In the Hindu belief system, food is considered a gift from God and is treated with respect and offered to God as nivedyam (sacred food offering). The nivedyam at Hindu temples are always the most excellent food. They are prepared at the temple kitchens by priests with the best available ingredients. As the priest enters the sanctum sanctorum with the nivedyam, he closes the thick doors behind him. For the next several minutes, all one can hear is his soft chanting in Sanskrit as he makes the ceremonial offering of food. Then he pulls open the doors, and the chimes of many bronze bells surrounding its spire would drift through the air and mix in gentle harmony with hushed and reverential chantings of devotees. And as the priest conclude the rituals with oil lamps, fragrant flowers, and the burning of camphor cubes, his assistant walks past the devotees with a pot full of nivedyam with a few leaves of holy basil on top—proof of divine blessings. The enticing aroma of appam also called neyyappam, (sweet rice cakes) and the subtle fragrance of neypaayasam (rice pudding sweetened with jaggery, and enriched with ghee) would permeate the air. The nivedyam is later distributed to devotees as prasadam (food that had been blessed).
Appam is prepared as nivedyam at hundreds of Ayyappa, Ganapthi, Krishna, and Devi temples all over South India. Nibbling through the dark brown crust, crisped by rice flour and jaggery, and the relishing the soft and chewy delicious middle of the appam is sheer delight. Traditionally it is cooked in a bronze pan called appakara, about eight inches in diameter, with three or more large cavities, similar to an aebleskiver pan.
Appam is known by various names in south India. In Kerala – appam, unniappam (small appam), neyyappam (appam cooked in ghee), kuzhiappam (cooked in a kuzhi or cavity) Ganapathi appam, and koottappam (a pile of appams) are popular names. In Tamil Nadu both appam and adhirasam made by deep frying a fermented batter of the same ingredients are popular. It is called appe in south Karnataka and it is a must for Ganesha puja. In Coorg in southwestern Karnataka it is called kajjaya. The Konkani community of Karnataka prepares it with semolina and either jackfruit or banana and call it Mulik. In Andhra Pradeh it is known as atrasalu and ariselu, and if it is deep fried in ghee it is called nethi ariselu. It is served at many auspicious occasions and at weddings.
Some famous temples that offer appam as nivedyam
The Sabarimala shrine of Lord Ayyappa on a tall peak of the Western Ghats Mountain range lures hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from mid- November to the first half of January. Several million people make this pilgrimage annually, making it one of the largest pilgrimages in the world. The most important nivedyam at this shrine is appam made with rice and jaggery and cooked in ghee. The Sabarimala appam is harder in texture as it is made with a thicker batter to ensure low moisture content, so that it will remain fresh for long time.
At the famous Sri Guruvayoorappan temple in Kerala at the last worship of the day – athaza puja – appam and ada are offered to the deity. On Sree Krishna Jayanthi (Lord Krisha’s birthday) Unniappam is a very special offering.
In the northern most corner of Kerala at the Madhur Ganapathi temple appam is prepared on a daily basis. The most important offering is udayasthamana appam – appam offered from dawn till dusk continuously. Offering 1000 appams and appam modal - covering the Ganapthi idol with several appams – are other forms of offerings at this temple. There are several other temples where also such offerings are made.
At the Ganapathi temple at Vazhappally near Changanassery in south Kerala the sacred offering is called Ganapathi appam. Unlike the small unniappam, Ganapathi appam is rather large in size. Kottarakkara Siva temple is another famous temple in South Kerala. Though Lord Siva is the main deity, Ganapathi idol in this temple is considered very important. The Unniappam (small appam) for nivedyam is prepared right in front of the idol. Here also offering appam from dawn till dusk is considered a sacred offering. Eight cooks sit around in front of the Ganapathi temple and cook appams from morning onwards.
Appakkudathaan Perumal Temple is dedicated to Vishnu in Koviladi, Tamil Nadu. At this Vishnu temple, the belief is that when Vishu disguised as an old man was offered a potful of appams by King Ubharisaravasu, the lord laid down there with the pot to enjoy them. The Lord here isknown as “Appakkudathaan” and “Appala Ranganathan”.
In her fabulous blog – A Cookery Year in Coorg (a must read for anyone interested in regional cuisines of India) Shalini Nanda Nagappa pays a beautiful tribute to this delicacy prepared at the Iguthappa temple in Coorg. She writes “There is something very special about the kajjayas given as prasada at the Iguthappa Temple".
Silappathikaram is a Tamil literary masterpiece that describes the life story of Kannagi. It was written in the 5th–6th century AD by Prince Ilanko Adikal, brother of Cheran Senguttuvan, ruler of the Chera dynasty. After her husband’s unjust assassination by the king of Madurai, Kannagi goes to the king and proves his innocence, and then curses and burns down the Pandyan capital. She marches on to Chera Kingdom and later ascends to heaven. The Chera king enshrines her as the goddess of chastity at Kodungallur. Kannagi, on her way from Madurai to Kodungallur in central Kerala is said to have stopped at Aattukal in south Kerala. She is worshipped as goddess Parvathi in Aattukal. Every year thousands of women offer pongala to Aattukal Bhagavathi. Around five miles radius of the temple women set up hearths with bricks. The priest at the temple lights the fire in the temple hearth and the fire is transferred from one hearth to the next. They cook therali appam and payasam as offerings to the goddess.
Unlike appam cooked in ghee, therali appam is steamed in cones made of fresh cinnamon leaves (Cinnamomum verum, also called true cinnamon or Sri Lanka cinnamon). These fragrant leaves impart their aroma to the therali appam as it is steamed. The leaves are rolled into cones and pinned with pieces of the stem of coconut palm leaves. Rice is washed, dried and powdered into coarse flour. This flour is dry-roasted and mixed with jaggery, cardamom and ripe finger banana and filled into the cones and steam cooked. In her blog Roshni's Kitchen, Roshni Chandrasekar gives a detailed account this tradition.
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