Divine food in temples of South India

Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tamil Nadu

Food prepared for the deities in the temples is considered sacred. Ritual preparation of food to various Gods makes prasadam a sanctified offering. The food that is ceremoniously offered is shared with as many devotees as are present in the temple to partake of the blessed offering. This is food that simply tastes divine.

Prasadam

According to classical Hindu belief, food is the fundamental link between humans and Gods. By feeding the Gods and eating their leftovers (prasadam), men and women ensure the stability of this symbiotic relationship. Most South Indian homes lay special emphasis on ritual preparation of special food for Gods on various occasions. However temple prasadam is always special and is shared with the devotees after the first offering is made to the deity.

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Ladoos are offered as prasad in many temples
Ladoos are offered as prasad in many temples
Image courtesy: ©Lonely Planet Images/Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

Vaishnava Prasadam

Between the 9th and 14th centuries, Vishnu temples in southern India became famous for their prasadam. The eastern wall of the Srirangam Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchirappalli, witnesses various offerings to the Gods. The earliest prasadam included appam and athirasam (cakes of ground rice and jaggery or molasses fried in ghee), though later there is mention of venpongal (rice cooked with green lentils, ghee and salt) and vadai (black lentils ground and fried in ghee). So famous are these temple offerings, that each big temple in South India came to be known for its prasadam – the dosai of Alagarkoil, sarkarai pongal (rice cooked in molasses and ghee) of Parthasarathy Temple, in Chennai, idli of Kanchipuram temples, dadhyodanam (curd rice) of Padmanabhaswamy Temple, puliodare (tamarind rice) of Melukote, milagodarai (pepper flavoured rice) of Tiruchanur, ladoo (balls of Bengal gram, molasses, and ghee) of Tirupati, and pal payasam (rice, milk and molasses) of Thirupullani Temple, Ambalapuzha and Guruvayur.

Saiva Prasadam

Saiva temples include offerings to their main deities – Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, and Muruga. And in almost every Saiva temple, there is abhiseka or anointing – even bathing – of the deity with water, coconut water, camphor, milk, ghee or panchamritam, comprising milk, curd, ghee, honey, sugar, fruits and nuts.

Abhiseka is sometimes offered as prasadam to devotees as is the case in the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore. Many temples offer pongal (salted or sweetened cooked rice). The prasadam in Ganesha temples is a sweet dumpling called modakam or kozhakattai, representing the germ of life, especially during the occasion of Vinayaga Chathurthi.

Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala
Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala
Image courtesy: ©Ajith Gopinathan/500px

Shiva’s younger son, Muruga, demands that his devotees carry hot sugar syrup (used for making a prasadam called panchamritam) on a pilgrimage to the temple site. The panchamritam at Palani Temple is a famous offering.

Top Tip – Temple prasadam

• Venkateswara Temple, Tirumala: Ladoo
• Dandayuthapani Murugan Temple, Palani: Panchamritam
• Parthasarathy Temple, Chennai: Sarkarai pongal, puliyodare
• Guruvayurappan Temple, Kerala: Pal payasam
• Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tiruchi: Venpongal, vadai, athirasam

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AUTHOR'S BIO: The author Nalini Rajan is professor, Asian College of Journalism, in Chennai and is the author of Prasadam–Food of the Hindu Gods.