Sacred Food

Some years ago, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin approached me to write a book on “Sacred Food.”  At that time, I wasn’t ready to do it.

Some weeks ago, Sukumar, the editor of Mint, told me about this long-form platform they were launching and told me to write for it.  The multimedia digital platform is exciting.  I did my first voice over here.  They sent me a video and I memorized what I wanted to say.  Played the video on silent, recorded on Garageband, emailed the file over, and voila!!!

You can see Mint on Sunday here and my piece here

Udupi: the preamble

I am standing at the sanctum sanctorum of the Krishna temple in Udupi: the dark-skinned one who some call Shyam; the multi-faceted god who stole butter, danced with milkmaids and yet rendered one of Hindu philosophy’s most profound texts, the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna is one of the most compelling gods in Hinduism, but here in Udupi, he stands as Bala-krishna, young and innocent, holding churned butter in one hand.

Udupi is a small, dusty town no different from those dotting interior India. Its temple and cuisine, however, hold an outsize place in the local, regional, national and even international imagination. Situated between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, Udupi was founded in the 13th century by the Hindu saint-philosopher Madhvacharya.

The Krishna temple here has many legends associated with it. One story says that Madhvacharya saved a ship in distress along the Konkan coast. The grateful ship’s captain gave him a gopi-chandana, or sandalwood lump, that he used as ballast. Inside the lump was the image of Lord Krishna, which was installed here.

The other story has to do with Kanakadasa, a famous bhakti composer, whose songs are still sung in the state. He was a Kuruba shepherd and was denied entry into the temple. He would stand behind the temple and sing songs. One day, the rear wall collapsed and the Krishna idol turned 180 degrees to face Kanakadasa, still visible at the temple as Kanakadasa’s window or Kanakana-kindi. Devotees like my mother revel in this miracle.

“Look, how the Lord turned to yield to the prayers of a simple devotee,” says my mother as she peers through the window.

“Probably an earthquake that caused the wall to collapse and the idol to turn,” the sceptic in me thinks as I peer through the window.

What makes you a believer, one of the faithful? Some of it has to do with age, I think. When you are young, you have boundless confidence and believe yourself to be infallible, unconquerable. It is only when life gives you some hard knocks, when events happen that are beyond your control, when health takes a beating, or when you have, in some cases, an accident or near-death experience, that you begin to question your assumptions. Some people turn to God at this stage; some are born-again, as Christians say. I am not there yet.

Madhvacharya is huge in Udupi. Wherever you go, people talk about him, almost as if he were alive. “He was such a great debator,” says an elderly pilgrim I meet while standing in line. “Went all over India and defeated the Advaita philosophers.”

That he did. I remember reading in school history books about Madhva’s Dvaita school of Indian philosophy that stood in contrast to Adi Shankara’s Advaita. It must have been a fertile time in India then. Philosophers debating for days (Madhva debated for 15 days at a shot with one pundit); writing commentaries or bhasyas on various Sanskrit texts including the Upanishads; setting up temples; and spreading good works like the Christian saints of yore.

Sri Krishna temple, Udupi. Traditionally, the eight ‘mutts’ or ‘ashta matas’ administer the temple by rotation.

Madhva had a smart succession plan. After his time, he said, worship at the Udupi temple would be taken over by not one, but eight students who would all take turns doing priestly duties for the Lord. This tradition continues as the eight mutts (the word connotes monastery but also spiritual gathering or community) or the ashta matas who administer the temple by rotation.

Originating from these eight mutts, Udupi cuisine is robustly vegetarian and satvik. It forgoes meat and fish and even onions and garlic, focusing instead on whole grains and vegetables.

One of South India’s most popular dishes, the masala dosa, originated in Udupi and with it carried the Udupi prefix to restaurants across the globe. There is an Udupi Café in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, and an Udupi Palace in both England and Germany. All serve vegetarian Indian food, including masala dosas.

According to the book, The Udupi Kitchen, by Malati Srinivasan and Geetha Rao, the masala filling that is hidden within the fold of the dosa came about because the sautéed onions that complement the potato filling were considered taboo by orthodox Brahmins. Previously, the dosas were served with chutney and plain potato palya, as it is called here in Karnataka. With changing food tastes, the people wanted to eat their cake, or in this case onions, but had to hide it within the dosa.

Today, the masala dosa has been named—rightfully so, in my opinion as an avid masala dosa eater and self-described dosa connoisseur—as one of the 10 foods you have to try before you die, by the Huffington Post in 2012, and one of the world’s 50 most delicious foods, by CNN in 2011.

A fertile strip of land situated between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, Udupi is lashed by rains during the four months between July and October. This has led to a cuisine that is almost macrobiotic in its adherence to local, seasonal foods. Udupi Brahmins don’t eat certain foods during these four monsoon months, a tradition called chaaturmaasa vratha, that arose perhaps out of seasonal necessity.

  • Udupi cuisine focuses on whole grains and vegetables. Photos by Hemant Mishra/Mint
  • Food being prepared at the Krishna temple.
  • Vast quantities of rice are served during the meals at the Krishna temple.

Udupi cuisine is famous for its chutneys, including one using the skin of the ridge gourd. Its vegetable curries are made from jackfruit, plantain, colocasia and other unusual root vegetables. Most distinctive of all, however, are the gojjus: A spicy sweet sour gravy that contains ground sesame seeds, coconut, jaggery and other spices that flavour the base ingredient, which could be a pineapple or a bittergourd. The Krishna temple in Udupi, as I would find out later, serves all these dishes. For now, I am standing in line amid silk-clad women, all of us eager to see the idol.

It is 11am and the granite floors and pillars offer cool respite against the heat outside. Devotees line up quietly, muttering prayers, hands clasped together fervently. It is a scene familiar to anyone who has visited a temple in India. Swishing saris, the smell of sandal and incense, topless Brahmin priests hurrying between idol and devotee, clanging bells, chanting men and women. For the faithful, Hindu temples inspire devotion, hope and a preternatural peace that descends in spite of the surrounding chaos, as if generations of muttered prayers have muted the soul into peaceful surrender.

The Krishna temple in Udupi is no different. As temples go, it isn’t a rockstar like Tirupati or even Guruvayoor. Fewer people visit, and on that June morning, my mother and I are pretty much left alone to pray in peace. We walk around the sanctum sanctorum many times and peer at the idol. No hustling priests, no crushing crowds, no furtive glances suggesting a small donation for closer access to the deity. It is just us in quiet communion with the Lord.

In one corner, a group of ladies sit in a circle, singing Krishna songs and stringing garlands with lightning fingers. They have separated yellow marigolds from green tulsi and each woman takes a colour. Several string fragrant jasmine. In the opposite corner, a visiting group spreads out their tanpuras and dholaks before commencing a spirited Krishna bhajan.

Near the temple tank, one of the hubs of activity, there are men in dhotis bathing, praying and performing rituals. One monk, clad in saffron robes, sits by himself singing a bhajan that is oddly soothing.

My mother and I sit leaning against the pillars, listening to bhajan mixing with folk song; incense mixing with jasmine and the smell of coconut, milk and honey that comes dripping along with the holy water that is used to bathe the idol every morning. After a while, my mother repeats the phrase that countless others say after their communion with God.

“Let’s go eat.”

Hinduism, like many great religions, is about feasting and fasting, praying and, it must be said, eating prasadam (or holy offerings). The Udupi temple is part of the famed pilgrim’s triumvirate of Udupi-Sringeri-Dharmasthala, all of which serve very good prasadam to thronging devotees. Udupi’s temple food is the best, the faithful tell me. We walk out and turn left to the feeding halls, my mother leading me with the expertise of having spent a lifetime visiting temples.

Indians are funny that way. The elderly in China play mahjong. American senior citizens go on cruises and play golf. Europeans visit museums, tour wineries and dine at Michelin-starred restaurants. Indian elders—and this applies particularly to Hindu women and Catholic couples—visit temples. Pilgrimages are a big part of their lives as I see daily with my septuagenarian aunts and uncles, not to mention my mother. For her latest birthday, I offered my mother the choice between a two-week trip through Europe or a week through interior Maharashtra to visit one of the 12 jyotirling shrines to Lord Shiva. She chose Shiva over the Sistine Chapel.

Udupi is part of my mother’s regular beat since the Mookambika temple of Kollur (which happens to be our family deity) is in the same area. She has visited the temple twice annually for the past 20 years. En route to her Devi, she usually stops to see Krishna.

So we hurry, mom and I, down the corridor, to the feeding area.

“The Brahmins are fed separately. Upstairs,” says my mother.

I wince.

Let me just come right out and say it. Although I grew up in a devout Hindu family, I am uneasy about my religion—about all religions for that matter, for all the usual reasons. Faith gives solace, for sure, but it also inspires guilt. Religion brings people together but it also divides them. It gives peace and causes war; it hurts and heals. Since I come from a fairly traditional devout Tamil Brahmin family, I don’t express my antipathy very much. Instead I disengage, to the extent that it is possible in a religious family such as mine.

I have never been very religious in the ritualistic sense. I don’t do puja, and light our lamp more out of obligation than faith. I have never experienced religious fervour of the kind that the elders in my family talk about. After a long, somewhat circuitous route that involved enforced rituals during childhood, chanting imbibed simply by virtue of being around grandparents and esoteric philosophy spouted during spirited college debates mostly to appear cool, I have decided to access religion in the most benign way possible: through its food. By eating the sacred food given out at temples, churches, mosques and gurudwaras, I will (hopefully) figure out religion’s place in my psyche and my life.

I follow my mother up the stairs to the separate area where we, as Brahmins, will be fed. What about “in the eyes of God, all are equal”, I feel like asking my mother, but she is racing up the stairs.

  • A meal at the Krishna temple. Photos by Hemant Mishra/Mint
  • Food served on a banana leaf.
  • Priests doling out food from a metal container.
  • A priest being served during the meal.

The hall is huge and people are sitting cross-legged on the floor. Young good-looking boys exuding what my mother calls tejas, or radiance, stride through the hall, carrying giant containers holding rice, rasam, vegetables, sweets and ghee. We take our places. Banana leaves are placed before us. Then a veritable feast with all the regional delicacies appears. There are spicy pakoras, sweet payasams, brinjal gojjus, jackfruit curry, several chutneys, kosambari salads, and a mound of rice in the centre.

A bare-chested priest walks down the corridor. With his fair skin and a bright red vermillion dot in the centre of his forehead, he looks resplendent in a purple silk dhoti. Behind him are a line of young ascetics. I stretch my upturned palm like the rest of the congregation. The chief priest pours a little holy water into my palm, which I assume is to wash my hand. “Drink it,” my mother hisses. So I do. I drink the darn well water—who knows how polluted it is and who knows what infection I am catching—before commencing the meal. A young boy comes and distributes Rs10 bills to all of us as dakshina, or fee for eating the meal.

The food is delicious. Barring the jackfruit curry, which must be an acquired taste, I polish it all up. Udupi is justly famous for its rasam and this one doesn’t disappoint. Piquant with a lovely spicy lemony flavour, I drink the rasam twice, then thrice.

We end the meal as we began it: with holy water poured on our upturned palms.

When I started on this endeavour, I didn’t have much of a game plan. After all, I had routinely visited temples all my life and partaken of the prasadam. My ancestors originated in Palghat and so Kerala temples and their thick fragrant nei payasam were practically a summer’s rite of passage, year after year.

Milestones precipitate introspection and turning 40 did that for me. As the mother of two young daughters, the daughter of fairly religious, traditional south Indian parents and in-laws, I had to come to terms with my religion, and indeed all religions. Instead of avoiding and disdaining faith, I had to find my way to include it in my life. For my children’s sake. For my parents’ sake.

I decided that I would visit places of faith, not just Hindu temples but also churches and dargahs. I would go to the ones that served good food. If nothing else, I would eat.

Sacred food as a way of fusing a secular identity with spirituality in some form: that was my plan.

It began naturally with Krishna, not just at Udupi but also at the southern tip of the country, at a place called Ambalapuzha in Kerala.

Shoba Narayan is going to visit Ambalapuzha next to taste the payasam there.