Festivals,  Folklore,  Food,  Heritage

The Chhappan Bhog story

If you have a sweet tooth, there are chances that you have come across the term Chhappan Bhog in a sweet shop in India or elsewhere. What is the story behind Chhappan Bhog? Where are you most likely to taste this feast?

The term comes from the Hindi word for the number 56 or chhappan. As tradition goes, in most Krishna temples, the Lord is offered a meal consisting of 56 items. Before it is offered to the God, the sacred meal is called ‘bhog‘. Once the offerings have been made to the Lord, the food is shared with His devotees, and now it is called ‘prasaad‘. You are most likely to see the Chhappan bhog being served in Vrindavan or Mathura where the tradition started.

As the story goes, the cow-herds of Mathura had to make huge offerings and sacrifices to please Lord Indra, the God of Lightning. Krishna, as a young cow-herd objected to this policy of appeasement and convinced the cow-herds of Gokul to stop this practice of praying to Indra. An angered Indra then caused massive downpours from the heavens till the village of Gokul was flooded.

In order to protect the villagers, Lord Krishna lifted the Mount Govardhan on his little finger for seven days and seven nights without partaking a morsel of food. All this time, the villagers who undertook refuge in the Divine God remained protected under the shade of the massive mountain. After a week of tormenting the villagers, Indra beat a retreat accepting defeat before the might of Krishna. Since that day, the villagers of Vrindavan and Mathura feed Krishna lavishly in gratitude for staying hungry for the cause of their protection.

Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan on his little finger to protect the inhabitants of Vrindavan from torrential rain . Attributed to Mola Ram (1760-1833) . From Wiki Commons

In some communities, Govardhan Pooja is regularly held after Diwali. One of the traditions observed then is Annakoot. Koot literally means mountain and Anna means food. So a mountain of food is served to Lord Krishna as a mark of gratitude for lifting the mountain on his little finger. This is usually a vegetarian meal consisting mostly of green leafy vegetables. People say that during the floods, everything available on Mount Govardhan served as a source of nourishment to the villagers. But then there are other versions which say that because the markets are closed on the day after Diwali, all the leftovers are mixed together to make a mixed vegetarian meal called Annakoot.

Annakoot (Picture courtesy: Dr Sonal Jain)

So why is it called Chhappan (56) bhog? One version of course says that 56 dishes are served. Here is a list of the items served:

Another version says: since there are 24 hours and traditionally every three hours is called a pahar. In temples, there is a change of guard and a new decor and dress for the Lord every three hours, where a new bhog is offered. That makes for eight offerings in a day. This is done seven days a week, and so this is called chhappan bhog.

I was most intrigued to hear about a scientific basis to the Chhappan bhog theory. In Ayurveda, there is mention about six flavours or rasas. These tastes are: sweet (madhur), sour (amla), salty (lavan), pungent (katu), bitter (tikhta) and astringent (kashaya). The mathematics behind this flavour is even more interesting. How many possible combinations of food are possible using all these six flavours? If you still remember high school mathematics, you can calculate this as:

{\displaystyle ^{6}C_{1}+^{6}C_{2}+^{6}C_{3}+^{6}C_{4}+^{6}C_{5}+^{6}C_{6}=63}

However food cannot be prepared using all six flavours together or only a single flavour. So subtract 6C1=6 and 6C6=1 from 63. Therefore 63- (6+1)=56! Got it?

That’s why the Lord is offered sacred food of all possible combinations. Now, wasn’t that a mouth watering lesson for today?!

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