Rare Culinary Manuscripts from the Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjavur

January 31, 2013

The Sarasvati Mahal Library in the ancient city of Thanjavur in the heart of Tamil Nadu is one of the medieval Libraries with a very rare and valuable collection of manuscripts on all aspects of art, culture and literature. The Library was started as a Royal Palace Library during the reign of Thanjavur Nayaks who ruled from 1560 through 1673. Raghunatha Nayak was a gifted scholar in both Sanskrit and Telugu and his court was distinguished for its poets and scholars. During his reign a palace library, Sarasvati Bhandar, was established to collect and preserve the manuscripts of Raghunatha's court scholars. His son Vijaya Raghava Nayak was also a patron of art, literature and music.

Maratha general Ekoji, a half-brother of the great Maratha king Shivaji, seized Thanjavur and made himself king in 1674. The Maratha rulers further developed the Royal Palace Library. King Shahaji was a phenomenal composer, and contributed many manuscripts to the library. Most notable among the Maratha Kings was Serfoji II (1798–1832).  He was an eminent scholar and enthusiastically took interest in the enrichment of the Library.  He employed many scholars to collect, buy, and copy a vast number of works from all renowned Centers of Sanskrit learning.

During the reign of these two dynasties Thanjavur was a center of art and literature.  Maratha rule lasted through 1855 when, the British government annexed Thanjavur under its Madras presidency.  Since 1918 the Saraswathi Mahal has remained open to the public. The official name of the library was changed to "The Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji's Sarasvati Mahal Library" in honor of the royal patron. The library has published several rare manuscripts into extremely valuable books.

Culinary and food related Texts in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu

The Library’s collection includes more than 30,000 palm-leaf and paper manuscripts including a few valuable culinary texts.

is an important seventeenth century culinary work in Sanskrit by Raghunathasuri, a Maratha Brahmin from Thanjavur. Bhojanakuthuhalam – curiosity about food – is an encyclopedic work on food science. Like many other ancient texts it is a compilation of information available on the subject since ancient times. It contains information from ancient ayurvedic texts through the medieval texts available at that time. The book is in three parts. The first describes dravyagunas - properties of ingredients and cooked food in a detailed scientific manner. The other two segments are about edible and non-edible ingredients from the perspective of ethics and the dharma sastra philosophy.  

Sarabhendra Pakasatram, a publication of Saraswathi Mahal Library edited by A. Krishnaswani Mahadik Rao Sahib, a descendant of the Thanjavur Maratha kings is a compilation of two valuable manuscripts in Marathi language from 1816 AD and 1825 AD. These hand-written manuscripts are literal documentations of oral statements by Raja Serfoji’s palace cooks Narayana Ayya and Chimnu Appa and Butler Venkataswami of his English kitchen.

Siva Pallakiseva prabandham ia a seventeenth century work by King Sahahaji. It is a noteworthy dramatic composition in Telugu and Tamil verse, more set to be enacted with music and dance. The text gives a clear picture of the temple observances including details of food that should be offered which consisted of pongal, morkuzzhambu,vadam, poori’s fried in ghee, dosa, idlis, pickle, pulses without their skin, fruits, sweets made of sugar, honey, different varieties of mixed rice, tamarind rice, Thirattipal, curd rice, curd with cream and buttermilk with crushed dry ginger, and spicy gruel served with water from the Ganges. Tamboolam fragrant with the smell of camphor rounded up the dinner menu.

Raghunathabhyudayam, another seventeeth century work, by Vijayaraghava Nayak on his father's life describes in detail what life was like in the court of one of India’s most opulent kingdoms in the seventeenth century. When the King sat down for a meal, he and all the male courtiers sat on one side and the women sat on the opposite side. The King and the Queen had a shimmering silk screen around them which prevented anyone from seeing what they were eating. Food was served on banana leaves. Rice dishes were brought out in winnows, while sweets and liquid dishes were in large silver or bronze utensils. The menu included rice with six types of chicken preparations - appalam and sesame seeds flavored chicken, coconut and curry leaves stuffed red chicken, black gram and bengal gram Chanagi choornam stuffed chicken, sugar and butter-stuffed milk chicken,  kattu kozhi (a wild fowl) with onions and garlic and nuluva kozhi. The next non-vegetarian item was fried fish.

Vegetarian dishes included cluster beans poriyal, lemon rasam and salted rasam, podimas with crushed vadam, appalam, various vadams, several vegetable dishes, and beeranji (biriyani) with many fragrant spices. Many types of mixed rice were served along with sambar, kara vadai, curd vadai and aamai vadai, roti and water with spices.

Sweet and fried dishes as well as desserts included peni, mande, laddu, purnakalasam, gajjeyam made of semiya, adhirasam, modakam with pulses, sarathulu, mul murrukku, therattipaal, coconut milk payasam, paneer payasam, jeera payasam, cold payasam, sooji payasam, sugar rice, basundi, fruits with or without honey, and dates from the islands.

 More on Bhojanakuthuhalam and Sarabhendra Pakasatram including recipes, in the following segments.

Photo of Saraswathi Mahal Library:
Jean-Pierre Dalbera  Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)   https://creativecommons.org/licenses/2.0/