Narayan’s new book, Food and Faith: A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India(HarperCollins), is an attempt to understand her faith through the lens of temple prasadams. Calling herself a lapsed Hindu, who was first an atheist in her teens, then agnostic in her 20s, she says, “After having two kids, faith was a way of going back to my roots, finding meaning. The journey of writing this book also became a sort of pilgrimage.” Despite the current socio-political scenario in the country, she refrains from linking faith to politics, and discusses religion in broad strokes. In her introduction, she maintains that the book is written by a “sceptical seeker” and is largely about Hinduism, even though other religions make an appearance.
Raghunathan suggests that there is a stark contrast between temples in the South and Central/North India. “Here, we have a mediator who does the rituals, whereas even in Kashi Vishwanath Temple, we are allowed inside [the sanctum sanctorum] to do the abhishegam [anointing of the deity],” he explains. Narayan, who also wrote The Cows of Bangalore (2018), agrees that the experience at Kashi was “quite overwhelming” for her. That’s where prasadam comes in. “Food is a very earthly way to approach this faith,” she says. Her research included visiting and speaking to the priests and elders, and turning to ancient sacred texts, as well as works by Diana Eck (Banaras: City of Light, etc).
Apart from being delicious treats one can look forward to while visiting temples, prasadams can also tell us a lot about the region and society that created it, says Narayan. A prime example of agriculture and how it influences temple foods is the current Tamil month of Margazhi, where Vaishnavite temples serve ven pongal. “Hearty with rice and dal, with whole pepper for our ‘winter’ months and generous addition of ghee for warmth,” says Raghunathan. Both he and Narayan bemoan the loss of hundreds of indigenous rice varieties that were integral to regional cuisines. “Now, we uniformly have sona masoori,” sighs Narayan. Yet the tradition continues in places like Udupi’s Sri Krishna Matha. In keeping with the four-month fast called Chaturmasya vrat, where devotees give up dairy, greens and other ingredients in turn, “around Navratri, they serve chitranna [lemon rice] for the devotees and also offer it to the gods”, she says, as this is the period of the fast when lentils are avoided.