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Showcasing a spoonful of history on temple prasadam

An upcoming multi-sensorial workshop demystifies sacred offerings by showcasing myths and legends, culinary history and literature about them

Aravanai Payasam
Aravanai Payasam

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The akkaraadisil is a special offering that is cooked in households and temples across Tamil Nadu on one particular day of the year— the Panguni Uthiram. In the kitchens of the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, Tiruchirapalli, —one of the major and largest Vaishnava temples in southern India—big vats of rice and moong dal are being readied. These will be slow cooked with milk, ghee and jaggery and offered to the deity tomorrow to mark the Panguni Uthiram.

“It is the only day when the god and the goddess are brought together and worshipped in the mandapa. On other days, they are worshipped in their respective shrines. The akkaraadisil is prepared in terracotta pots, which are broken later,” says Rakesh Raghunathan, food raconteur, host of television shows such as Dakshin Diaries and founder of food-history based tours and travel company, Puliyogare Travels. It is stories such as these that he will be sharing on 19 March at Hanu Reddy Residencies, Poes Garden, Chennai as part of Sacred Offerings, a multi-sensorial presentation of the temple prasadams of Srirangam featuring songs, stories and cooking.

For instance, he has delved into Sangam literature to find observations of the celebrations on Panguni Uthiram day. In one of the verses, the female protagonist is shown without a bindi. “So, the hero compares her forehead to the barren town landscape, bereft of activity after the busy Panguni Uthiram day,” he says. In another text, Sri Andal in her Natchiyar Thirumozhi writes that she will offer a 100 tadas of butter and 100 tadas of akkaraadisil on that day (tada is the size of a pond in today’s context). The other prasadams on showcase are the aravanai payasam and thirumal vadai. In the past, in the pre-pandemic years, he has done similar workshops on other sacred offerings in India and across the globe. He hopes to take the Srirangam showcase to Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai in the later months as well.

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Raghunathan has made a conscious effort to create a presentation without a touch of religious colours. Rather, he hopes to offer a holistic cultural and historical context to people from all walks of life and across religions about the economy and ecosystem around the temples, and how that influenced what was cooked in their kitchens. For instance, the kind of prasadam on offer was a reflection on how affluent the temple was and what the region’s economy and local produce was like. 

Take, for instance, the thirumal vadai, which is made with black urad dal, which is abundant in the region. “If you look at the sacred texts, there is quite a lot of information available about this. Some texts read like Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) manuals, with details on the quality of ingredients to be showcased, and more,” he elaborates. Trained in Carnatic music, Raghunathan plans to sing lines from the texts as he cooks. The presentation brings together mythology, culinary history, literature and food.

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He has been visiting temples and speaking to the people who work there for several years now. There is now a comfort level between them that has led to the sharing of stories and anecdotes. “The idea is to demystify prasadam and take it to a wider audience. There might be many reasons that people may not understand the context to the prasad they are making at home, or having elsewhere. I want to offer a spoonful of history about it,” explains Raghunathan.

Through the workshop, he also hopes to showcase the evolution of the offerings. There might even be subtle changes between the preparations of one temple and the next. In Sabarimala, for example, the aravanai payasam is made with raw red matta rice, which is fried in ghee and then slow cooked. At Srirangam, on the other hand, fluffy cooked rice is added to a molten jaggery mixture and then cooked. 

Another case of evolution of a prasadam can be seen at the temple in Udupi where pineapple menaskai, or a sweet-and-sour gravy made with a spice paste of chilli and coconut, is a popular dish. “Both pineapple and chilli are products of the Columbian exchange, which came to India with the Portuguese. But today they are integral to the temple kitchens in Udupi. People should not be territorial about these dishes as their history is very fluid and these recipes are still evolving as we speak,” he adds.

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