What use is temple cuisine?

In 1810, Robert Southey, a somewhat effeminate-looking British poet laureate who belonged to the Romantic school, wrote a poem called The Curse of Kehama. In it, he talked about an Indian practice that appalled him.

“A thousand pilgrims strain,” he began. “To drag that sacred wain… And, calling on the god. Their self-devoted bodies there they lay… To pave his chariot-way.

Oh Jaga-Naut they call.

The ponderous car rolls on, and crushes all.

Through flesh and bones it ploughs its dreadful path…”

This poem bothers me on many levels. It makes a judgement on an event without offering context; it highlights only the bad parts without making a mention of the religious devotion that anchors the Jagannath rath yatra, which is what the poet is describing; and most of all, it is a third-rate poem that resolves to rhyme to hide the fact that there is no deeper meaning.

Southey’s fame has been justly eclipsed by his contemporaries, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. He, however, gave the world the term ‘juggernaut’. The etymology of the word does no justice to the god. Juggernaut refers to an unstoppable, somewhat menacing force that gains momentum and causes death, ostensibly because throngs of devotees are crushed under a chariot’s wheel during the annual rath yatra, improperly translated as the car festival.

First of all, and I didn’t know this, it isn’t one god but three. Jagannath, the main deity of the temple, is a form of Vishnu. He stands with his brother, Balabhadra, and his sister, Subadhra. Ratha is a chariot and yatra is a journey. The rath yatra is a journey by chariot, not a car festival. It is a trip that the three siblings make to their aunt Gundicha’s home for restoration. They fall sick and have to be cared for.

Who came up with this idea? Gods are taken in procession through villages in many temples. But the idea that gods fall sick and have to be cared for by a maternal aunt is a nifty embellishment behind one of India’s largest human congregations.

Hundreds of thousands of people stand witness to the rath yatra. The road between the Jagannath and the Gundicha temple, therefore, would give any broad French boulevard a run for its money.

Chariots outside the temple that will be used for the annual Rath Yatra.

At 45,000 sq. ft, the temple complex itself is large—not as large as the Big Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, but of respectable size. The vimana or tower is 215ft high, and in the evening, a type of temple sevaka (service giver) called Garuda sevaka climbs up to the tower to tie pieces of cloth on the flagpole. People can buy this offering and these men tie their hopes and dreams on top of the temple, without so much as a belay, safety rope or harness.

Inside the temple complex, there are numerous shrines for Surya, the sun god; for Lakshmi, for Shiva and perhaps, most ancient of all, the goddess, Bimala or Vimala. Some say her shrine predates that of Jagannath, proving that Puri was an important place in the Shakti cult.

Perhaps because I grew up in Kerala, I am fascinated by the tantric roots of the goddess cult. Kerala and Bengal are two important centres for tantrism. I still have to figure out the elements.

The two words that everyone uses with respect to tantrism are esoteric and mysterious. There is the Kundalini Shakti that is aroused through breathing exercises; the Sri Vidya type of worship, which is what my mother follows.

There is the astrology aspect of it through the throwing of cowrie shells. Malayalam film star Mammootty plays this role in a movie: he is a gifted astrologer who throws cowrie shells and predicts his own death. In Puri, tantra worshippers come to pay obeisance to Bimala, whom they consider more important than Jagannath.

To get to see the god Jagannath, you have to wait in a spacious hall in rows of 10 or more people. North Indian temple entrances are broad, particularly in comparison to the tiny openings of ancient south Indian temples. The securitymen shoo you in and the crowd moves in unison towards the massive deities that stand on a pedestal above eye level. What do they think of this surge of humanity coming towards them, I wonder? Kinda like Shah Rukh Khan on a platform.

There is the white Balabhadra, the red Subhadra, the black Jagannath, and slightly behind is the red Sudarshana, which is Vishnu’s chakra, a destructive discus that chops off evildoers’ heads with impunity.

The temple priests urge you to put your head on Jagannath’s feet, make an offering. The air is cool. Every now and then, a group of temple cooks bring in food for offering and then take it out to sell in the Ananda Bazaar.

I sat one evening under the banyan tree and ate the prasadam that I bought from the priests. There were a variety of rice dishes, brinjal flavoured with coconut shavings, dal and a sweet. I would like to tell you that the food was delicious. It probably was, but it isn’t memorable.

The sceptic in me believes that the quality of the food is watered down because of the aggressiveness of the priests and their economic needs. But flavour isn’t really the point of this food. After all, you can have bad food at a five-star hotel.

This is food that has the breath of god; it is a symbol of his mercy and munificence. I would have liked to watch its preparation, but like I said, outsiders aren’t allowed into the kitchens.

You cannot enter the kitchens of the Jagannath Puri temple. But you can see a miniature version of this type of cooking at the Anantha Vasudev temple in Bhubaneshwar.

The Anantha Vasudev temple.

This jewel of a temple sits across a broad, beautiful temple tank. Inside, several small kitchens prepare food for the lord every day using humble ingredients: local rice, yellow toor dal, yellow pumpkin, brinjal, yam and other indigenous vegetables; all cooked over wood fires, and served in the eating section adjacent the temple.

At 11am on a rainy morning, the kitchens were busy. There were no metal pots to clang. Men in checked towels sat behind wood fires, stirring mud pots full of ingredients. A few hours later, the cooks carried earthenware pots of steamed rice, dal and vegetables into the temple. They offered it to the lord before selling it to the devotees. Wouldn’t the lord like something different, I wondered. A pizza, maybe?

It is easy to be flippant or cynical about temple food. The same list of dishes, cooked in the same way over centuries, feeding masses of people via the lord. What other earthly virtue does it have? An important one has to do with the preservation of indigenous seed varieties.

At the Jagannath temple, for instance, one of the offerings is made with green paddy. For green paddy to be available through the year, specific seed varieties that ripen at different times have to be grown around the temple. At the very least, this promotes biodiversity. India used to have 100,000 varieties of rice. Today, most of us eat basmati and sona masoori rice. Temple kitchens specifically choose local and indigenous varieties of rice like matta, njavara, red rice, parboiled and others.

Today, dining locally and seasonally is the buzzword. Restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen make a virtue of foraging for local herbs and ingredients. Most traditional societies used to do just that. The problem is that much of this traditional food, and I speak mostly for Indian food, is not necessarily tasty.

On new moon days, elderly south Indians eat only indigenous vegetables such as plantain or green banana, pumpkin, yam, Indian beans such as avarekai and karamani, and green leafy vegetables such as moringa and amaranth.

Traditional Hindus fast on Ekadasi day—the 11th day of the waxing or waning moon. They break their fast with food that contains no tamarind (difficult to digest?), and bitter greens such as agathi keerai and dried sundakai or Turkey berry. Both are, shall we say, an acquired taste. Mashed potatoes with a dollop of butter, they are not.

Each festival had a fixed menu that was chosen to suit the season and whatever was available locally. Both undhiyu, the Gujarati delicacy, and the kootu made during December for a south Indian festival called Tiruvadirai used only those vegetables that were available during that month: cluster beans, field beans, yellow pumpkin, yam, green banana and tender lentils still in the pod.

These were all heating vegetables that served to offset the cool winter of December. Similarly, the amla—Indian gooseberry—renowned for its vitamin C, comes in the month of Karthigai (15 October-15 November, approximately—it varies a day or so from year to year). It arrives in the markets when the weather turns cold, causing colds and flu.

Eating this amla during this month staves off the sniffles. My mother calls this amla vidya-arambha nellikai, or gooseberry to start the learning season. Or the gooseberry that comes to fruit during a particular day called Vidya-arambham or Vijayadashami or the last day of Navaratri.

In Maharashtra, according to food writer, Vikram Doctor, certain wild greens are cooked during Rishi Panchami. Indeed, every part of India has specific dishes, recipes, pickling techniques and ingredients that are linked to festivals. All of these would die were it not for festivals, temples, and tradition.

To answer the question, of what use tradition? Of what use temple cuisine? To encourage frugality; local and seasonal living; to intersperse feasting with fasting; and yes, to eat well, not just in the rich paneer butter masala-type of cuisine, but in the sattvic sense. Food that is light, easy to digest, and spreads like lightning through your cells causing them to dance with delight; food that sparks your neurons and magnifies your mood; food that calms you down and lets you think clearly.

Our ancients believed that food was potent. It was Anna Brahma—food as a creator.

Who is this god for whom all this food is made? Jagannath is one of the most interesting gods in Hinduism. Everyone claims him: the Vaishnavites or Vishnu worshippers, Shiva and Shakti worshipers, Buddhists, Jains and tribals. Everyone seems to have a connection to this black-faced god by the seashore with his round popsicle-red eyes and frozen rictus smile. Wooden arms, stretched in front, to give and receive.

If you weren’t a Hindu; if you were a child with an active imagination, this apparition would be scary. Yet, generations of saints and sinners have rushed into his temple, seeking mercy and blessings.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the influential monk who founded several spiritual orders, went into paroxysms of delight upon seeing this god. He ran into the garbagriha and fell senseless with delight, instead of thinking, like I did, that the idol in front looked like a zombie. Or a tribal totem. Which is how this particular god originated.

The history of Jagannatha-Purushottama, and yes, I realize that I am throwing in a new name here, is a fascinating blend of religion, statecraft, and devotion.

In the chessboard that was India in the 10th century, there were kings who wanted legacies; religions that jostled for supremacy; teachers who wanted to convert kings and their subjects; and devotees who could choose religions like a voter chooses parties. Puri was the stage on which all these dramas were acted out.

Read the first part of the serieshere.

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