The Price of a Paan
Lord Jagannatha and the Millionaire
A ruckus had been created among the Cooks and Servitors of the Jagannatha Temple. Everyone was either speaking about it or hearing it from someone else. In a place and time where a sera of milk cost four or six paise, and one of Ghee cost twelve annas or a rupee, what would be done with a lakh of rupees? What bhoga would be worth a lakh? What could be done?
Not hundred, Not thousand. It was one lakh. One hundred thousand. The sages and servants sat counting the zeros in the figure. Not a penny less, not a penny more. One lakh rupees, and that was that.
Everyone was perplexed, and at the same time, desperate. Hours and hours of bewildered musings and still no way to the problem. Still no idea, no solution, no answer, nothing. No panacea for this Gordian Knot. Then again, cutting the knot was no solution, was it? They couldn’t say no; simply couldn’t refuse the money, and say that it was too greater than required. They couldn’t tell him to reduce the money substantially, convincing him that it was still excessive.
This was a matter of great shame. To put it rather too frankly, there was no bhoga worth a lakh that could be offered to the Lord of the Cosmos- Jagannatha. The God who is the ultimate refuge; whose huge outstretched hands lend him his name Mahabahu; whose cartwheel eyes gaze at all that is; whose temple is the Great Temple, Bada deula; whose street is the Grand Street, Bada danda; whose prasad is Mahaprasad; who himself is Mahaprabhu- The Lord Jagannatha -has no bhoga that would cost a lakh rupees. No, not one. Such would be the humiliation if they refused. No, they couldn’t deny the offer. Not even for their life could they do that.
The dearest eatable was butter. Churned from milk, it cost the most. It was called La-hoo-ni in Odia. Krishna loved it so much that he stole and finished off all the butter he could see. From butter was made ghee- the Food of the Messenger of Gods, Agni. But what could be made with only ghee? Even if they served the deities butter sweetened with caramelized sugar, it would cost ten thousand at most. But this was ten times that.
The year was 1727. It would be two days since the Seth had arrived. The word ‘Seth’ in India means a magnate, a magnifico. He was from Hyderabad in South India. His name was Dhananjay Mehta. True to his name, he sure was a winner of wealth. Too much of it. Ostensibly, he wanted to show his devotion to the Lord by offering him a bhoga worth Rupees 100, 000. There was but a single condition- a single bhoga would have to be offered. And therein lied the problem. Had that condition not been there, they could have offered numerous food offerings spread over a span of time. But it was there, and they had to nod their shaved heads in agreement.
Usually, well-to-do pilgrims offered money for bhogas. They gave money for additional bhogas to be offered on the days of their stay, and even after that, on previously settled dates and days, when the stars were in a favourable arrangement in the night sky. Days together after they left, the bhogas were offered by chanting their names within verses of priestly Sanskrit. By selling those bhogas, the pandas and cooks made a living. They served the Lord, and he supported them. But Seth-ji didn’t want that. Why make a fuss in your name when you aren’t present in person? Who would see him after he had left? Better to make a single bhoga, on a single day of his stay, and become known as ‘The-generous-Seth-ji-who-had-made-a-bhoga-of-one-lakh-rupees’. How the people would look up to him after that! How they would hold him in high esteem!
Ananda bazar, the Temple Kitchen, was at that time the World’s Largest Kitchen and it still is. It fed lakhs and crores of people each day, without any previous order. Its foods were called Maha-prasada, not just prasada. From the untouchable Chandala to the revered Brahmin, its gates were open to all. The steamy aromata of the foods as if held the pilgrims by hand and led them to the food. Such a kitchen and still no food worth a lakh.
At last, the cooks and the servitors said in unison-“Why are we foolishly pondering over the issue? Why bother when the answer to all is beside you? He has given us the problem, he will solve it. Let’s ask him. Jaga will surely answer.”
And so they proceeded to the head priest, who ritually went alone to him and in his troubled state spoke out-“Kalia, spare some thought for us and save your and our honour. Tell us what you wish to eat, for it is you who will relish the food. Answer our helpless queries, O Jagannatha!”
And on the other side, our self-proclaimed-great-devotee-Seth was worried over his business. He had to return, you know, to assume control of his business. These assistant-types could not be relied on for long. When they would eat up his empire God alone knew. He would live here in Puri for one more day or would leave straightaway if the main priest did not take his money. That he had fixed in his mind.
When he got the news that Lord Jagannatha would himself tell his choice, he could not help but feel a bit puffed up. His money was so great that the Lord was consulted. He would humble the world with his notes, he thought to himself. What if he would be a day or two late to home? His name would be forever etched in the memory of these people of one of the four holy dhaams, of Jagannath Puri. He would not let go of such a golden chance. God would himself announce what he wanted from his greatest-devotee-ever-Seth-Dhananjay-in-terms-of-money-donated.
One who is the Lord of the fourteen spheres and the world, what does one lakh rupees mean to him? But to his sevakas, his servitors, it was too much. At last, the Lord appeared amidst a cloud of radiance. He said to his head priest, his sincere sevaka-“Tell to Sethji, that I want from him a Paan. Everyday before my sleep, the same betel leaf wrapped around the same things does not feel good to me now. I want something different. The same bidia paan bores me. Let Sethji give me what I desire eagerly. I want from him a Paan, a different one, in which the lime should be from the pearl of a Bull-elephant. Let me first relish that Paan, then shall I think of what to eat worth a lakh rupees.”
A Paan. But not an ordinary one. One with the lime from the pearl of an Elephant’s forehead. Not from shells of ordinary sea creatures, or from the finest conch shell. It is said, traditionally, that pearls grow in the foreheads of bull-elephants. They were called Gaja-muktas, that is, Elephant-pearls. Now the phenomenon has been scientifically confirmed. Elephant pearls are the equivalent of pulp stones in human teeth. They are formed from rounded calcified masses of dentine (ivory) and are recovered from the large soft tissue pulps of the continuously growing teeth (tusks) of mammals such as the elephant (recent and fossil). Anyway, one such pearl was to be obtained. And that, was that.
When Seth-ji was told that all he had to offer was a Paan, he laughed, creating a cacophony. However, his uproarious bellows did not last. His head swayed as he listened to the statement in its entirety. He thought to himself- ‘Elephant-pearl.’ All elephants do not have a pearl. The old phrase came to him- Elephants, dead or alive, are worth a lakh. Lakhs of elephants had to be killed for this. Still, there was a chance that none of them possessed a pearl. Even if one did, it had to be extracted. The pearl had to be burnt over a flame and ground to a fine paste. Then would it be smeared over a betel leaf, and wrapped up for Lord Jagannatha.
This task would take him a lifetime. Still the odds would be against him. He found himself nowhere, lost. Dhananjay Seth’s head reeled. Unknotting his embroidered turban and flinging his sandals outside, he rushed into the Temple, climbing the twenty-two steps representing the twenty-two human fallacies, overcoming them truly. He ran to the sanctum sanctorum, and lowered his head below the jewelled pedestal on which the smiling deities sat. Once again, Lord Jagannatha’s smile waved across his lips. Dhananjay lay defeated. He lay humbled. His pride crushed to pieces, just like the lime-paste, he raised his arms and joined his palms in the gesture of humility and respect, tears streaming from his eyes.
Now changed, he said-“Take whatever I have. Let me not lose this lesson ever in my life. Incapable as I am of giving you a Paan, what can I give you worth a lakh? Take my heart, purified by you. Take my sweet-smelling heart filled with true devotion now, wrapped in the betel leaf of humility, and smeared with the paste of my crushed pride.”