level of sophistication that some of the richer tribes had attained, but they had metalworking. The axe was quite functional. In fact the doors to their houses also had a similar functionality: cured and polished bamboo sticks held together by bars of planed hardwood. I found the Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar a wonderful learning resource.


We examined the patterns of woven cloth used by various tribes in a display at Bhubaneswar’s Tribal Museum. The Family confirmed my impression. Many of these patterns are in wide use today. How did that happen? I remembered conversations with a grandaunt. She was an artist who’d turned to textile design while she was in art school. Textiles were very political in her time, when opposition to colonial rule involved renouncing textiles made in England. I know that she travelled extensively in Odisha and got to know local artists and learnt their art. Given the politics of her time, she may not have been alone. Such people were possibly the conduit through which tribal designs seeped into the general culture even before they became trendy.

But why did tribes stick to particular designs? I have no idea, but a scholarly paper pointed out that this is not unusual at all. That set me thinking of Scottish clan tartans. And that led me to wonder whether some of these tribal designs are derived from each other. I was so engrossed in the designs that I forgot to take photos which identify each piece. So now I’m left with questions and no way of answering them. All I can ask you is to enjoy the sight of these weaves.

A house of the Khond people

The Khond people are the largest tribal group in Odisha, but are also found as far east a West Bengal, and to the west as far as Maharashtra. We saw an example of the huts that they build in the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar. “Rather simple,” The Family said. I wasn’t so sure. It was big, had a tiled roof in two parts, with a gap for circulation. Architecturally, that roof was pretty complex and well thought out. The Khonds traditionally have a hunter-gatherer society, so I wondered what they are doing building huts. Perhaps there is a notion of home ground for a family. After reading about the elaborate decorations they have inside the hut, I regretted not coming to the museum at a time when the hut is open.

I walked closer and realized that this was the most elaborately decorated door I’d seen in the museum. The carpetry was simple: just three planks held together with bracings. But the door and the door-frame were carved quite extensively. When I looked up the history of the Khonds I was quite as taken aback as when I saw this door. It seems that the Khonds fought a war lasting a hundred years against the British East India Company (called the Ghumsar uprising) before coming under their dominion. Currently their lifestyle is under threat and the tribe is designated as a particularly vulnerable tribal group.

Smoke on the water

Beautiful carved and painted wooden cylinders. My first thought was that it was a flute. But where are the tone holes? Perhaps this was an overtone flute. Confused, I looked at the explanation. It was a tobacco holder from the Kutia Kandha people! Such beautiful objects for everyday casual use speaks of a past not only of plenty, but also of technical capability. The drilling of a hole in this long rod, the polishing and decoration are all accomplished technical steps. This object completely belied the adjective “primitive” that is used in most descriptions that I found of the people. The Tribal Art museum of Bhubaneswar is an eye opener.

The four pipes for smoking come from the Dongria Kandha people. Again, I found them remarkable. The thin gauge wire wound tight enough to make a working pipe requires considerable technical mastery. The pipes are not special objects, just things of daily use. To be able to spare time to make them requires a degree of wealth quite at variance with the media portrayals of these people who are engaged in a legal battle to keep their homeland from becoming open cast mines.

The Paraja people also used a similar technology to create pipes. I found it interesting that the stem and bowl seem to have been wound as one piece. The separation of a bowl from the stem simplifies the process and can lead to mass production. That was not the intent here.

This water pipe, a hookah, was made and used by the Lanjia Saora people. It is a beautiful, if slightly worn and battered, object for everyday use. The spout was turned slightly away, unfortunately. I would have liked to have seen the joint between it and the body of the water pipe. The placement of these artifacts for the consumption of tobacco against a purple background seemed specially designed to bring to mind a certain famous song from the early 70s.

Mondrian in a forest

Museums are at their best when they encourage you to explore more. By that reckoning the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar was very successful. I was attracted to the line of huts in front of the auditorium by the beautiful Mondrianesque hut that you see in the featured photo. The shape is like a child’s drawing of a hut: round with a conical thatched roof, but the Gadaba tribe’s traditional construction is adept. The wood frame, the internal support pole for the roof made from a single trunk of a sal tree (Shorea robusta), and the wooden door and window (behind) are stained black, and the squares of plaster are painted in attractive bright colours. Unfortunately the Gadaba tribe’s culture is under strain, with many people having been displaced by the building of dams in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

The Gond people had centralized states for centuries before they were defeated by the Marathas and reduced to a political periphery in the 18th century CE.The Gondi culture is distinct, but is being slowly lost as they take on the language of the politically dominant people around them. The traditional houses of the Gondi are too varied to be captured in a single example. From the bungalow that we saw in the museum grounds I could recognize themes that I’d seen elsewhere. The bare earthen courtyard was one: this is a place where people can meet, both private and somewhat public; a place where the family will keep things they can’t bring inside, like a cart or bicycle, or agricultural implements or home equipment like a ladder, and it can even be a place to tie up a cow or goat. The bright geometrical paintings on the wall were another. The tiled roof and the elaborate construction spoke of wealth. I’ve seen that huts which poorer Gondi live in are simpler, and they often have a thatched roof.

Between these two was a layout which showcased the houses of the Juang people. Their lifestyle has been under threat since British colonial times, when their forests were declared reserved, and their traditional rights of use were taken away. The long hut at the back is called a majang, and serves as a dormitory where adolescent boys live. It also serves as a community hall. The veranda in front, the paintings on the walls, and the simple white door reminded me of the houses of the Saora people, although the tribes are quite separate culturally. The structure in front is an example of a injza, where a man lives with all the women in the family. Perhaps this construction is not complete, since it is meant to be divided into two spaces, one for sleeping and the other for storage and day use. On a positive note, it let me see the elaborate cross-braced framework on which the thatching of the roof rested. I also liked the carved posts around the injza.


Jewellery is always a statement about the wealth of the person wearing it. A tasteful heavy golden crown studded with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies stolen from across the world makes the same sort of statement as the coin necklaces (puste) worn by tribal women. I was quite as enchanted by the technique and history carried by these tribal necklaces as any other museum-worthy bling. You can tell which tribe made them by the construction of the necklace, but the coins tell a different story. The Mankirdia tribe make necklaces of plaited strands of thread, the Bonda use colourful beads, the Gandia will knot cord together, and the Koya coil rope over cord.

But the coins that they fix on these necklaces vary from one family to another, and also from person to person. The gold coins that I saw on a Mankirdia necklace (the featured photo) had inscriptions in a script which I do not know. Was this pre-British, or from one of the kingdoms that coexisted with the British Raj? The silver coins in the Gandia necklace raised similar questions.

The aluminium coins in the Bonda necklace were from the mid 1960s. The 10 paisa coin may now be worth anywhere between 25 and 250 rupees, depending on the state of the coin and the mint where it was struck. The rounded squares of the 5 paisa coins cost slightly less. They are not a fortune, but their current price in the coin collector’s market means that have gained a little bit above the purchasing power that they once had. I remember buying one lemon sweet with one of these coins. Today I might get twenty or more of these schoolchild’s treat with the money I get from one.

The two necklaces from the Koya were perhaps the most interesting. Both had coins from the early 20th century, bearing the face of Edward VII. The half rupee and one anna (one sixteenth of a rupee) coins will each fetch about a thousand rupees in the coin collector’s market, and therefore would have roughly retained their original purchasing power. Interestingly, one of the necklaces also contained a silver medal from the early years of the independent republic. That indicates that at some time coins from different puste were shuffled together. So these coins served as inheritance, and when inherited by an younger owner, coins from several sources were mixed. The idiosyncratic histories preserved in these puste can be endlessly fascinating.