A culinary journey through Tamil Nadu’s Sangam-era temples to discover ancient food and recipes fit for the gods
V Shoba | 16 Apr, 2015
Nearly a dozen cats roam the interminable corridors of the Srirangam temple late into the night, when the frenzy of evening worship has given way to an air of pious melancholy. Here and there, a few pilgrims linger quietly, their silhouettes fusing with the architecture, stone-like. But the cats stride with purpose, cutting across the 156-acre sprawl as though they were a pride of lions headed for a watering hole. It turns out there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this odd behaviour. Who can blame them for following the aroma of sizzling ghee wafting from the air vents of the madappalli, the temple kitchen, a squat structure impenetrable to outsiders? Inside, in a huge brass cauldron, the cook is melting down dark jaggery into a bubbly lava that will momentarily wash over the mound of rice sitting on a stone slab mottled with age. A copious drizzle of ghee, a sprinkle of spice, and he hoists the golden pot of aravanai, covered with cloth, on his waist. Two minutes later, he is at the sanctum sanctorum where portly priests buzz about, preparing Ranganatha, the reclining resident deity, for his nightly feast of rice, plain dal, milk and this dessert. If you happen to be around at the time of naivedyam–about 10.30 pm—you will likely be treated to a bowlful of it, a hot, syrupy porridge with a tantalising hint of wood smoke to fill you with the warmth of yesteryear. Should you be late, though, the cats will have gorged on the leftovers and slunk away to the shadows.
The temples of Tamil Nadu are secret repositories of a Brahminical culinary tradition dating back to the Sangam era. Many of them jealously guard recipes like they would a precious idol, and almost none permit a peek into the sacred hearth that is fired up at least four times a day to recreate their version of classics like pongal, a khichdi of rice, moong dal and spices, and thayir sadam, which is curd rice tempered with a constellation of mustard seeds, curry leaves and chillies. But scratch the surface of their snobbery and you will be rewarded with a glimpse of the lavish hospitality that their patron- kings were known for. A leaf-wrapped cylinder of batter laced with ghee and steamed till fluffy. Spiced dosas each weighing over 2 kg. Roasted millet dough fashioned into a bowl, with a ghee-soaked wick burning in the middle, slow-baking it to perfection. Reduced milk porridge cooked for no less than eight hours and sweetened with crystals of sugar candy. A backstage pass into temple kitchens reveals a parallel universe, a last bulwark of heritage where it is not uncommon to find antique urns weighing a hundred kilograms, granaries to feed an entire town, and some of the rarest recipes to have survived the passage to modern times.
Together, the hallowed shrines to various forms of Vishnu at Srirangam, Madurai, Kumbakonam and Kanchipuram display a culinary repertoire quite outside the scope of a modern- day restaurant. On the slip of land between the Cauvery and the Kollidam rivers, the gods at the largest functioning Hindu temple complex in the world start the day with an atypical breakfast of roti and butter, supposedly in honour of a Muslim princess who fell in love with an idol of Ranganatha. Visitors won’t get to sample the rotis, but there is a steady stream of delicacies—vada, sweet pongal, laddoo, murukku, puliogare— through the day, and a prasadam stall where much of it can be bought. The aravanai is not the Srirangam temple’s only claim to culinary fame: the coveted selvar appam, a sweet rice fritter, is reserved for festive days. “Tirupati is famed for its laddoo, Palani for panchamirtham (honeyed fruit salad), Thiruppullani for paal payasam (kheer). But here in Srirangam, every dish is on equal footing,” says a young man in diaphanous white whose family has been closely associated with the temple for generations.
The best appam you can eat in a temple arguably comes from a much smaller shrine to Ranganatha along the Cauvery, about 25 km downstream at Koviladi—literally, ‘primeval temple’. In a state of decline and undergoing renovation, the Appakoodathan temple, where the main deity has a giant stone urn—appa koodai in Tamil—by his side, was built on a raised platform to guard against floods. The river runs dry now, as do the fortunes of the temple. On summer afternoons, slats of gold stream in through the windows to illumine walls painted every gaudy colour in the spectrum. Considered a forerunner to Srirangam and enshrined in the Vaishnava canons of the 7th-9th centuries as an important site for Vedic studies, the temple became time’s stomping ground and reportedly lost much of the land it owned to local usurpers. But it hasn’t lost its tradition of appam offerings to the deity. For the evening puja at 6 pm, N Rangarajan, one of the two cooks at the temple, hefts a brass bucket with puliogare (tamarind rice) and seven appams from the madappalli to be ‘served’ to the deity. Deep-fried in ghee, with one part jaggery to two parts of ground rice, the discs are crisp at the edges, melting on the tongue, and have a chewy centre. According to legend, Upamanyu, a king who routinely fed thousands of people on the banks of the Cauvery, was one day confronted by an old man who had eaten his way through all the food and yet, wanted something more. When the king served him appam, the man, now satiated, transformed into Ranganatha and lay down at the spot. “Twenty years ago, we cooked gallons of food at the temple. Now it is a few kilograms. Most temple kitchens have taken budget cuts, but these special offerings have been kept alive thanks to charities and patrons,” says Rangarajan.
Faith never worked on an empty stomach. But with the decline of the temple as social space and the proliferation of public eateries, devotees and travellers no longer had to rely on the madappalli for food. (Even now, pilgrims to hundreds of remote shrines across Tamil Nadu have to call ahead and request the priest to make arrangements for lunch.) With modern administration came stricter controls and rationing of food supplies. As I arrive at Azhagar Kovil, a Sangam-era temple on the fringes of Madurai, I run into an official who is busy counting packets of areca nut, turmeric and other spices before locking them up in a cupboard in the ugrana— the store room. The nel (husked rice) that devotees bring as harvest offering is auctioned off and an antique, wheeled grain bin called pathayam holds the temple’s modest stock of rice. Next to it, in a corridor, stands a mechanised apparatus for pounding grain. This was once a toilsome activity employing several men—there are no women cooks in the misogynistic world of Hindu temples— considering that the signature dish of the temple is a dosa made of broken rice and black gram with the skin intact, ground along with salt, cumin, black pepper, ginger, hing and curry leaves. “We cook 15 kg of prasadam in a day, which goes up manifold on festive occasions,” says R Chellappa, one of the two head cooks at the madappalli who work in 15-day shifts. The prasadam, distributed to a coterie of devotees and special guests, does not make it to the sales counter. To the regret of connoisseurs, commercial catering in most temples today is outsourced to cooks who replicate popular recipes from the madappalli.
Chellappa and his colleague roll out a large griddle, made of a precious alloy and said to be worth several crores of rupees, to explain, as if in flashback to today’s commoditised foodscape, what goes into the making of the Azhagar temple dosa. After superheating a kilogram of ghee on the griddle, twice as much unfermented batter is poured in, and each side cooked to a golden brown. Turning a dosa that size without an accident is a tricky maneouvre even for Chellappa, who has been a temple cook for four decades. “The dosa doesn’t spoil for five days. The secret is not just the ghee, but the holy spring water we add to the batter,” he claims, referring to the Noopura Ganga, a stream that originates in the Azhagar Hills above the temple. But then, what temple does not make a vainglorious case for the medicinal waters of its holy cistern (pushkarini)? I take a swig of bottled water instead before tucking into a hearty piece of dosa so crisp it can well stake claim to the status of vada. Any accompanying condiment, I am convinced, would be a case of gilding the lily.
There are desserts and there is akkarai vadisal, a kheer that can satisfy the most refined sweet tooth. It takes me to Srivilliputhur, a town 80 km south-west of Madurai where Andal, a Tamil mystic and poet, was born. One of her oft-quoted hymns describes in luscious detail a godly feast replete with ghee dripping down the forearm from a serving of akkarai vadisal. “This is a land flowing with milk and honey,” says S Parthasarathy, a priest at the twin temples of Vatapatrasayee and Andal, time-blurred places of lyrical chanting, poetry and, as I am about to discover, culinary excess. On festive days, particularly in the month of January, a hundred litres of milk are boiled in an old cauldron with a padi (about 1.5 kg) of fragrant pre-roasted rice, three litres of ghee, 22 kg of candied sugar and 4 kg of cashews and almonds. The akkarai vadisal that is ladled out eight hours later belongs with divinity. “The nature of prasadam often depends on the ingredients readily available in the region,” says Parthasarathy. “Here, there has always been an abundance of milk, even in drought years.” Once a cooperative dairy farming industry took root in this town in Virudhunagar district, palgova, an iconic sweetmeat made of reduced milk and sugar, quickly became popular, bringing to a new pitch the glory of its provenance. Today, palgova stalls line the streets and cooks from Srivilliputhur skilled in milk processing are a precious resource.
Parthasarathy himself is a walking culinary omnibus, rattling out rare recipes from the temple kitchen—for black gram pongal with gingelly oil, a peppery fritter known here as thirumal vada, a jaggery-encrusted legacy snack called manoharam murukku, and kummayam and okkarai, festive sweets made of dal. As a crisp murukku snaps like a twig between my fingers, he readily chants Tamil verses from Nachiyar Thirumozhi, Andal’s love song for Vishnu.
Srivilliputhur is a treat for all the senses. It is said that Thirumalai Nayakar, who ruled Madurai in the 17th century, always waited for the gods here to partake of their food before he sat down to eat. When the temple gong announced the time of naivedyam, the acoustic cue was echoed by a contiguous grid of bell towers stretching all the way to his palace in Madurai. The king is credited with renovating the temple, whose imposing, 196-foot-tall gopuram has come to be part of a popular myth. Despite what Wikipedia and the TNPSC may believe, the Srivilliputhur gopuram is not the one featured in the emblem of Tamil Nadu, says Chitra Madhavan, a temple archaeologist from Chennai. “The artist, Krishna Rao, who was a teacher at the Egmore school (now college) of arts, drew a detailed sketch of the West gopuram of the Madurai Meenakshi temple. When the drawing went to the printing press, the details were reduced to squiggles and the gopuram seemed to resemble the one at Srivilliputhur,” Madhavan says.
During the day, between 12 and 4 when the temples are shut, and it is unthinkable to venture out in the sun, I meet locals in the shade of rain trees or by the lotus ponds that dot southern Tamil Nadu like shimmering sequins, and hear them talk about dishes that sound decidedly less divine. A vegetable gravy with raw banana and jackfruit called paal maanga that is offered to the deity at Karappankadu, a village near Mannargudi, on a particular day of the Tamil month of Vaigasi (May-June). The horsegram pongal and wild berry masiyal—masiyal is a mash, usually along with tamarind extract—of the Thirukkurungudi temple in Tirunelveli district. The sweetened foxtail millet flour that is one of the simple pleasures of visiting a Murugan temple, for his consort is Valli, a woman from the hunter-gatherer community. These imperiled dishes do not exist outside the socio- religious construct of naivedyam and may one day wash away with the ever-receding waters of tradition.
The Varaha temple at Srimushnam in Cuddalore district is home to one such oddity—musta churna, the powdered roots of a medicinal tuber that grows wild along the edges of fields. The fine powder, dry-roasted and added in small quantities to rice flour along with edible camphor, palm sugar and ghee, is shaped into hard, tennis ball-sized laddoos. Varaha, being a wild boar, is said to be fond of digging up the tuber, which is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat dysentery, inflammation and rheumatism. It costs Rs 200 to make a kilogram of musta laddoo, but there aren’t many takers for a coarse, herbal ball of flour wrapped in a dry leaf and tied with a twine, says Rajamani Bhattar, a man with a shock of white hair, locking the cavernous kitchen behind him. “Since the temple Devasthanam doesn’t pay for it, I sponsor this prasadam and we managed to sell a few laddoos at Rs 10 each,” he says in self-defence.
As the day fades, like the strands of jasmine tucked into women’s hair, and amber light streaks the sky above the Srimushnam temple complex, I bid goodbye to its wide corridors and impossibly curvaceous stone maidens. It is a 40-km drive to Chidambaram, the only Saivite temple on my culinary trail. “Unlike Vishnu, Siva, being an austere yogi, does not demand elaborate food,” notes Chitra Madhavan. Sundara Dikshitar, a priest with a keen nose and a keener sense of humour, smiles in amused disagreement. At the gate of the original sanctum at Chidambaram that is undergoing repairs, he hands me a paper cup with a perfectly rounded scoop of hot prasadam that vaguely resembles halwa. “Now tell me what that is,” he says, leaving me stumped. It turns out to be kalkandu bath—rice delectably over-cooked with milk and sugar candy. But it isn’t the reason I am here. The brinjal gosthu, a tangy accompaniment to brighten insipid carbs, traces its origin to Chidambaram, where it is served to Nataraja in the evening along with samba, plain rice tempered with salt, cumin and pepper popped in ghee. Long, purple-striped brinjal is fried in gingelly oil, mashed, and boiled with tamarind extract and a spice powder of red chillies, coriander seeds and hing. The dish is set aside for two hours to allow the flavours to blend. “The kitchen here is equipped to cook a thousand litres of gosthu and two-and-a-half sacks of rice at a time,” says Sundara Dikshitar. “You can walk into the temple at any time of the day and there will always be free prasadam. Whether you have come for worship or to admire the architecture, you will never leave with an empty stomach,” he says. The temple is run not by the government, but by a close-knit cadre of about 400 priests.
From the elaborate precincts of the Chidambaram temple, I find myself in the damp vaults of smaller shrines dotting the outskirts of Kumbakonam—the nerve centre of ancient culinary alchemy where, even today, tiny shop-fronts display pots and pans in bronze, brass, copper and eeyam, an alloy of tin and aluminium used exclusively to brew tangy rasam. At the ancient Chola temples at Nachiar Koil and Thirukkannamangai on the Kumbakonam-Thiruvarur highway, I quiz the priests about the amrita kalasam, an eclectic dumpling resembling a modak that is only prepared on Thursdays and on demand when you pay for a special puja. A dough of roasted and sweetened rice flour encloses a mixture of half-boiled moong dal, pepper, clove, cardamom, grated coconut and pieces of jaggery. The steamed dumplings, bursting with flavour, are considered a favourite of Garuda, the star attraction at these temples. What better than an exotic sweetmeat dredged up from the past to appease a god who seems to revel in the heavy afternoon air of Thirukkannamangai scented with neem blossoms? I try to engage a couple of pilgrims completing their customary perambulations around the temple in conversation, but they have no time. “We must offer prayer at six temples today and if we don’t rush, two of them will shut,” says R Vaitheeswari, a middle-aged woman in a blue silk sari, falling a step behind her husband. “Our youngest daughter is 24 and not married yet. We are worried. Seven consecutive weeks of offering amrita kalasam at the temple should amend her fate.” To her, I must seem like an idle traveller, picking tiny magizhampoo (Spanish cherry) blossoms off the stone floor and asking after the food of the gods.
Temples are silent witnesses to history, but occasionally, they may choose to honour milestones from the past in rituals that conjure a different day and age. At the remote Sowriraja Perumal—literally, the long-haired god—shrine at Thirukkannapuram in Nagapattinam district, the nightly naivedyam is a throwback to the memory of a tax collector for the Cholas. It is past 9 pm and the temple, facing a lovely tank with catfish, is suffused with the scent of butter and the anticipation of untold stories. Legend has it that one year in the distant past, when the Chola Empire was in the throes of a famine, Muniyodaran, a tax official, gave away the collections to the temple for annadanam, incurring the wrath of the king. When he was finally released from prison and the goodness of his actions recognised, Muniyodaran is said to have made a pongal of rice, green gram and freshly melted butter and offered it to the local deity. A big helping of his pongal, divided into 16 balls, has found its way into the last ritual of the day at 10 pm. “We don’t get many visitors here, barely 10 or 20 in a day. Perhaps, if you wrote about the specialty here—a ball of butter pongal costs a nominal Rs 5—devotees may want to include it in their pilgrimage,” says Sampath Kumar, the priest whose family has served here for five generations. The Kanchipuram Varadarajaswamy temple idli, the puliogare and sweet pongal at the Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane, and the salt-free vada offered to Oppiliappan in Kumbakonam hang in my memory, occasionally resurfacing like Proust’s madeleines. It is the more modest dishes, held together by the thin threads of history and legend, that I will come back for.