Thursday, February 4, 2010

A passage to Thanjavur

Mystic India – has its own undeniable charm, a diverse culture that is enduring and powerful. Many ethnic culture, traditions, languages and cuisine make it more charming. These survive through ritual and practices that have not been shaken by modern and scientific fads. They also continue to mesmerize tourists and cultural ambassadors.

One such grand ethnic culture is the Thanjavur culture of South India to which I belong. Though born in Madras , brought up in Bangalore and at present based in Hyderabad, My ancestral roots are in a village called Edakkudi near Mayavaram, an ancient city in Tamilnadu on the banks of river Cauvery.

Tamil Brahmins Iyers are basically vedic scholors who perform vedic rituals in the kingdoms of southern kings. Having migrated from northern India many centuries back They settled around the Cauvery delta of Thanjavur, Mayavaram and Tiruchi. Many great civilizations have originated on the banks of rivers and these are rich in culture and so this river belt is also no exception.

This culture is a haven for craft lovers. Exquisite thribhuvanam silks, temple jewellery, richly adorned paintings of Hindu gods called Thanjavur paintings, Thalaiyatti bommi( head nodding doll), Mirror laden Thanjavur plates along with Kalasam, bronze and brass idols, good quality kitchen items, patthamadai pai(mats), beautiful papier mache items are some of the artifacts you can pick up on your trip to the places around Thanjavur. What’s more you can buy directly from the craftsmen at work at a good bargain.

Tanjavur district is dotted with world famous hindu temples renowned for its architecture and frescoes.One of them is the Brihadeeswara temple built by chola kings which stands as a testimony to ancient engineering skills. Also the grand anicut called kallanai - a dam built by stones across river cauvery which has withstood many floods. Thanjavur is also known as the southern granary for its rich paddy fields with river cauvery and its tributary coleroon meandering by.

It is also the cradle of classical carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance which received royal patronage under the princely states. The musical trinity of Carnatic music namely Thyagarajar, syama satry and muthuswami dikshitar belonged to this place.

Each region and direction of india has different flavours of food and the flavors depend on the weather and the base ingredients available in that region. One such cuisine is the Thanjavur cuisine.

Thanjavur iyer cuisine is purely vegetarian and does not accommodate spices like fennel, cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves , onions and garlic. Their base ingredients are tamarind, lentils, yogurt, coconut, redchillies, corianderseeds, pepper, cumin, turmeric and asafoetida. To garnish they use fenugreek, mustard seeds, curry leaf and coriander leaves. Their medium of cooking is sesame/coconut oil. Combinations of these spices along with vegetables give rise to a variety of curries,thick soups called sambar and watery soups called rasam.

Tanjore iyer cooking is also ritualistic and is as good as worshipping. Cooking is done only after bathing and wearing madi clothes( clothes worn from the clothes line directly after drying). Cooking is done along with shloka chanting in unique vessels called kal chatti( stone vessels), man chatti( mud vessels), iya chombu( tin vessels, irumbu vanali(iron),vengala uruli(brass) etc., The vibrations of the shloka is believed to render the food tasty along with the trace minerals of the cooking pots. The cooked food is first offered to gods as naivedyam, then to the ancestors who are in the guise of crows and then served to male members of the family on Banana leaves/silver plates. They sanctify the food by saying a hymn and then thanking the god before eating with fingers and not with forks/spoons. The women eat later.

There are also concepts like Pathu( avoiding contact with cooked food). For instance yogurt(uncooked food) and sambar(cooked food) are not touched simultaneously. One has to wash hands to touch yogurt if you have touched sambar. Another concept called Echil ( avoiding contact with saliva) – you do not sip your steel glass while drinking water but pour it from a height into your mouth. These concepts were basically formulated by our ancestors to ensure food safety and that is why food was also served on banana leaves since the saliva contaminated leaves could be disposed of. Since India is a tropical country and germs spread very fast and there were no concept of cold storage in those days.

Inspite of advances in food safety, storage and refridgeration the weight of tradition still remains strong and some south Indian iyer households still follow this practice.

In Thanjavur iyer house holds food served is in a sequential pattern. The meal starts with cooked rice consumed with paruppu(cooked lentil called tuvar dal) and ghee, Then rice with sambar(thick lentil soup with vegetables) accompanied by a vegetable curry, followed with rice and rasam( thin watery soup) and it ends with rice and yogurt accompanied by a spicy pickle/ narthelai podi( a powder made with tender citron leaves)/ small mangoes in brine solution called vadu mangai. Infact the undying love for yogurt and rice combo( thayir saadam) has earned the Tamil brahmin the sobriquet Thayir sadam community.

Many lip smacking indigenous main course dishes like vattal kozhumbu, veppampoo rasam, poriccha kootu, keerai masiyal,paruppu usili, mor kootu, mor kozhumbu thogaiyal,thengai saadam, puliyansaadam, break fast and tiffin items like dosa, idli, vadai, thavala adai,uttapam,sevai, mani kozhakattai, ven pongal, upma ,sweet dishes like asoka halwa, surul poli, pal payasam, akkara vadisal and poorna kozhakattai reflect the rich socio-cultural life of this place.

Keeping with the changing times many Tam brahms are today scattered globally and may/may not follow these practices and some are not relevant in today’s times. Onions and garlic are today used in most households. I too have deviated from some of the practices.It is easier to use your microwave oven, cookers and mixers.

But I hope to keep alive the homey, whole some, unpretentious, time honored traditional exotic recipes sourced through my Patti, thatha, appa ,amma, Mother–in-law and chitti patti through my future blogs. This will then be a ready reckoner for my children at later times.

Text in red are tamil names


  1. The Namboodiri clan in Kerala follow the same practices followed by the Tanjur Iyers though the Time has watered down them to some extent.

    Well, you have cleverly written the article. Congrats and best wishes.

  2. i agree with you.with time our cultural patterns have changed.
    thanks for your wishes and dropping your comment.

  3. Went through your blog after your posting on mine abt Camps.
    Appreciate the spirit of this writing - so that it documents a heritage that will pale in time to some extent at least.
    Keep writing!

  4. Very very nice one - we do need someone like you to record, maintain and cherish our traditions. This one post is a perfect beginning.

  5. very nicely written. I too follow the Patthu and Echil now a days but not able to make understand the younger generations. But, somehow in important festival days they follow
    these with great care

  6. I've just spent the last few days roaming around Thanjavur district and reconnecting with my roots - similar to yours. The number of amazing temples and the devotion in the air is amazing. Some of the traditions I find abhorrent, but most are , as you say, with a purpose. Its been a great experience for me coming to this place after a long long time.

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  8. So well written. Where can I have more information on tanjavur iyer cuisine . I am very interested . Thanks.