It is almost impossible to not have someone say something unsolicited to you while in Rishikesh. The blonde, dreadlocked guy from Norway tries his best to sit you down for a mini discourse on existentialism at an Ayurvedic café, when all you want to do is sip your deliciously warming haldi doodh in contemplative solitude. The vermillion-robed priests at the city’s famed Triveni Ghat painstakingly explain to you the jalabhishek holy water purification ritual before getting down to performing their daily Ganga aarti. Everyone demands...nay, commands, you lend them an ear.
Yet, my volley of questions manage to elicit not even the hint of a sigh from the bethroned gent I am trying to converse with. His colourfully made-up face, seemingly pot-bellied geniality and that unmissable gelled choti (ponytail) standing comically erect at the back of his bald shaven pate, all belie his stoicism.
This is the famous, po-faced ‘Chotiwala’...well, at least one of the two Chotiwalas in the Swargashram neighbourhood I have crossed the iconic Ram Jhula to see. Yes, the same swaying ropeway bridge that serves as a major conduit to help the flow of saints and sinners reach either bank of the holy river Ganga that it fords over in this part of Uttarakhand.
For the denizens of Rishikesh, the Chotiwalas are the personification of the pride they take in maintaining the entirely vegetarian-ness of this holy city, as I soon learn. This is perfectly in sync with the shrewd marketing gimmick of having mascots provide a tangible persona to improve brand identity and recall value. From 1877, when the Quaker Oats ‘Quaker Man’ mascot came to became one of the first food mascots the world saw, to scores of others thereafter. Like the Jolly Green Giant promoting a canned vegetables brand, Planters’s monocle and top hat-sporting Mr. Peanut, or more recognisably Ronald McDonald, who also has a connect with the Chotiwalas, as I was informed. But more on that later. Speaking of fast food brands, the only other mascot based on a real life person that comes to mind is Melinda Lou "Wendy" Thomas-Morse, the namesake and mascot of Wendy’s fast food. Who, incidentally, was the daughter of Dave Thomas, the founder of the brand.
To be fair, I had been warned of the Chotiwalas snubbing way in advance by Manish, my friend and local Rishikesh resident. “While they may not speak, they’re happy to pose for selfies requested by the many tourists who come here, not for the food, but for a glimpse of the Chotiwalas,” Manish lets me know. As if on cue, with a curt nod, my request for a picture is acquiesced by the chubbier of the two rival Chotiwalas.
Luckily for me, Manish happens to know which of two is the ‘original’ Chotiwala restaurant. In case you’re wondering, it is the second one along the street, if one is coming from the direction of the Ram Jhula.
The ponytail tale
It is widely believed that way back in 1958, a certain Har Swarup Agarwal after returning to Rishikesh from a trip to Mumbai decided to establish a sattvic restaurant with a difference. Greatly influenced by the idea of the Air India Maharaja, he decided to base his mascot on the concept of the traditional maharaj. Now, for the uninitiated, these male cooks can be found preparing pure vegetarian food in well-to-do homes across north and western India. In earlier days, they used to shave their head bald, so as to prevent hair from getting into the food. While the small choti—grown at the back of their heads—signified their Brahmanical lineage.
It was an artist called Chitrakootir from nearby Dehradun that first fleshed out this portly mascot. The live avatar was soon to follow. I’m told that over the years there have been over three dozen men take on the garb of the Chotiwala. The longest serving for over a decade, while the shortest, a mere week!
The job description is simple: all that’s needed is a rotund body structure and the ability to stay relatively still and not talk for the duration of their eight-hour daily shift. Everything else is taken care of. From unlimited food and drinks to even a dedicated make-up artist specially employed by the restaurant to apply the intricate face paint and kohl to the eyes and arched eyebrows.
Two servings, one dish
So, how did two iterations of the same restaurant concept manage to spin off the original? Apparently, in 1990 after the passing of Agarwal, his son and nephew both lay claim to the concept after a family feud. Not wanting to take the matter to court, they came to the very unusual decision of splitting the main restaurant into two parts. Each running their own Chotiwala restaurants side-by-side, under the same name. With their own painted mascot sitting on almost identical thrones perched on a high platform at the restaurants’ entrance.
Their respective menus, too, seem to be almost replicas of each other. Featuring the same Chotiwala special eight-item thali (at almost identical prices) and the ubiquitous trifecta of Punjabi, South Indian and Chinese dishes one finds in a gazillion all-vegetarian restaurants in other tourist-saturated Indian hot spots. They even have a veggie burger each on the two menus. This one, in honour of a popular fast food chain’s mascot who has recently made his equally colourful presence felt in the nearby city of Haridwar.
Yes, Ronald McDonald may be world famous, but in the yoga capital of the world, he’s just a lifeless, plastic clown when pitted against the double threat of their beloved Chotiwalas.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.