One might wonder why we set so much store by the prasadams we get in temples. As others might collect souvenirs from the places they visit, I collect the kumkum and vibhuti from temples I visit! They serve as a panacea when I am faced with any problem – healthwise or otherwise – and find myself in need of some spiritual support. I am sure I am not alone in my belief about prasadams.
And when the prasadam is edible like laddus or even chana-chironji, they give the devotee a feeling of having eaten something blessed by the Deity. Even when it is brought back by someone else, partaking of the prasadam gives a feeling of contentment. If such is the effect of a small prasadam, what can one say about a complete meal served in a temple? It is nothing short of being Anna Brahma, a special gift from the Lord to His devotees.
I might sound irreverent here, but this tradition is rooted in our very culture – atithi devo bhava – a guest is akin to God Himself.
To correlate temples and prasadams with atithi, we should first look at what a temple is. Isn’t it the abode of God and aren’t we His visitors? When we visit a loved one, we are offered a refreshment or even a meal, aren’t we? That is exactly what a prasadam is – food from the Deity.
In days gone by, people undertook long and arduous journeys to visit a temple, often atop mountains and needed refreshing before entering the temple. Which is why perhaps most of our ancient temples are situated either near rivers or have a temple tank attached to them. The devotees bathed and refreshed themselves and then went to worship the Deity. How can the ever compassionate Lord allow His devotees to go back hungry? So they were served a sumptuous prasadam-meal, which was nothing less than ambrosia for the devout yatri.
The tradition continues not only in temples across the country but also ashrams, mathas and Gurdwaras, where food is served to the pilgrims after darshan. From simple meals to elaborate ones, these meals vary from temple to temple. Of these, the Vaishnavite temples, including the Jagannath temple at Puri, have some of the most elaborate and varied prasadams and meals.
Many of the big and famous temples both in India have their own kitchens to make the various items for naivedyam. They have dedicated temple cooks who do the seva of preparing the food for the Deities.
So long as the number of pilgrims and devotees was less, the temple kitchens served the purpose of feeding the devotees. But today, with the numbers running into tens of thousands on ordinary days and into lakhs on special occasions and temple festivals, the kitchens need to necessarily be big and also automated – at least partially in order to meet the demand. However, there are large temples even today, where the entire cooking is done by hand. The kitchen of the Jagannath temple of Puri is one of them. One of the biggest community kitchens in the world, spread over an acre, it consists of 32 rooms, over 750 clay ovens and 1000 cooks!
As naivedyams go, this temple has perhaps the most elaborate ones – Mahaprasad or the chappan bhog, (56 food items) offered to Lord Jagannath six times a day. At any given time, a devotee can get a filling meal of rice, dal, vegetables and sweets. The food is sold fresh in the temple complex. Over a lakh people can be fed at a time with the food prepared in this humongous kitchen, especially during occasions like the Rath Yatra. The food is believed to be prepared by Goddess Lakshmi Herself, with the cooks merely being Her helpers!
Temple prasadam-meals are not only wholesome, but also infused with divinity, having been consecrated after being offered to the Deity. No wonder then, many devotees prefer partaking of the prasadamat the temple to eating in a restaurant.
Last year, when we visited the Udupi Sri Krishna temple, we had one of the most soul-satisfying experiences. The divine darshan followed by a festive sit-down meal, complete with plantain leaf, lovingly and solicitously served by the kitchen staff of the temple.The warmth of those who served the food, plying the devotees with extra servings was so touching that we felt as if we were eating at a dear relative’s house! And why not? Isn’t the Lord our closest kin?
Dharmasthala Manjunathaswamy temple also famous for its day-long meal-prasadam for devotees. According to the authorities, the temple can feed upto a lakh people in a day. Quantities of ingredients are spoken in terms of quintals! The unbroken tradition of annadanam is being carried on by the Heggade family, which has been managing the temple and its affairs, for 21 generations till date!
Of the big temples, the langar at the Golden Temple at Amritsar is the most sought after. It is the culmination of the sheer spiritual experience of the visit – the kirtans, the air of reverence that permeates the entire complex, the shimmering lake amidst which rises the golden dome of the temple majestically. It has by far the biggest kitchen that feeds about 40,000 devotees every day. The langar seva is done by volunteers on normal days and the automatic roti making machine is pressed into service on special occasions. The food is cooked in large vats, and the ingredients are measured in tons as in the Dharmasthala temple!
Shirdi Saibaba temple feeds a similar number of people in its Prasadalayas (dining halls). A simple meal of dal, rice, roti, a subzi and sweet are served at a nominal cost. Thousands of packets of breakfast are given away free of cost. Devotees get a free packet of boondis and can buy laddu and peda prasad at a subsidized price. The kitchen operates completely on solar power and is the largest of its kind in India.
As kitchens get bigger and the number of pilgrims increases, temple kitchens are metamorphosing into modern units with automated equipment to speed up the process of making prasadams that are taken back home by devotees – even those living abroad. For instance, the Palani Panchamritam, which was earlier made by hand is now being made in an automatic factory. Due to its composition and method of preparation, it has a very long shelf life. Likewise, the aravana payasam of Sabarimala, which is packed in tins and even exported, is made by a completely automated process.
When talking of temple prasadams, how can one forget the legendary Tirupati laddus? On an average 1.5 lakh laddus are made every day in the kitchens of the temple. That is some number of laddus! What is more, they are still made by hand, though there are automated equipment for processes like conveying the materials and the finished laddus for packing and distribution.The laddus distributed to the devotees as prasadam are smaller in comparison to those made for special pujas – which could weigh as much as a kilogram each! They have a wonderful flavour of cardamom, edible camphor (called pachcha karpooram in Tamil), cashews, raisins and bits of sugar candy. No matter how meticulously they are replicated, the flavour of the original is lacking, no doubt missing the grace of Lord Venkateshwara.
When cooking is done in such a large scale, hygiene and sanitation assume great importance and standards get stringent – with good reason. Taking cognizance of this, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) launched project BHOG (Blissful Hygienic Offering to God) in 2015, with an aim to ensure that the prasadam/food received by devotees is safe for consumption. One of the first temples to comply with the regulations was Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai, which serves delicious laddus and burfis as prasadam. The Shirdi Saibaba temple and Tirupati temple also have become FSSAI compliant. There is also a demand to print the expiry dates on the tins and bottles of prasadams like panchamritam and aravana payasam. One can’t recall any untoward event of devotees falling sick after consuming the prasadam in the normal course.
No matter how big the temples kitchens might be, calling them ‘mega hotels’ definitely takes away from the very sanctity invested in temple prasadams – be they those with long shelf life, or the hot meals served at the temple premises. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNl3WUEqOgA
There is one niggling thought though. At homes, we take out a bowlful of the prasadam to offer as naivedyam, which is then mixed with the rest of it to turn the entire vesselful into prasadam. One wonders if even the smallest quantity offered as naivedyam to the Deity in the temple is mixed with the commercial quantities to make them authentic prasadams. And yet, for the devout, even a packed can of panchamritam or an FSSAI stamped packer of laddu made at the temple remains the divine gift from their ishta devata.
A version of this post was originally published in Jagrit Bharat