Ganesh Chathurthi, the celebrations of Lord Ganesha’s birthday, is one of the most eagerly awaited festivals in Maharashtra, as Ganesha, the charming and infinitely wise elephant headed God is a revered and extremely popular deity. Modaks are synonymous with Ganesh Chathurthi as Lord Ganesha loves these delicious, sweet fluted dumplings, and they are offered to him all through the festival, right from his homecoming (sthapana) to the ceremonies bidding him goodbye (visarjan). In fact, Lord Ganesha is also called ‘modakpriya,’ or ‘one who loves modak,’ and there are several stories that explain how he came by this name.
Lord Shiva once visited the home of an ancient rishi named Atri. Lord Shiva who was hungry, wanted to be served a meal immediately. However, Anusuya, the sage’s wife, stated that she would serve Lord Shiva only after his little son Ganesha’s hunger had been satiated. Lord Shiva was not pleased to hear this, but controlled his hunger and watched as a wide array of delicious dishes were placed before little Ganesha. The little elephant headed God had a huge appetite, and though he gobbled up everything that was put before him, there was no sign that he was getting full. As Ganesha’s mother Goddess Parvathi watched in disbelief, Anasuya realised that if she did not do something quickly, there would be no food left to serve Lord Shiva! She served Ganesha a small sweet, and after he ate it, he burped, indicating that his belly was finally full. Lord Shiva also let out 21 burps, and this is the reason why Lord Ganesha is always offered 21 modaks during the Ganesh Chathurthi festival. Goddess Parvathi was curious to know more about the sweet that instantly filled Ganesha’s stomach. When she learnt that it was a modak, Goddess Parvathi decreed that Lord Ganesha’s devotees must offer modaks to him, and this custom has been carried on ever since.
A mythological story about Lord Ganesha’s love for modaks is found in the Puranas. Lord Ganesha’s grandmother Menavati (Goddess Parvathi’s mother) like all indulgent grandmothers, would pamper her beloved grandson who loved sweets, by preparing laddoos for him. But as Ganesha grew, so did his appetite for laddoos. Goddess Parvathi realised that it was impossible to prepare enough laddoos to satiate Ganesha’s enormous appetite. So, she decided to make another dish that he would relish equally. She made a sweet with rice flour, coconut, jaggery and ghee, and offered to Lord Ganesha and he gobbled it with great enjoyment.
Another legend says that Lord Ganesha fought with Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu. During their fight, Lord Ganesha’s tooth was broken and he was unable to bite and eat anything hard. Sweet and soft modaks that melted in his mouth were prepared for him, and he could eat these to his heart’s content. From then onward, modaks became Lord Ganesha’s favourite food.
The word ‘modak’ is synonymous with happiness because it means ‘a small part of bliss.’ This delightful sweet is called modakam or kudumu in Telugu, medakas or kadubu in Kannada, modak in Marathi and Konkani, kozhakatta or modakkam in Malayalam and kozhukattai or modagam in Tamil.
Ukadiche modaks, or the traditional steamed modaks, are made from rice flour (basmati rice flour) with fillings of grated coconut and jaggery with a little nutmeg and cardamom added for flavour. These plump modaks are served with pure ghee. Fried modaks, or ‘talniche modaks,’ are made of whole wheat flour, and have fillings of lentils or roasted sesame seeds with jaggery. Modaks today can be found with a modern-day twist – they come in a variety of colours and flavours. They are not only sweets served as devotional prasad, but are desserts that come in exotic flavours like chocolate, blueberry and black currant.
Whether you steam or fry them, or make them in a new flavour, rotund modaks, shaped like round lotus buds, the favourite sweet of a beloved and benevolent god, will always be the sweetest part of the wonderful festival of Ganesh Chathurthi.