Yet another reason why temple cuisine should be researched, analysed and adapted!
In November 2015, India played host to one-of-the-kind, five-day long Indigenous Terra Madre (ITM 2015). Thousands of indigenous communities, hundreds of food writers and others flocked to Shillong, the host venue – some to be a part of the movement that promised to make the world a better place, some in curiosity and few, who understood the concept, in search of how would it help a country like India. Of course, the big bonus was meeting Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food Movement, and Dr Phrang Roy, Chairman, North East Slow Food and Agro-biodiversity Society (NESFAS), and the force to get such a big movement to India (more importantly Shillong).
Lost amidst the crowd of farmers, tribal heads, scientists, agriculturist, professors and chefs, it was overwhelming to understand what Slow Food was really about initially. Often misunderstood for the technique of slow cooking, which is considered to be the healthiest, Slow Food is this big umbrella that includes best practices not only how food is produced, harvested, stored and eaten but also what effect such a system has on the climate and most importantly earth.
The events of the five-day did give a glimpse of how good the ethically produced food tasted and the philosophy behind many earth-friendly practices of the North East – like the use of wild edibles, the insects meal that worked as an immunity booster or how fermented food actually could be the way ahead for food sustainability. But it wasn’t till you walked into the temple trying to figure out the secrets of the temple bhog, and what made it relevant today, that the essence of this movement that got Italy partly rid of its fast food culture made sense.
Temples – that today are seen as places of worship or (more) as tourist (read gourmet) destinations were once the epicenters of socio-economic-culture development. It was around a temple that a civilization/community/kingdom was built and prospered. In fact, a generous part of ancient India speaks about the rise and fall of a dynasty based on the temples that were made rather than fort that fell. Like the Lingaraj Temple in Odisha marked the era of King Jajati Keshari of Soma Vansha, while the rebuilding of the Jagannath Puri Temple marked the rise of Ganga Dynasty and freedom from Andhra Pradesh. Surrounding it grew food practices like the art of steaming, which came during Ganga dynasty and was adopted in the Puri temple.
In fact, constructing temples back then wasn’t just a sign of power and immortality (which was taken over by forts and monuments during Rajputs and Mughal era), they were centres that helped infuse allegiance among people, educated the future generation, entertained them and even developed food habits of a community by using local produce innovatively. A fine example of this is the Meiteis’ Govind Devji temple in Manipur, which serves kheer made of black rice cooked over a slow fire in ostrich-neck earthen pots. Developed during the era of Maharaja Nara Singh, the kheer resembles a luscious risotto. Then there are examples of puliyodarai from the Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, where pepper was used to give that aromatic taste, which didn’t change even when chillies arrived in India.
So how did they do it?
Temples back then were built as self-sustaining palaces replete with their land, pen, cowshed, school, gardens, natyagram (dance schools) and even rivers.
The temples in return transformed themselves into small townships that mirrored the society they helped develop by employing people from the community to teach, heal ailing patients, as pujaris, nityanganis, and even farmers and cooks. Take for instance the Puri temple. Said to be the largest kitchen ever built (on an acre) the place right since its beginning had close to an army of 500 cooks and 300 helpers (they still do by the way), divided into Mahasuaras, Swaras (executive chefs) and Joguinas (kitchen assistant) who worked round the clock to provide meals (285 dishes, including that of meat and fish, all free) to devotees, the poor, members of the temple, refugees and others. That is barely a few numbers more than those in the kitchen of Jahangir and Shah Jahan!
Such community building practices that these ancient monuments are most known for. Take for instance farming. Unlike the fabled way of producing food in the Mughal court, where even farms were irrigated with rose water, so they smell beautiful and chicken had corn doused in saffron, those under the temples propagated fallowing – a system where a ploughed field was left aside for it to develop better, while the rested land was cultivated. This ensured the crop each season was good and encouraged farmers to follow suit. Likewise for the storage where the ground was dug deep and plastered with cow dung to create a naturally disinfectant godown where grains could be stored for months without spoiling.
The kitchens were yet another centre of learning. Designed with separate segments for cooking a different kind of food, the defining feature of this kitchen was the network of channels: one that brought in fresh water for prepping the vegetables and cooking, and the other that would take used water to the vegetable garden, which meant little wastage of the resources. A garbage pit ensured that the farms always had ready, earth friendly manure to use.
But the one thing that shaped a community cultural system was the temple bhog. Inspired from the local cuisine and produce, the bhogs were based on the science of Ayurveda and advocated the judicious use of spices and food items – a plausible explanation to why Jagannath Puri uses yam instead of potatoes for its bhog and puzhukku at Guruvaryoor is served in plates made of areca nut leaves. Now the explanation for the use of both could be a popular legend such as a sage seeing the lord carry his food in a coconut shell, but in practicality these little innovations led to the rise of small industries that and incentive enough for farmers and landlords to stick to traditional cultivation of local produce.
In fact, the tradition of using locally produced food items only to cook the bhog ensured that temples led to the growth of many varieties of rice (including ancient varieties like matta, njavara, red and black rice and parboiled) even when basmati became the choice later on. And supported the continued cultivation of bitter greens like agathi keerai and dried sundakai, domesticated wild vegetables like yam, cluster beans, elephant foot and even millets like ragi till date. The continuous use of jaggery and sugarcane juice as sweeteners till date have sustained local producers till date. In Slow Food lingo, temples have been instrumental at promoting biodiversity. And some of them still do.
This weave and waft of traditional practices, ancient medicine and healthier techniques of cooking – steaming, grilling, pressure cooking and slow cooking all emerged in temples – perhaps could explain that why even a square meal had as prasad often leaves you feeling nourished and satiated, but not heavy. The fact that they also display how tasty Indian food was before we got the rest of the spices, potatoes, tomatoes and chillies is but an added bonus.
Food sustainability is yet another reason that temple food should be studied, adapted and sustained.
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
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