In Odisha, Mesh Sankranti, which marks the transition of the sun from Pisces to Aries, or Mesh, is a propitious occasion. According to the luni-solar calendar of the Odiya Hindus, it’s the first day of the month of Baisakha and the beginning of the Odiya new year. On this day, right in the middle of April, just when the scorching summer sets in, it is mandatory to offer pana—sweet, cold beverages made with a remarkable assortment of ingredients—to the gods and fellow mortals. The day, 14 April, is popularly called Pana Sankranti.
“At its simplest, jaggery is dissolved in water to make guda pana and sometimes it’s jazzed up with a dash of lime or a pinch of rock salt,” says writer Sujata Dehury, a champion of her native Odiya cuisine. The guda pana is similar to the south Indian panakam or panagam—jaggery-infused water flavoured with camphor, dry ginger and peppercorns mandatorily offered to the gods and consumed on Ram Navami, at the beginning of summer. A more elaborate pana, with milk, yogurt, chhena (fresh cheese curds), coconut scrapings, bananas, other seasonal fruits and spices is often made on special occasions, Dehury adds.
The star of Pana Sankranti is baelo pana, for this is the time when bael, or wood apples, ripen. The baelo pana could be a simple drink of water and wood apple pulp, sweetened with palm candy or jaggery, or it could be perked up with curd, fresh cottage cheese, cream and other ingredients to make a textured shake of sorts. “Pana, complex in flavours, texture and consistency, is not only deliciously refreshing, it’s carefully constructed to energise and fortify the body for the summer heat,” Dehury points out.
Of course, there are many other thirst quenchers, like the fermented rice-water based tanka torani or the cooling mandia jau, a fermented drink made with finger millet combined with torani, or rice water, especially among tribals in western Odisha, says Bhubaneswar-based food blogger Alka Jena.
Food researcher Swetak Abhisek Mohapatra points out that the word pana comes from the Sanskrit prapanaka for a special drink. The eighth century Isvarasamhita, an important text of the Pāñcarātra school of Vishnuism, describes a panaka (cold drink) that combines a mix of curds, water pepper and jaggery, similar to the pana offered at temples in Odisha. Silpa Prakasa, a text on Odiya temple architecture (possibly from the 10th century) that delves into various types of temples, with a focus on tantric temples, describes prapanaka as a drink made of black pepper, camphor, milk and jaggery. Pana is an important offering at Shakti temples across the state.
“At the Jagannatha temple too, pana is offered to the trinity every day,” says Mohapatra. Texts like the feted Madala Panji, the chronicles of the temple, and the palm leaf manuscripts of Niladri Mahodaya document the recipe for a pana called Amrita Kunda in minute detail, says Mohapatra. According to the Niladri Mahodaya, two parts water must be combined with one part each of sugar candy, milk, cottage cheese, cream and ripened bananas, and spices like black pepper and camphor. “Nowadays nutmeg is also added to it,” notes Mohapatra.
This pana is at the heart of adhara pana, a ritual performed during the Rath Yatra, when the trinity is offered the drink in narrow, cylindrical clay pots that must reach the adhara, or deities’ lips, when placed before them. The servitors then break the pots so the sanctified pana spills out. This pana, however, is meant for a host of otherworldly beings—parsva devatas, or deities who are said to preside on the chariots as its protectors, dissatisfied spirits that are said to trail the chariot—and who are said to attain moksha on consuming this pana.
Pana is also a mandatory offering during Anasara, the 14-day period of isolation when Lord Jagannatha and his siblings are said to suffer from fever following cold baths during the festival of Snan Yatra. Again, on Chandan Yatra (typically April-May), two kinds of pana, referred to as jata pana, are offered to them.
As much as it is a part of temple cuisine, pana is also a part of domestic religious practices. “In Odiya homes, the month of Chaitra (15 March-13 April) rings in the pana-making season after the season’s first raw mangoes, ideally in the form of amba pana, are offered to the gods on Dol Purnima (Holi),” says Mohapatra.
Every Tuesday, through the month of Chaitra, Hindu women observe Chaitra Mangalabara, when it is mandatory to offer pana to the goddess Mangala Devi. A miniature well is constructed outside the house and pana is poured into it. “The idea is to offer the cooling drink to Mother Earth, and, in the process, various other creatures like birds and insects also partake in the drink in the cauterising summer heat,” says Jena. “Two mandatory ingredients added to the pana offering are pieces of raw mangoes and a variety of tiny chana (gram),” adds Mohapatra.
Throughout summer, Odiya homes turn out pana made with a bevy of seasonal ingredients. There’s pana perked up with khai, or popped rice, dahi pana made with yogurt and sage pana made with sago pearls. A summer essential at Jena’s home is pana made with chhatua—roasted mixed-cereal flour rich in antioxidants, cooling and immunity-boosting. Jena’s family recipe involves roasting wheat, rice, Bengal gram, ground nuts and puffed rice individually and grinding them to a powder. A few scoops of this chhatua are folded into a mix of curd, coconut, bananas and water to make the pana.
Finally, there’s the unique pana made with the famously cooling palua, or East Indian arrowroot, from Odisha’s forested hinterland. Arrowroot powder is soaked and mixed with water to make a slurry, which is combined with milk, bananas, curds, fresh cheese and water or whey (from making chhena) and sweetened with palm candy or jaggery. Alternatively, the slurry is cooked into a gluey dough and passed through a perforated contraption into a bowl of iced water to make strands of arrowroot noodles, which are then added to a chilled drink of milk and curds, flavoured with aromatic spices. It is sublime!
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.