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What do the gods eat?

  • A new book, ‘Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan’, explores the diversity in temple foods across the country
  • Photographer Devang Singh and writer Varud Gupta  bring to the fore a selection of food and culinary rituals of both India’s gods and its humans

Food in Spiti is adapted to the lack of fresh produce. Photo courtesy: Penguin Random House India
Food in Spiti is adapted to the lack of fresh produce. Photo courtesy: Penguin Random House India

A confused atheist and a procrastinating agnostic from Delhi traverse the length and breadth of the country, from Rongmesek, Meghalaya, to Spiti in Himachal, to understand food across India’s religions and communities. Photographer Devang Singh and writer Varud Gupta set out to “explore the culture and cuisine of India without ripping off someone else’s idea" and ended up creating a snapshot of the foods and rituals of a cross section of religions spanning animistic folk deities, Hindu gods, Parsi and Jewish prophets and Buddhist monks. Their stories also hold up a mirror to lesser known practices and food habits of the worshippers of these faiths.

Their travels led them to the varied intersections of food and faith which moves far beyond the bhog offered to the gods. Instead, they ended up looking at “how faith can inform the food of a community, and, surprisingly enough, how food can in turn influence faith." The resulting book, Bhagwaan Ke Pakwaan, is part travelogue, part catalogue of recipes and part a retelling of history of India’s cities, its lesser known corners and its people. A tongue-in-cheek millennial irreverence sets it apart from other more academic explorations of the topic. Both Singh and Gupta corral together their diverse backgrounds—Singh gave up his history degree to become a photographer, director and producer, while Gupta left behind a career in business to try his hand at a variety of professions, including that of a cheesemonger and a bartender—to bring a freshness of perspective to the subject.

According to food writer and historian Pushpesh Pant, “Temple foods of India are a resplendent part of our cultural heritage. We in India believe that whatever is the best, cooked or otherwise, is fit for the gods." And this idea translates across geographies, through rituals of fasting, feasting and sacrifices. The food that is offered to the gods is an extension of the food habits, seasonal produce and agricultural practices of the region. While rice and grains form an important part of blessings, spirits produced from them are integral to many ceremonial feasts and meat becomes both an element of sacrifice as well as a matter of sustenance. Therefore, ideas of the sacred and forbidden foods also keep shifting across religious practices.

Among the Karbi tribal community of Meghalaya, chicken and copious rice beer form an important part of the rituals related to eating and praying. In Udvada, Gujarat, the town that became “a rallying point of Parsi culture in India", habits were determined by the local Gujarati food, Indian spices, influences of the British Raj, and the abundance of local fish. Food also continued to be an important part of the Parsi jashan, or religious thanksgiving ceremonies. Even rituals of death were accompanied by snacks like the deep-fried papra and bakhra.

The small community of Baghdadi Jews in Kolkata fused the rules of kosher eating with fish, coconut milk, the influence of Muslim chefs and spices to create a wonderful tradition of Indian Jewish food. The Arabic fried potato dish aloo makallah became a variation of the Bengali aloo bhaja and was served with hilbeh, originally chutney from Yemen which has been adapted with local ginger, coriander and chillies. Nowhere is the elaborate nature of temple food more apparent than in the Jagannath Temple in Puri. Every day, Lord Jagannath is offered the chappan bhog, or a spread of 56 food items which is then sold to devotees. Cooked with a specific dietary mandate—the food is purely vegetarian, with even ingredients like tomatoes, potatoes, green chillies, onions, ginger and garlic forbidden—the pungency of asafoetida, the potency of paanch phoron and the richness of ghee and jaggery lend this repast its flavour.

Finally, there is the heart-warming butter tea that keeps the monks of Spiti going in the winter months. Buddhism, having evolved to accommodate the scarcity of fresh produce in the area, is defined by the triad of barley, dairy and meat.

Though Gupta and Singh have only scratched the surface of India’s multifaceted and pluralistic religious traditions, their stories are real, personal and unprejudiced. And above all, they bring to the fore a selection of food and culinary rituals of both India’s gods and its humans.

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