Posted on: October 23, 2020 Posted by: Ammini Ramachandran Comments: 0

November 10, 2020

Photo Credit Karty JazZ Wikimedia Commons

As one walks past the huge granite walls and enter the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu, South India) through the ninety-five feet tall multistoried entrance (gopuram) one is mesmerized by the sheer enormity of this architectural marvel.

Built by emperor Rajaraja Chola I in 1010 AD, in the heart of Thanjavur, stands this imposing and enormous temple dedicated Lord Siva. Epigraphical evidence show that Rajaraja Chola I built this temple in six years starting from his 19th year of reign and completed on 275th day of his 25th year. Erected with over 130,000 tons of granite, the temple showcases the true form of Dravidian architecture and remains a testimony to the Chola dynasty’s brilliant achievements in architecture, sculpture, painting, and exquisite bronze idols which were expressions of great devotion. This thousand-year-old temple is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites adding to its exceptional historical and cultural value.

Photo Credit Jean-Pierre Dalbera Wikimedia Commons

The reign of imperial Chola dynasty reached its zenith during the 9th through the 13th centuries A.D. Rajaraja Chola I came to power in 985 A.D., and under him, the Chola dynasty rose to heights never achieved before. He was unmatched in his war triumphs (across India and Southeast Asia), administrative skills, patronage of art and literature, and as an epitome of religious tolerance. During the three decades of his rule (985 A.D.-1014 A.D.), the Chola dynasty established themselves as a formidable power.

By the turn of the 9th century A.D. Shaivism (one of the major traditions within Hinduism) that reveres Lord Siva as the supreme being became the dominant religion of the Chola empire. Saiva theology was reinforced by the imperial Chola kings and they commissioned many beautiful Siva temples across their empire in Dravidian style architecture. The innumerable inscriptions on temple walls and pillars allow a glimpse into the temple practices observed, including ritual food offerings that were prepared at the temple kitchens.

Not many temples recount the stories of their glorious past as Brihadisvara Temple does. The numerous detailed inscriptions in elegant calligraphy on the temple structure, some as lengthy as 107 paragraphs, give a glimpse into the temple’s history. They reveal that this temple was exclusively conceived, designed, and managed by Rajaraja Chola I himself. He also inspired the royal family, officers, and feudal kings to voluntarily participate in the activities of the temple and make generous gifts which are also recorded in inscriptions of this temple. His older sister Kundavai Pirattiyar made several generous endowments to the temple and set up four idols at the temple. The king had great respect for his sister and only his and her donations were inscribed on the walls of the central shrine. Donations from his own queens, feudal kings, and officers were inscribed on the niches and pillars.

Photo Credit Richi Choraria – Pexels

All inscriptions begin with the customary Sanskrit and Tamil language introduction to the king or donor who authorized it. They describe the many gifts of land, money, silver, gold, precious gems, and jewelry received by the temple. Rajaraja Chola I not only endowed the temple with capital and art, he also provided ways for the temple to function through guaranteed revenue. He gifted the revenue from several villages to the temple. He assigned numerous villages to assign guards to protect the wealth of the temple and asked to provide men to serve as accountants, treasurers, and cleaners.

Inscriptions also describe how donated gold coins, and money were loaned for eternity to the inhabitants of nearby villages by the temple treasury at a set interest rate. What is most impressive is that the inscriptions go into great detail about how much in interest on the funds should be paid to the temple, and in what form, and how it should be used in the temple. The interest had to be paid yearly into the treasury in kind by providing paddy, milk, and ghee for food offerings and to light the hundreds of lamps in the temple.

Culinary Inscriptions
The inscriptions describing nivedyam (food offerings) allow a surprising glimpse into foods cooked in temple kitchens and served to God everyday as well as on festive occasions. These medieval recipes typically lack the specific directions for method of preparation that we consider to be the essential content of a recipe. These detailed inscriptions only mention the total amount of salt, pepper, mustard seeds, and yogurt to be used for all offerings for one specific occasion; they do not break them down by the exact amount to be used for each individual dish. Chola temple recipes are descriptive in terms of which food items should be prepared on a daily basis as well on festival days, and at what time of the day, but they are not a perfect illustration of how they ought to be prepared.

Photo Credit Tamizzhpparithi Maari Wikimedia Commons

Feeding God properly, was very significant to the donors even when the details of ingredient quantities, and type of spices used, did not. Temple priests, especially those who cooked these offerings in the temple kitchens were expected to know the proportions of ingredients for preparing them. However, there are certain inscriptions where we see remarkable interest on the part of the donors in specifying precise quantities of ingredients for a particular food offering such as “one and a half sevidu measure of cumin seeds and one uri measure of ghee is to be used in the daily offerings given to god”.

Recipes engraved in stone
The sixth inscription on the second tier of the south wall of the central shrine of Lord Siva, filling the whole first section and part of the second section describes the lavish gifts Kundavai Pirattiyar made to two of the shrines she set up in the temple complex.

Various gold and precious stone encrusted jewelry she donated to these shrines are described in detail in paragraphs 1 through 9. Paragraph10 – 13 as well as 15 -17, and 20 describe the deposits of money she gifted to the temple treasury which were subsequently loaned to the inhabitants of nearby villages, and how they have to pay the interest in kind. In two instances (paragraphs 18 and 21), money deposited was loaned to two individuals for purchasing a certain number of sheep, from the milk of which they had to supply daily a certain amount of ghee for the lamps.

Paragraphs 14 and 19 details contain specific instructions about food offerings at these two shrines within the temple complex. The amount of various daily requirements of ingredients given in measures of paddy; how much paddy is required to be converted into rice for tiruvamudu (cooked rice) offering, and how much paddy is required for procuring other ingredients. Whether the paddy was first sold and then used the proceeds to buy these ingredients or whether it was barter system of exchanging paddy for ingredients is not clear.

Paragraph 14 describes how to fund the food offering at one shrine the princess set up within the temple complex. The members of the assembly of the village called Gandaraditya-chaturvedimangalam in Poygai-nadu, have to measure every year one hundred and thirty kalam of paddy for the five hundred and twenty kasu (money) they have received from the funds the princess has deposited in the Lord’s treasury, as long as the moon and the sun endure.

Paragraph 19 describes the food offering at another shrine set up by the princess within the temple complex. The villagers of Kundavai-nallur in Karambai-nadu of Nittavnoda-valanadu, have to measure every year one hundred and thirty kalam of paddy for the five hundred and twenty kasu (money) they have received from the funds the princess has deposited in the Lord’s treasury, as long as the moon and the sun endure.

The foods offered at both shrines are exactly alike. Each offering consisted of a wide variety of dishes like- Tiruvamudu (cooked rice), three types of kari-amudu (vegetable curries), porikkari-amudu (also known as poriyal. A dish in which vegetables are pan-fried in ghee), paruppu-amudu (dal) sakkarai-amudu or sakkarai pongal (rice cooked with raw sugar), and tayir-amudu (yogurt rice) were offered twice daily at both these shrines. Besides this, coconut, ripe bananas, areca nuts, and betel leaf offerings embellished the customary Tamil practice. The methods of preparation are not detailed, but the amount of most ingredients are specified in great detail.

One kuruni and two nazhi of paddy are required for converting into four nazhi of old rice to be used for tiruvamudu at both times of the day, two nazhi of old rice used each time.
Four nazhi of paddy for buying one azakku of ghee, two sevidu and half used each time.
Six nazhi of paddy to be used for purchasing the ingredients for six kinds of kari-amudu, three curries prepared each time.
One nazhi and one uri of paddy for purchasing one uri of pulse for paruppu-amudu, one uzakku used each time.
One nazhi and one uri of paddy for purchasing half a palam of raw sugar, one kaisu used each time.
Two nazhi of paddy for purchasing two sevidu and a half of ghee, to prepare porikkari-amudu one and a quarter sevidu of ghee used each time.
Three nazhi of paddy for purchasing two vazaippaza-amudu (bananas), one used each time.
Three nazhi of paddy for purchasing one nazhi of tayir-amudu, one uri used each time.
One uri and one drakku of paddy for purchasing kadugu (mustard), milagu (black pepper) and uppu (salt).
Four nazhi of paddy for viragu (firewood) and one nazhi of paddy for buying eight adaikkay-amudu (areca-nuts), four of them used each time, and for thirty-two vetrilai-amudu (betel-leaves).
Weights and measures frequently found in inscriptions are complex.
Liquid and grain measurements used during the Chola period were as follows:

1 sevidu = 1/5 azakku
5 sevidu = 1 azakku
2 azakku = 1 uzakku
2 uzakku = 1 uri
2 uri = 1 nazhi
8 nazhi = 1 karuni
2 karuni = 1 pathaku
2 pathaku = 1 tuni
3 tuni =1 kalam
1 kaisu = ¼ palam

An approximation of conversion rate to modern measurements is 1 nazhi equals to 1 ¾ cups.

These temple inscriptions are also essentially culinary artifacts, authenticating the tastes of the past. The extend of details in these inscribed culinary writings proves that the particulars of food preparation was especially important to the devotees. They cared very much about feeding the gods sumptuously just as they would about feeding their own families. And it makes these inscriptions a priceless cultural heritage of culinary practices of medieval South India.

Besides these inscriptions, there are more culinary inscriptions at the Brihadisvara temple and many other temples all or South India, some of which will be featured in upcoming articles.

Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford University Press 1994

Balambal. V. Kundavai- a Chola Princess. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol. 39, 1978

Balasubrahmanyam, S.R. Middle Chola Temples: Rajaraja I to Kulottunga I (985 A.D.-1070 A.D.) Amsterdam Oriental Press 1977

Professor Hultzsch, Eugen Ph.D. South Indian Inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola I, Rajendra Chola, and others (edited and translated) 1886 and 1903

Iyyar, Jagadisa P.V. South Indian Shrines. Asian Education Services, Madras 1993

Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta. A History of South India. Oxford University Press 1999

Subbarayalu, Y. South India under the Cholas. Oxford University Press India 2012

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