Offered on a different platter

Does one live to eat or eat to live? Ancient Tamil literature seems to favour a bit of both. The Naaladiyar's first verses remind one that “Even those who have eaten every variety of food and not taken a second portion from any dish, may yet become poor and long for more.” Other poems in the ‘Purananooru' and ‘Agananooru' praise the merits of simple food – hot, well cooked rice with the best ghee. Food in ancient texts was equated with God and was therefore an important offering. ‘Choru' was cooked rice flavoured with spices and ‘Perum Choru' was an offering made to the memorial of a fallen hero as others danced around the stone monument.

As temples became important beneficiaries of royal patronage, food became an important and integral offering to the deity. Temples still serve the tastiest food and most people attribute this to the food being cooked on slow wood fire. Surely the recipes add their magic too. Inscriptions of recipes are hard to come by, there may be no more than nine or 10 of them in all the temples but they date from the Chola and Nayak periods and provide a tantalising glimpse into the food that we eat every day.

The cooking ingredients

A 12{+t}{+h}century inscription from the reign of Kulotunga Chola mentions the popular deep fried sweet, Paniyaram. It mentions the use of coconut and palm sugar. Interestingly, the inscription mentions it as Karuppatti – the name hasn't changed in 1,000 years. Out of circulation for over a decade, it is making a comeback as a healthier alternative to refined sugar.

The Pandya kings seemed to have added banana, cumin, dry ginger, pepper and sugarcane to this sweet when they offered it to the god. A Vijayanagar recipe from Tirupati, gives us even the proportions. It adds aval or flattened rice, jackfruit and sugarcane juice to the ingredients. Adhirasam is another offering mentioned in the recipe in which special rice called Adhirasappadi is used. Again found in Tirupati, the recipe elaborates the proportions of ghee, sugar and pepper (one azhakku) to be added. Again, this recipe, except for the rice remains unchanged.

The ever popular dosa is another favoured offering. Even today, in most temples, this is the first offering. A Vijayanagar inscription details the proportions as being equal measures of rice and black gram. Sugar is also added as is copious amounts of ghee. If the dosa is mentioned, can idlies be far behind? We have references to this staple food as far back as the 18{+t}{+h}century. Any expert idly maker will tell us that the trick is in the batter. The inscription suggests - for every two marakkaals of rice, one marakkal of black gram, One uri of ghee and 10 palams of sugar. All of this was to make one giant idly!

Puttu is another dish mentioned in the reign of Parantaka Chola. Land was purchased and donated to the Thiruvidaimarudur temple to provide for this offering. Temple kitchens in Pandya times were called Adukalaippuram.

Moving from the more popular dishes to the less popular ones in today's kitchen, we come to the sweet called Kummayam. Periyazhwar mentions this in Divya Prabhandam as another favourite of Krishna. This dish is still served in a few Vishnu temples rarely. It is made of rice, green gram, cow's ghee, curd, banana and sugar. This recipe is from the 10{+t}{+h}century. The inscription also adds, that by equating the sugar measure to the rice, sakkarai pongal can be made. Speaking of sakkarai pongal, the Srirangam temple has an inscription that not only mentions the method of preparation but the honours with which it should be served. A Parantaka inscription from 930 A.D. refers to curd rice or thayir amuthu.

Inscriptions refer to rice as amuthu (nectar) and the donor thought of everything. Most inscriptions on food offerings also mention gifts of adikkai – areca nuts – for the after meal snack!

One of the most comprehensive set of food related inscriptions is from the Varadaraja Temple, Kanchipuram. A Maha neivedyam was offered by the Vijayanagar king Achutaraya in the 16{+t}{+h}Century with the help of the income contributed from several villages. The following 15 offerings are mentioned – paanagam, vadaparuppu, kari – amudhu (cooked vegetable), daddhiyodanam (curd rice), dosaippadi (dosa), adirasappadi (sweet), appapadi (sweet), vadai, sukiyanpadi (made of dried ginger), puliyodarai (tamarind rice), Ellorai (cooked rice with gingelly seed), Kadugorai (cooked rice with mustard), Pongal, idli, Akkaravadisal. Provisions with measures complete the long inscription.

Food continues to be a popular offering in temples but labour shortage and devotee preferences have made it much less of a divine affair. Wood fires are less common and the quality of provisions inferior. Changing tastes make many shy away or remain simply ignorant of temple food. Hopefully better awareness of such inscriptions will change perceptions.

(The author can be contacted on pradeepand


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