How temple cuisine helped enrich Indian food culture?

Madhulika Dash has a nice food for thought piece in Swarajya.

She says it is interesting how temples have enriched our cuisines:

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 kheerresembles 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. 

Preparation of bhog was central to all this:

But the one thing that shaped a community cultural system was the templebhog. 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 thebhog 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 driedsundakai, 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.

Temples played a crucial role in India’s local economy and society.

Not just food, the temples were the initial banks as well and played a huge role in financing the economy.


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