Odisha's Raja Festival: The Significance Of Poda Pitha

Odia cuisine is famed for a range of delectable ‘pithas’ which are essentially rice and jaggery cakes. Poda Pitha is a traditional and much-loved dish which is particularly made during the Raja Festival. This unique cake, known for its smoky flavour and delightful texture, is a symbol of celebration, community, and cultural heritage. 

The Raja Festival pronounced as "Ro-jo," spans three days and marks the onset of the monsoon season, typically occurring in mid-June. This festival celebrates womanhood, particularly focusing on menstruation, which is considered a symbol of life-giving power in many Indian cultures. 

The festival comprises several rituals and customs, starting with the first day known as "Pahili Raja," followed by "Raja Sankranti" or "Mithuna Sankranti," and concluding with "Basi Raja." Women and girls take a break from household chores, dress in new clothes, and wear traditional jewellery. Poda Pitha is the quintessential dish associated with the Raja Festival. This sweet cake, made primarily from rice flour, black gram (urad dal), jaggery, coconut, and a variety of aromatic spices, is traditionally slow-cooked over a charcoal fire. 

The term "Poda" means burnt, and "Pitha" refers to a cake or bread in Odia. The slow cooking process gives Poda Pitha its distinctive smoky flavour and a slightly charred crust, which is both cherished and unique.

Poda Pitha has deep historical roots in Odisha's culinary traditions. It is believed to have been a staple during the agricultural festivals, celebrating the bounty of the harvest. The ingredients used in Poda Pitha, such as rice and jaggery, are locally sourced. The cake's preparation method, involving slow cooking over a traditional hearth, harks back to ancient cooking practices, preserving a sense of rustic authenticity.

The process of making Poda Pitha, from soaking the rice and black gram to grinding, mixing with jaggery and coconut, and finally slow-cooking, is an elaborate ritual. The smoky flavour of Poda Pitha, achieved through the slow cooking process, is particularly cherished. This method involves wrapping the batter in banana leaves and cooking it over a low flame or charcoal. The slight charring of the outer layer gives it a distinctive taste that is both rustic and exquisite. 

Poda pitha has deep-rooted ties with Odisha’s religious sentiments as well since they are offered to Lord Jagannath as well. According to Indian mythology, Poda Pitha is a favourite of Lord Jagannath and this dessert is part of the platter offered to the lord at the famous Jagannath Temple in Puri.

During the rath yatra the chariots of Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra and Lord Jagannath take a small halt in front of Ardhasini Temple, also known as Mausi Maa Temple, where ‘Poda Pitha’ is offered to the deities. Legend has it that when Lord Ram’s brother Bharat had accused his mother Kaikeyi of forcing Lord Ram to go to the forest, she felt guilty. 

To pacify her, Ram had promised that in his next birth, he would visit her house and have pora pitha. So, Lord Jagannath’s Mausi Maa is considered an avatar of Kaikeyi who serves the sweet to Lord Jagannath. This is how poda pitha became intricately associated with Odia's heritage and history.