Legend has it that once, upset with Krishna for not taking her along for the rath-yatra, Laxmi decides not to let him into the Jagannath temple. Upon his return, when Krishna discovers the doors to his home shut, he pleads with Laxmi to let him enter. Having had enough of the Lord’s hide and seek, she refuses to budge. Krishna tries every trick possible, but fails. Helpless, he leaves the temple, only to return in a jiffy with a pot full of soft, fluffy rasgullas. The trick works and Laxmi opens the temple doors in no time.
The story happens to be one of the many legends prevalent about the origin of the rasgulla in Odisha. Not only the legends, but the documented history of the Jagannath Temple also has mentions of the syrupy sweet. It is believed to have existed in the land of Lord Jagannath since the beginning of time.
The rasgulla has, therefore, always been a bone of contention between the Bengalis and the Oriyas. While the Bengalis believe that it was ‘invented’ in their backyard by a certain Mr. Das in the 19th Century, Oriyas laugh the claim off: How can you invent something that has always existed?
Bengali or Oriya, I have forever been in love with rasgulla and I have had my share of good and not-so-good ones too. The best so far has been the warm, nolen gur rasgullas from a non-descript shop in a bylane of South Calcutta’s Hindustan Park. The worst I prefer not to remember.
But all of these have been the Bengali version. In the land of Lord Jagannath now, I cannot wait to lay my hands — or spoon — on the legendary Oriya version.
My quest for the sweet begins as soon as I step into the temple town on a fragrant autumn evening, but as luck would have it, I get to sample it only on my third day there. In a sweet shop, after completing my pilgrimage to the Jagannath temple, and all associated places of worship, I have finally earned my share on a pattal (leaf bowl), which is handed to me by the gentleman behind the counter of the shop.
The rasgullas are large, off-white to the extent of being beige, and look deliciously different from their posh, gleaming-white cousins in big cities. I try to cut through one of them but fail. Fresh off the kadai, they are too spongy to be cut by a flimsy wooden spoon, so I choose the easiest way out. I pick up an entire piece and put it in my mouth.
It causes an explosion in my mouth. But it is not that of overwhelming sweetness or artificial sponginess; it is strong, slightly chewy, and not too sweet.
In a matter of seconds, it dissolves in my mouth, leaving behind a lingering caramelly flavour. As I reach for the other, and another, I know why Laxmi let Krishna in. A pot full of these rasgullas is worth so much more than one’s pride.