Ancient Culinary Curiosities Discovered On Temple Walls Of TN
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History is an aspect of humanity that binds people together over a lot of things. It forms part of the land of residence, ethnicity, family line, language, lifestyle, and many other things. For the people of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, history takes on a more grandiose form, manifesting as enormous and awe-inspiring temples left behind by the great dynasties that once ruled that land. They made sure that the events of their times were left for future generations to learn about in the form of inscriptions.

Those inscriptions reveal the height of their rulers’ glory as much as the high-standing temple of Gopurams. But the inscriptions are not just another expression of royalty; they describe the people’s reverence for their kings and the deities inside the temple. They also contain another piece of history that matters a lot to any culture: cuisine. The inscriptions on the walls of Tamil Nadu temples connect the present to the past with savory foods, beginning with everyday foods and progressing to specialties offered to the gods on auspicious occasions.

Find out why temple food is so popular even today and how it shows the richness and simplicity of a long-ago time through its taste.

The Simple Specialty of Suddhannam

There is the Hindu tradition of offering food first to the gods through a prayer ritual called Naivedyam. It is a tradition that has been followed since ancient times, and the temple walls in Tamil Nadu tell us what was offered. The most commonly found item for that ritual is suddhannam, or boiled white rice. This offering was considered high-caliber because it was the most valued food item during medieval times in South India. Rice still holds great value in all traditional rituals, even to this day, because it is the staple crop of the region.

The contradiction is that for such a commonly mentioned item across many ancient temples, there are hardly any details about how it was cooked. It is assumed that the people in charge of the temple should know how much of each ingredient to use. This is usually the case with rituals, as the information is passed down from generation to generation.

More Luxurious Ingredients for the Gods

The temple wall inscriptions show that people during those times were just not into plain boiled rice. There are mentions of a variety of ingredients, including when food was donated to mark special occasions, especially festivals. A popular one found is ghee, and there seems to be plenty of it added to please the gods. On special occasions, it is added to elaborate rice dishes with some dried fruits.

The other valuable ingredient on the list is sugar. The inscriptions point to it playing an important role in the temple offerings. Nearly every dish had it in some form. The common type used was jaggery, which is prepared by boiling sugarcane milk. It was also the cheaper form of sugar, making it more accessible to the masses.

The more expensive one was a partially refined variety called Carkarai that resembled brown sugar, donated by the wealthy as a symbol of their devotion and status and to mark special occasions in their lives. It was also important because of its ability to add more flavor and texture to the dish. The sweetness of sugar symbolized the goodness of God and the hope for good things to happen in their lives.

The Other Everyday Foods

The uniqueness of the culinary mentions on temple walls is that they showcase a side of history that isn’t found in traditional sources like royal cookbooks. An example of those is Appam. It could be flat pancakes that resembled today’s Idlis, along with snacks that could be steamed or fried. Since the tradition of Naivedyam also meant that the people ate what their gods did, the everyday breakfast and lunch of the time also made it onto the walls. The food offered to the gods gets called "prasad" when it is distributed among the devotees.

Andrea Gutierrez, a researcher of South Asian food at the University of Texas, details an elaborately carved recipe on the walls of the famous Srirangam Temple that could be considered the precursor to today’s appam. It contains seasonings like pepper and cumin alongside unrefined sugar, bananas, and coconut, which is not all that different from today’s method of preparation.

Then there's the state’s famous rice dish, Pongal (rice cooked with raw sugar), found on the walls of the Chola dynasty’s Brihadeshwara Temple. It’s shown to have been cooked during the harvest Pongal festival, a practice that still happens today. Other foods finding their place there include Tiruvamudu (cooked rice), Kariamudu (vegetable curries), Porikkariamudu (also known as Poriyal, made by pan-frying vegetables in ghee), Paruppuamudu (dal), and Tayiramudu (yogurt rice). Areca nuts and betel leaves are also used as gifts and after-meal mouth fresheners.

Historical artifacts like temple inscriptions and food recipes may not ring a bell together, but that is true of Tamil Nadu’s temples. What’s also wonderful is the fact that anyone can visit the many old temples there and still get to experience some variety of those old foods fresh from the stove. It brings the past, present, and future together, making history come alive on the tongue.