Saturday 12 January 2013

Prasad – Food for the gods

During my visit to Mangalore in coastal Karnataka, I visited the Mangaladevi temple, from this deity the name of the city of Mangalore or Mangalapuram is derived; and Kateel Durga Parmeshwari temple and Dharmastala temple on the outskirts of Mangalore. At all these ancient temples, after darshan and pooja, I was honoured to have the prasad in the form of a vegetarian meal served on banana leaf in the sacred temple premises. The food though simple was divine with a flavour only you can expect in the temple precincts. The meal is served in the clean well laid out large and bright dining halls in the temple premises. In most cases the food is prepared by the priest and his extended family with other helpers. Most devotees consider it to be special to have prasad at the temple. Sacred food is a defining feature of devotion. Offering the food to the deities has its own traditional rituals and bestows benediction on the cook, the priests who offer the meal as well as the devotees who come from far and wide to consume the sanctified offering to the gods.

Hindu temples prepare food and first offer it to the deities, not just to satisfy the deity’s divine hunger but to sanctify the food. Only after this is the prasad offered to the devotees. Food and divinity have great significance for mankind as the provision of one facilitates the quest for the other. One gives life, the other light. The act of offering and eating become part and parcel of the human interface with the divine. The food of the gods though simple in form, does not lack richness, variety and subtlety. And its prepared sans onion and garlic but with energy-giving ingredients. Grains find place alongside refined rice and wheat, jaggery and honey are preferred over sugar and oils which enhance flavours, ensures nutrition and hydration, provide strength and spices aid digestion. And eating it on banana leaf adds to the flavour.

The joy of eating with people from far and wide which bring devotees together at one location is satisfying. So the he dispensation of food as a community meal in temples or other holy places, reiterate the oneness of mankind and the egalitarianism of divine blessing. In India, perhaps more than any other place in the world, sacred food is a defining part of devotion. The belief that even the divine need the same sustenance as the mere mortals, who look to them for blessing and help, some how brings the two closer at a level that all mortals can understand. That is the reason why sacred prasad and bhog the two categories of sacred food dispensed at temples, have always been regarded as special. And people normally would not like to miss it.

Food plays a central role in the Hindu concept of creation and cosmos. The cosmos represents a big food cycle and interdependence of all beings is expressed in the offering of food. And in India, rice is an integral part of everyday meal. So it’s natural then that it is offered to the gods in invocations, to ancestors during rituals such as shraadh and to the needy as part of seva. Bhog and prasad can be in a variety of forms from ladoos, other sweets to rich rice, grain, lentil and vegetable preparations in the regions own menus or recipes and dispense them to the gods and the devotees at specific times of the day.  The preparation whether in the temple community kitchens or ones home kitchen, but prepared keeping in mind all the strict rituals, tradition and sanctity; the preparation of the bhog and prasad is always delicious, nutritious and fulfils both body and soul when served in banana leaf or the traditional stitched leaves depending on the availability in the region.

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