Makar Sankranti 2024: Festive Odia Dishes And Their Significance

Come Makar Sankranti, every region across the country celebrates the newly harvested crops and marks the auspicious cycle with certain rituals and religious traditions. Cooking seasonal produce is a key part of every harvest festival in India, be it Lohri, Pongal or Makar Sankranti. In Odisha, the fervour around Makar Sankranti is closely associated with temple food, but there are diverse culinary influences across Odisha that are worth talking about. 

The festival revolves around the celebration of new rice, known as Nabanna; the freshly harvested rice is cleaned, and the first handfuls are offered to deities before being cooked into various dishes.

“Among the many harvest festivals that we celebrate in Odisha, Makar Sankranti is the single most important one as the newly harvested paddy is offered to Lord Jagannath at the Puri temple,” says author Sweta Biswal, whose book Beyond Dalma takes a deep foray into micro-cuisines and agrarian traditions in Odisha.

“A dish of soaked and coarsely pounded aromatic rice mixed with dairy products, sugar, ripe banana, freshly grated coconut, ginger, peppercorns and other seasonal ingredients like sprouted palmyra, sugarcane, sesame seeds and local tubers is the primary offering on this day. Known as Makara Chaula, it is prepared everywhere from the temples to people's homes,” Biswal shares.

Makara Chaula And Its Real Significance 

In Odisha, the act of offering the first fruits of the harvest to the gods is a common tradition. Makara Chaula marks the culmination of the agricultural activities related to the harvest season as it is a time for farmers to celebrate the fruition of their hard work. The term "Makara Chaula" is derived from the Odia words "Makara," referring to the zodiac sign Capricorn, and "Chaula," meaning newly harvested rice. Farmers and communities acknowledge the vital role of the land and nature in yielding crops by using rice as a way of thanking the earth for its abundance.

According to the Skanda Purana, sage Kashyap observed Makar Sankranti to please Lord Jagannath. Goddess Lakshmi returned on this day with Makara Chaula from her parental home and it was then offered to the Lord. In Puri’s Jagannath temple today, this bhoga, once prepared, is served on silver plates to the three deities who are painted with lime and covered in a piece of cloth. 

Odia Pitha And Badis

Odia cuisine, which is nestled close to the coast, boasts rich, natural flavours and the variety of desserts, curries and pitha varieties have a strong focus on healthy grains, especially lentils. Makar Sankranti, is also known as ‘badi’ season in Odisha, owing to the popularity of badi or fried lentil dumplings which are widely made in the state during harvest festivals. 

Badi too has a religious significance as large batches of badi are offered to the deities at Keonjhar’s Baladevjew Temple as they are considered auspicious. “I have fond memories of assisting my mom as she made badis in the kitchen, for Makar Sankranti,” says Delhi-based chef Chandrani Das, who often serves Odia desserts as part of her menu.

“Making badis are actually quite time-consuming, my mother would use a sil stone, which would be quite heavy. These badis would be more granular in texture. But now most people blend the batter however they want, usually in a blender or grinder. Of course, the varieties of pithe in Odia cuisine are quite celebrated but the badis are also quite intrinsic to harvest festivals,” Das remarks.

Besides classic urad dali badi, there are plenty of recipes that are made across Odia cuisine. Gota Badi is made with black urad da, cumin, coriander, and asafoetid and is often used in curries, while Mandia Badi is made from ragi and black urad. The mixture of ragi and lentils is ground into a paste, seasoned, and shaped into dumplings. These dumplings are sun-dried and have a distinct flavour and nutritional profile.

Besides rice, dal and jaggery, sesame or til is of utmost importance in Odia cuisines and also in harvest festival preparation made across Eastern India. In Assam, shunga pitha and til pitha are widely served during Makar Sankranti. In Odisha, sesame is not just used in temple food and seasonal dishes but has a strong connection to Lord Jagganath. A hand-pressed sesame oil known as ‘Phuluri Tela’ is applied to the bodies of the lords during Anasara period, which occurs in June. This is said to be part of a 1000-year-old secret ritual where this healing oil that has 24 ingredients including flowers such as Ketaki, Malli and Boula, along with sandalwood powder, camphor and rice is prepared for Lord Jagannath and his two siblings to cure the deities of fever.

The Other Harvest Festivals

Besides Makar Sankranti, Odisha has several other big and minor harvest festivals, some of which have some specific ties to a region or a culture. Besides Nuakhai, which is perhaps the most popular, there’s ‘Pushpuni' which usually falls on the full moon day of paush month, and marks the completion of an agrarian cycle and is marked with khichdi, pitha and badi.

“Occasions like 'Aam Nuakhai' and 'Chaita Nuakhai' which offer the first mangoes and foraged forest produce respectively to the local deities used to be major celebrations in the rural areas,” points out Biswal.

“Having spent a large part of my life in Western Odisha, I have rather fond memories of the last of the harvest festivals, 'Pusi Puni', which is shorn of ritualistic restrictions and revolves around general merry-making and delicious food like manda, kakera, ras bara, palau and sikar jhul. It marks the completion of the agricultural cycle and hence is celebrated in a grand manner,” she adds.