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There is a reason why arbi is cooked on Radha Ashtami in Vrindavan, why jackfruit is offered to the lord of Guruvayoor and why bhog is made up of 56 dishes. TOI-Crest examines a divine menu.
All the food that lay tidily on the banana leaf left me giddy. I did not know whether to whoop in epicurean delight or hold the gods culpable for not packing a gargantuan appetite. I was going breathless just counting the dishes: One, two, three... I had barely gotten beyond 10 when I gave up. This food could perhaps feed all the gods in the Hindu pantheon.
"The chappan bhog (56) is temple food, " says Arun Budhiraja. Budhiraja and his wife Geeta have written Bhog: Temple Food of India, a coffee-table book that delves into the tradition of temple food and includes several recipes.
Before I could scoop the Guruvayoor-temple puzhukku (jackfruit curry) with the Sreenath Temple's milk-kneaded, ghee-laden roti, I was caught in a mathematical quandary. Why 56 offerings to a god? It seems such an awkward number. Why not 55 or 60? Here is the 56-dish story. Lord Krishna was wont to have eight meals a day. However, for the seven days he held up the Govardhan hill on his little finger, he abstained from food and water. On the eighth day, his devotees offered him 56 dishes to make up for the food he missed.
There was matti gulla (stuffed green brinjal) from Udupi, betel-shaped meetha bida from Vrindavan, pakori rasa (similar to kadhi but the liquid is made of daal water and not gram flour and curd) from the Govind Dev Temple in Imphal, besuro (a combination of spices for vegetable dishes) from the Jagannath Temple in Puri, shungtani (chutney made of nungmankha leaves from Manipur). There were no potatoes, chillies, cauliflowers or carrots. All common vegetables were missing from the bhog. Geeta had an explanation: Red-hued vegetables like carrot and tomato are never used because of their association with blood, while cauliflower and red chillies (the Govind Dev Temple makes an exception to this rule) are difficult to digest, hence ignored. Potatoes are Dutch in origin and most temples adhere to the 'native' food codes mentioned in the scriptures.
The temple food code follows the Hindu calendar which is divided into six seasons and eight prahars (unit of time used to divide a 24-hour day). Often, food rituals are deity/temple/region-specific but they are customarily categorised into prahars which, again, could vary from one temple to another: Jagannath Temple (Puri) has six, beginning at 7 am;Kashi Vishwanath in Varanasi follows five beginning at 3 am, while most Krishna temples stick to the eight prahars and the chappan bhog.
Food, in temple tradition, is not merely victual. It is the beginning and the end of everything. According to Taittriya Upanishad, all beings that exist on earth are born of food, and thereafter, they live by food. Ultimately, they merge into food. So, food is the eldest of all creatures.
It is no surprise then that food was 'codifed' and 'regimented' in ancient scriptures. Bhog is never only about ingredients and recipes, every minute detail is elaborate. The temple kitchen has to be washed and wiped dry and the Brahmin cook wears a washed single piece of clothing. In most temples, cooks are forbidden to talk while cooking. Also, the dish cannot be checked for taste before being offered to the deity.
The cooking utensils are clay, bronze or brass (steel and aluminum are off the list) and the fuel for the hearth can range from coconut husk to neem wood. In the Sri Krishna Temple at Udupi, firewood consists of jackfruit, mango and neem wood and is always stacked as a chariot. At the Guruvayoor temple, coconut husk is essential to cook bhog for the deity while tamarind bark is used as fuel to cook the food served to the devotees. At the Jagannath Temple, the bark of the daru (margosa) tree is used for cooking the mahaprasad in earthen pots. The supakars (the temple cooks) are not allowed to cook in their own home or even light a diya.
Says Bhavesh Sanchihar, a fifth-generation temple cook at Srinath Temple, Nathdwara: "I make bal-bhog which only consists of sweets like manmanohar, besu, partiya, monthal. " Sanchihar wears unstitched cloth, works with 12 other men (women are forbidden in most temple kitchens) to make the 25-30 different varieties of bhog in pure ghee.
Though bhog can be region-specific, it is often deity-specific;each deity has his/her favourite dish. On Radha Asthami, arbi is cooked for Krishna's consort because it is her favourite vegetable. No one knows the exact recipe but everyone recreates the taste, says the priest at Vrindavan's Tatiya Sthan. In the Guruvayoor temple, jackfruit is used as an offering. Chena poda (cottage cheese cake) is Lord Jagannath's favourite indulgence;the prasad at Kedarnath Temple is saffron, rice and daal, and khichdi while in Vaishno Devi, it is black gram, sooji halwa and puri.
As I scooped puzhukku with the Nathdwara temple roti, Budhiraja expresed the desire to redefine temple food. "Bhog is not only fit for the gods. It is simple, palatable and healthy, and should be on every dinner table". I picked Krishna-worthy malai beeda and gulped that thought.
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