Ever since the lockdown began, all our love for eating street food (on the street, not the hygienic, home-made version) has taken a big hit. I miss eating the pani puris at the cart, telling the guy, “bhaiya, aur teekha, thoda aur teekha karo na!”, asking for more pyaaz to top my puris with, and of course, not to forget, asking for at least two extra sukha puris at the end. I don’t know when I will be able to experience this joy again, I am sure looking forward to it.
A friend I follow on Instagram, did a random Q&A in his stories recently, and there, I noticed one person had asked him, “Did Draupadi really invent Panipuri?” I was shell-shocked. I grew up watching Mahabharat every Sunday on TV. Dad even bought DVDs of the entire B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharat and I have seen so many times. When the lockdown began, and Mahabharat was being screened again on Doordarshan, I religiously planted myself in front of the television at 12 noon and 7 PM. And yet, I never ever heard the mention of this great origin story even once!!!! I have read translations of the Mahabharat – from the simple one by Navneet, to more complex ones without illustrations. We even had a poster of Krishna and Arjun in the battlefield with the shloka of ‘yada yada hi dharmasya… karmanyavadikarraste ma faleshu kadachanam’ in my house. And I had no idea that Draupadi, the dear Panchali invented this amazing outstanding chat that millions can’t live without! No book, no TV series, nothing ever acquainted me to this theory! How ignorant of me!
For the uninitiated, a pani puri is a hollow ball made of semolina or refined wheat flour or wheat flour, filled with spicy potatoes and topped with tangy, spicy tamarind water that is made fragrant by mint leaves and black salt. It is topped with finely chopped onions (even cabbage when the prices of onions tend to skyrocket), coriander leaves, and sometimes even chopped tomatoes, or sev, or bundi, etc.
So, got researching, got talking to people, I had to get to the bottom of this. Origin stories, as such, appeal to me big time, so this was a fun ride I wanted to take. And alas! What did I find! It is true! There is a popular folktale that attributes the invention of the delicious ‘water-balls’ (as high-end gourmet restaurants tend to put it), the puchka, the golgappa, the pakodi, the pani-puri, gup chup, phulki, tikki, paani ka patasha, call it what you like, to Draupadi.
According to legend, the Pandava brothers, after having lost the kingdom, their wife, as well as themselves in the game of dice they played with Duryodhan, Shakuni and Dushasan, were sentenced to 12 years of exile and 1 year of living in incognito. Before leaving for exile, Queen mother Kunti – the wife of King Pandu and mother of three of the Pandavas wants to test if her daughter-in-law will be able to take care of the Pandavas well in exile with scarce resources. she also wants to check if she will favor any one of the brothers in particular or would be fair and just to all. Hence, as a challenge to Draupadi, Kunti gives her some leftover potato subzi and some flour, and asks her to make something that would satisfy the hunger of all the five Pandavas. Draupadi, rose up to the challenge her mother-in-law had given to her, and invented pani puri. Happy at the result, Kunti is said to have blessed the dish with immortality.
I must say, if it had been me in Kunti’s place, none of the pani puris would have reached the Pandavas, I just can’t share my puchkas! Well, considering how spicy I take them, not many want to share it either. (P.S.: Rumi from the movie Manmarziyaan might find it appealing, especially when she is angry). (P.S.: Taani Sahni/Gupta from the movie Rab ne bana di jodi would also efinitely enjoy it at that spice quotient)
There is also another popular legend of the origin of pani puri that goes back to the majestic Magadh kingdom. In ancient India, the kingdom of Magadha was one of the Mahajanapadas. There were 16 Mahajanapadas in ancient India. Magadha was located on the banks of river Ganga in what is present day west-central Bihar. Greek traveler and historian Megasthenes as well as Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fa-xian and Xuanzang have written beautiful accounts of their times in Magadha, describing the kingdom of Magadha, especially that of its capital – Pataliputra. It is believed that the kingdom of Magadha gave the world a dish called phulki, which is the precursor to the present day pani puri. This was a golden period in the history of India. It was also during this time that other traditional delicacies like chitba, pitthow, tilba and katarni rice chewda were evolving. Phulki was a popular delicac in Magadha, though nobody knows where it specifically originated – in the royal kitchens, in the public homes, or anywhere else.
Whatever be the origin, the dish is a delight to have – anytime of the day, anywhere. Pani puri loyalists would swear by the pani puris of a specific cart or shop, or sometimes a specific city, and would never really like those from anywhere else. People can scream all about the unhygienic conditions in which it is made, and the horrors of the things that happen ‘behind the screen’, but the popularity and love for pani puri is undying. While the vendors too have become increasingly aware and have stepped up on hygiene practices in recent times.
No matter who invented it, once things get better that I no longer need to wear a mask at all times or sanitize my hands every 15 minutes, we all will be back at our favorite pani puri stalls relishing our dear delicacy, reminding us of the joy we get from this simple dish. And also experience some performance pressure with the pani puri wale bhaiya standing with the next puri redy, while you still have two pending in your bowl. What’s the fun otherwise!