CHENNAI: Rasam saadam has been a staple, and my favourite, from my early childhood years. But if I had to pick one rasam saadam that left me wanting for more, it would be the one I had at the Shringeri Sharadamba temple in Mangaluru. Here, a separate hall is dedicated to serve full meals to devotees, which is actually prasadam.
Many moons ago, seated cross-legged on a granite platform at this hall, I had slurped the tangy rasam, which was part of this prasadam. It instantly lifted my spirits with minimum effort and maximum flavour. Years later, on a rain-soaked December day, as that aromatic memory revisited me, I wondered, why does a humble, no-frills dish like rasam saadam taste so divine at a temple, which is some kilometres away in another state?
I get the answer from author Shoba Narayan, as we chat about her recent book Food & Faith. “The first reason is specialisation, as each temple has a specialised prasadam,” explains Shoba. “The second reason is what I truly believe in. When we offer food to god, we call it naivedhyam. Naivedhyam becomes prasadam after god has blessed it. I believe that the divine blessing of god is infused in the food that is offered adds to the taste of the food,” she adds.
The book details 15 temples across India and Nepal. How many months did you spend in visiting these temples to collect data?
Two years; it was not continuous. It involved going to the temple, coming back home, researching about the temple and interviewing priests, and writing a chapter. Part of it had to do with linking it to festivals — like the Kumbha Mela. The religious calendar influenced the trip as well. I had visited double the temples that made it to the book. I decided against a lot of the big temples like Tirupati and Guruvayur. Tirupati laddoos are world-famous, but a lesser-known prasadam is the Thirumal Vadai, and inspired by this is the Azhagar Kovil (Madurai) dosai that made it to the book. Similarly, I chose Ambalapuzha paal payasam over the one we get in Guruvayur.
What was your research method to write about each temple?
I started by thinking that before visiting a temple, I’d do all the Internet research. But what I did was the opposite. In temples, particularly in south India, there are Sthala Puranams, and these are written in vernacular languages, which you find outside the sannidhis. They have details and stories that you will not get online. If you are lucky, you’ll find some of the books translated in English — as with the one in Puri Jagannath temple. They have ten volumes of the Sthala Puranam and each one is the size of a dictionary! And so with the amount of information, I flipped the project around. The only research I did before going to the temples was working out the logistics. I had to meet the priests, I discovered that they travel a lot and are busy on puja and festive days. The real research happened after I came back. Unlike many other projects where you can do targeted research, plan out the entire thing, here it was the opposite.