How many times have you craved a good home cooked Indian meal and then settled on an easy sandwich? The time consuming cooking that “ghar ka khanna” involves is sometimes just not feasible in the fast paced, do it all yourself, American life. But what if it was? Imagine a freshly cooked Butter Chicken with rice, ready in 20 mins? Reading Chandra Ram’s, recently released, The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook made me realize that an Instant Pot can really turn those impossible food goals into a reality.
When I was given The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook as a gift for Christmas, I read it like a novel. Wth beautiful pictures and easy steps it was a comprehensible and fast read. It reminded me of my childhood in the 1980’s and 90’s in India when there were endless TV and print ads about the pressure cooker. The pressure cooker really was an object of liberation for Indian women, they could now have some time to themselves (imagine that!) and still not skimp on making a perfect indian meal for their families. The whistling trails of the pressure cooker followed every child in any Indian household with the promise of an instant snack.
This book offers 130 traditional and modern recipes. Even though I had been an Instant Pot user before I was truly surprised by the creative things that one can do with this pot in terms of Indian cooking. The book is neatly divided into sections like Yogurt and Cheese, Pickles and Chutneys, Snacks and Chaats, Soups, Vegetables, Porridge and Rice, Biryanis, Lentils and Pulses, Meats, Breads and Desserts. It offers a diverse range of dishes to cook, whether you are a beginner or an advanced cook, new or old to Indian cooking. The real surprises for me were paneer, yogurt, lassis, cheesecakes, ras malai, roasted meats and many more unexpected items. The modern element involves some twists on traditional dishes like Matar Feta instead of Matar Paneer, using Chipotle Chilies in the Butter Chicken or making a Ginger Lime Cheesecake.
Chandra Ram’s warm introduction about her own half Indian and half Irish upbringing is very relatable. I found much pleasure in reading vignettes from her childhood trips to India where she ate peanut butter sandwiches to avoid the confusing and overwhelming flavors of Indian food. Her mismatch of a childhood reflects the state of many Indian American experiences imbedded with the love of Indian food and its pursuit to perfection.
A word of caution I would have for users of this book would be to understand the Instant Pot before attempting to use this book. Ram has a section in the beginning where she explains the functions of the pot such as the saute feature, releasing the pressure naturally and/or not naturally and the manual setting. Just like the pressure cooker, understanding the mechanism of the machine really helps to make sure your food is not overcooked or too watery. So don’t skip that section, because no one likes an overcooked Butter Chicken!
Preeti Hay is a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in publications including The Times of India, Yoga International, Khabar Magazine, India Currents and anthologies of poetry and fiction.
“What did you eat today?” my mother, Sarada, begins her phone conversation with my twenty-three-year-old daughter in New York. When my daughter explains that she made rasam and sautéed cauliflower over the weekend, Sarada’s face lights up. Later she tells me she’s happy that all her grandchildren love rasam, a staple broth from the south of India.
Eighty-six-year-old Sarada immigrated to America in her 70s, and finds equanimity performing activities and engaging in conversations that hinge around food. When she meets people she doesn’t know, she connects through food conversations, often recalling the piquant tastes of her youth.
Familiar flavors act as a barometer to her moods, often alleviating the stress of adjusting to a brand-new environment and she looks at food as the one constant in her new life, which she uses to bridge the gap between her past and present.
More importantly, when Sarada does not have access to familiar foods, she displays signs of acute emotional distress, appearing physically drained and listless.
Eating—A Social Event
Sarada entrenches socialization in the act of eating. It is true that in most cultures, meet and greets occur around food: we go to restaurants for dinner, have potluck get-togethers and have affinity gatherings where food is conspicuously on display. Sarada, who re-contoured her physical, geographical and cultural spaces later on in life, finds that she is unable to participate in these social gatherings because unfamiliar food becomes alienating.
What complicates the Indian experience is that the cuisines of the different regions are distinct, right down to the staples and vegetables. Southern Indian cuisine uses rice, tamarind and coconut gravies, which differ from the wheat breads and tomato-onion-ginger flavors of the north.
As she ages, Sarada has become more and more particular in her dietary needs, eschewing food that is not from her home state of Tamil Nadu in India. This has affected her socialization patterns, limiting her and isolating her, even within the Indian American community.
And she’s not the only one who feels this way.
What’s On Your Palate?
With over a decade of experience directing Stanford’s Aging Adult Services program, Dr. Rita Ghatak, a gerontologist and psychologist, is the associate director of Optimal Aging Center, and—along with her husband—is a caregiver for her father-in-law, Gopala Pillalamarri. She observed that her father-in-law’s biggest preoccupation is food, particularly food from India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, well-known for its tamarind and chili flavors.
While living in India, Pillalamarri, a former journalist, seldom went to a restaurant, preferring home-cooked meals. And on the rare occasions that he did go to a restaurant, it would often be to a restaurant serving the same dishes he was used to eating at home.
He moved to California to live with Ghatak and her husband in the ’90s, along with his wife. While she was alive, his wife regularly made food that satisfied his palate. At the time he would go on long walks with a cohort of older immigrants and seemed to have adapted to his new country. After his wife’s death, he began to gradually decline, socialized less and less and became increasingly insistent on eating foods that he’d enjoyed for most of his life.
“[Ghatak] makes Bengali food, and I taste it once in a while, but I don’t like it much,” Pillalamarri said, with an apologetic grin.
Other Cultures, Similar Stories: Give me kimchi!
Eighty-seven-year-old Korean American Chang Song Lim lives alone in an apartment close to Boston. Lim came to America in 1989 and his first job was as a factory assembler in Springfield. Within a year, the factory closed down and he was laid off. With his limited English skills, Lim has had to work many odd jobs, including dishwashing and cleaning.
Once he retired, Lim signed up for the government assisted meal service program. He had to choose from American, Russian, Italian and Chinese offerings. Figuring that Asian food was the closest to his Korean palate, Lim opted for Chinese. “It’s a different taste, a different style,” he told me. His body was not used to this type of food, Lim explained, adding that it was causing a serious problem for him. “I’m very skinny right now and I’m indirectly killing myself. I just want kimchi,” he said, the stress clearly audible in his voice.
“Older ethnic immigrants face greater challenges in alleviating their loneliness and social challenges because of their language and cultural barriers and small social networks,” said Megumi Inouye, a researcher at George Mason University, at the Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) annual conference this year.
In a longitudinal study of a senior immigrant Japanese woman who was in long-term care in Boston, Inoue quoted the husband saying that his wife wasn’t eating much and had little appetite. But when a volunteer interacted with the woman, she asked the volunteer to “spend more time and bring Japanese food along.”
A Rising Trend
With the steady pipeline of older immigrants arriving and aging in the United States—in 2010, more than one in eight adults, 65 years and older, were foreign-born, according to the Population Reference Bureau—it’s critical to have conversations on what drives the emotional health of immigrant seniors, since emotional health affects physical health, and both these have economic costs associated with them.
And even among the foreign born, the older Asian population is growing definitively. Dr. Vyjeyanthi S. Periyakoil wrote in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (May 2019) that the older Asian American population is “projected to quadruple from 2 million in 2014 to 8.5 million in 2060. This ethnogeriatric imperative underscores the great and growing need for healthcare services that account for the cultural beliefs and behaviors of older persons.”
It’s evident that Sarada, Pillalamarri and Lim are part of a broader pattern among Asian and South Asian seniors. As an index to policies on older immigrant adults, it helps to examine how and why enjoying the food served becomes critical in staving off feelings of alienation and unhappiness.
The Science Behind It
Mai Takase, a Japanese researcher from the University of Tokyo, along with Tomoki Tanaka, Hiroshi Murayama and others conducted a study investigating the connection between food enjoyment and social connections among seniors. Displaying the work on a poster at the GSA conference, Takase explained that they interviewed 190 residents at an assisted living facility in Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. Questions were asked about meal enjoyment, social engagement: Do you enjoy the meals? How many other facility residents (not a family member) can you talk to about your private life with ease? And the risk of depression was assessed.
The findings indicated that meal enjoyment was critical to emotional health, even if the senior had an extensive social network. “There was a higher likelihood of depression among those who did not enjoy the meal,” summarized Takase.
In a follow-up study at the same assisted living facility, the same group of researchers looked at whether eating with others, as compared to eating alone, in connection with enjoying the meal, had any influence on the respondents’ emotional moods. The subjects were broken into four different groups. Those who enjoyed the meals and ate with others; those who did not enjoy the meals, but ate with others; those who enjoyed their meals but ate alone; and those who ate alone and didn’t enjoy their food.
Takase explained that while cross-sectional studies found that seniors who eat alone are more likely to be depressed, this particular study concluded that not enjoying the meal was a significant contributor to depression, regardless of whether it was consumed alone or with others. “Our findings indicate that the feeling of enjoyment (a subjective aspect of dining style) is an important factor of eating in assisted living facilities: not enjoying meals may be a major risk factor for depressive mood,” wrote Takase.
Aligned with these conclusions, Sarada, Pillalamarri and Lim’s focus is not necessarily on eating with others, but enjoying their meals. Sarada consents to eating in company only if she is assured that the food being served is what she knows and likes. It’s evident that food desires reinforce cultural identity and drive cultural and emotional stability for these senior immigrants.
In contrast, there are other seniors who show remarkable food, cultural and social adaptability. So, it’s perhaps interesting to understand why that is the case.
“I’m not fussy about food”
Sita A. celebrated her 91st birthday recently. She has been living in New York with her daughter, Ashwini, since the 90s. Sita grew up in Coorg, a hilly town in the south of India. Her mother died eleven days after Sita was born and she was reared by the family nanny, Somaiya, who had three children herself. Somaiya was an excellent cook and Sita remembers breakfasts of akki roti with jams and chutneys and dinners of pork, chicken or mutton curry with rice and steamed accompaniments of jackfruit or bamboo shoots.
Later, when Sita moved to Chennai, a busy urban city, to raise her daughter on her own, necessity drove her to improvise. “It was tough being a single mother initially with no proper income,” she said. But she found her feet, selling her jewelry and finding a job. This gave Sita the training to adjust to new situations she encountered, particularly as she aged.
When I was a college student in Chennai, I used to visit Sita at her studio apartment down the road from my college campus. I recall once sharing her simply prepared dinner of soy nuggets and tomato soup. The taste of that meal has far outlasted the flavors of any meal I’ve had since.
Sita moved in with her daughter and son-in-law in the late ’80s and readily adapted to the places they’ve lived in, including France and Scotland, where she built a strong network of friends.
“I’m not fussy about food,” she told me when I visited her in upstate New York. She went through her daily food regimen with me, mostly stressing the time of day that she has her meals and how important her tea is to her. She enjoys eating with the family and is happy to sample whatever has been cooked, she said. I reminded her about her love for kohlrabi. “Yes, you know me well,” she agreed, “I love noolkol [kohlrabi] with mutton curry, and Ashwini makes it for me,” she said, the familiar tinge of pride infusing her tone when referring to her daughter.
The Priya Living Experiment
In the winter of 2015, my family and Sita’s family took a two-week vacation to the Bahamas. Sita agreed to accompany us on the vacation, but Sarada flatly refused. The idea of leaving an 82-year-old woman alone seemed irresponsible, so I signed up for a one-month stay for Sarada at Priya Living, a retirement community in Santa Clara, California.
I took Sarada to check the place out. “Look, you’ll have your own apartment and you’ll be with others your own age. There’s a full kitchen, and you can make sambar and kootu.” She looked stubbornly unhappy and said she was not going to cook and that I’d need to figure out her meals. There was a little evening get-together that day and I introduced Sarada to many who welcomed her into the community with a warm word and smile. Beyond nodding politely, she sat without saying a word.
Feeling perturbed, yet hopeful, I settled Sarada at her new place a few days before I was to leave and got a commitment from a young woman who lived a few doors down to check in on her at least once a day.
When I called the first time, Sarada complained about how the place was too quiet. When I suggested she attend the daily meet-ups in the lounge, she said she wasn’t interested in meeting anyone.
Before leaving I organized a daily meal program for her, a service that many others at the senior community center recommended. Sarada, however, didn’t care for the Gujarati (west Indian) food that was delivered.
All the while, at the beach resort, while I was worrying about Sarada, I observed Sita taking to the new environment, making casual conversation with strangers, and tucking in to risottos and salads with nary a murmur of discontent. The day I came back home from my vacation, I went to Sarada’s apartment. I found her by the door, packed and ready to leave. She told me she’d started packing four days before I was to arrive.
So what’s different about Sarada and Sita?
Sita and Sarada have different life experiences. Sarada grew up in Moncombu, in the state of Kerala and then migrated to Pandaveshwar in the state of West Bengal after she got married. Moving from the deep south to the north was traumatic for her, a young woman who’d lived a sheltered life, within the confines of her village. She found everything about the north Indian culture alien. Over the years, she began to adapt to her new environs. However, to be clear, she went from a small village in south India to a small village in north-east India. There was little in terms of restaurants serving non-local or global food options in these hard-to-access locales. And for most of her life, she had never been exposed to urban or western culture. These conditions inevitably shaped her response and reaction to brand new gastronomic offerings.
According to Ghatak, easing into a new food culture “depends on whether they tried different foods when they were in India.” Most often, in Ghatak’s analysis, it is those who’ve lived their lives in a particular way without traveling much or eating out who end up dependent on their palate for emotional stability in their new circumstances. In Sita’s case, her spirit of resilience was further enhanced when she had to negotiate a new city and circumstance on her own.
One Solution? Food delivery service that’s culturally relevant
Take the Meals on Wheels program. The program is a federal initiative to help meet older adults’ basic food needs and to help them age in place in their own homes. Research by Thomas and Mor in 2002 has shown how the Meals on Wheels program has kept older adults with low care needs out of institutions such as nursing homes.
In a randomized control trial on home delivered meals programs on participants’ feelings of loneliness published in the Journals of Gerontology, the authors, Kali S. Thomas,Ucheoma Akobundu andDavid Dosa concluded that home delivered meals reduce feelings of loneliness. The reasons for this reduction, the authors surmised, include the daily or weekly social contact as well as the food that’s delivered.
However, what the research failed to point out was what happens when seniors find the delivered meals dissatisfying. Essentially, what works for the native-born population will not necessarily work for the first-generation immigrant cohort.
“It’s pretty unreasonable,” remarked Myong Sool Chang, editor of the Boston Korea. “Lim’s is not the story of one old man.” Korean American seniors are not accustomed to speaking English, and so it’s a three-fold problem. “There’s a language barrier, there’s a cultural barrier, and there’s no contact point to ask for help.”
Food is a pipeline to mental and physical health and the lack of institutionalized culturally relevant options makes immigrant seniors very unhappy.
Lim craves Kimchi and Korean food and it distresses him immensely that he’s unable to get it.
Ghatak and Shyam luckily located an older immigrant lady from Andhra Pradesh in Milpitas, about 25 miles away, who prepares weekly Andhra meals for several senior clients. This catering service has plugged the food gap for Pillalamarri, much to Ghatak and her husband’s relief.
These days, Sarada is unable to cook full meals for herself and finds my experimental and less traditional cooking habits intolerable. So, a few months ago, when a friend told me about a south Indian food delivery service in the Bay Area called Mylapore Express, I decided to try it out.
As I unpacked the containers that were delivered one Wednesday morning, Sarada eagerly read the labels aloud, “vadai more kuzambu,” “murungakkai sambar,” “lemon rasam,” “beans paruppusili,” “kathirikkai karamadhu,” “pavakkaipitla.” Her face flushed as she saw the bounty displayed before her and she told me how much she loves kathirikkai (eggplant) and pavakkai (bitter gourd). There was no mistaking the thrum of excitement and animation.
Jay Jayaraman, the founder of Mylapore Express, remarked about the number of people who mention their parents when ordering food from his business. He related the story of a customer’s parent who’d gone out of town and on the day that was scheduled to return, upon finding out the Mylapore Express menu, asked his daughter to save the kathirikai for him. Another texted Jayaraman: “We mainly order for my father-in-law. He is happy with such freshness and taste of the food. The keerai masiyal, mixed veg, kootu, aviyal (just to name a few) are the toppers.” As we finished our conversation, I told Jayaraman that his food delivery service maintains the emotional balance in our house, and he chuckled, assuring me that I’m not the only one.
Typically, older immigrants have limited English proficiency, have weak ties to social institutions and little U.S. work experience, according to Judith Wilmoth of Syracuse University. Sarada fits the broad patterns of Wilmoth’s analysis. She arrived in the United States in 2006, became a citizen in 2013, has limited English proficiency, no U.S. work experience and is unworldly in most respects. But there’s little to nothing wrapped up in that description.
Sarada is a nurturer who smuggles fruits into my backpack on the mornings she sees me rushing to make my morning train. She does the dishes when I’m too tired to do it. She feeds the family dog, and worries about my adult children’s eating habits. In small and large ways, she is an essential link in the chain of my life and her happiness strengthens me.
It’s Wednesday and Mylapore Express has just delivered Sarada’s meals. I open the carton and begin taking out the containers. She comes rushing out of her room and asks excitedly, “what’s on the menu, this week?”
Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist and author. She was previously the editor of India Currents.
This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.”
WomenNow organized a Sari Parade where over 600 participants walked down the streets of San Francisco, flaunting their culture and identity woven in five yards of grace.
The Sari Parade was held at the fifth annual Spring India Day Festival this June and this unique parade took place for the first time ever. Both events were free for all, resulting in an amalgamation of cultures tied together with dance and music. Lining the parade were stalls of food, clothes and jewelry similar to a street market in India.
The buzzing excitement of participants wearing Incredible India sashes, the dances along with live Dhol, and the colorful landscape of Union Square evoked emotions beyond a national pride. This truly was a showcase of India’s true colors and heritage.
The event was held in collaboration with Compassionate Chef, which works with the Tenderloin After School Program to help impoverished kids obtain the resources to become global citizens.
Notable guests in attendance included Mayor London Breed and the Consul General of India, Sanjay Panda.
Mayor London Breed gave an encouraging speech about how our different cultures and families bring us together, and how our different backgrounds are an important identity of the city of San Francisco.
A vast spectrum of participants from housewives, to models, Silicon Valley technology gurus, doctors, engineers, as well as representatives from every other professions were present. The vast spectrum of saris were showcased and every style of sari from traditional to modern, every type of drape, and every color were in attendance.
In the midst of the parade were demonstrations of how to drape a sari in various styles for everyone to learn more about what exactly a sari means to an Indian women.
The parade was sponsored by Incredible India! India’s official tourism agency, to showcase Indian tourism. Other sponsors include Zee TV, Rotimatic Singapore and Shasta India.
That sums up Monsoons in India.As I prepare for my annual visit this summer, I find myself sharing monsoon stories with my child. No other rainy day experience has quite the charm or the nostalgia quotient, for those of us who grew up in India.
The heavens opened like clockwork every afternoon, and the ensuing deluge washed away the heat and dust of the day, leaving the world cool and sparkling as it eased into dusk. The distinctive fragrance of the parched soil as it absorbed the first rain drops remains the stuff of my dreams! I have never been able to experience that fragrance anywhere else in the world – if I could bottle it up, I would!
The Monsoon features boldly in every facet of life in India, inspiring classical ragas, movie plots (rain dance sequences), poetry and naturally – food.There are recipe books of specific foods that can be prepared to enhance the mood around the rainy season. The summer rains hold such a special place in our cultural fabric, that new born infants and kids are often taken outdoors to be soaked in the first rain showers of the season. I remember dancing with my friends, sticking out my tongue to drink in the fat drops as the warm rain pelted down at the end of the day. It was our favorite form of entertainment. No T.V show or gadget could have given us such bountiful joy!
Treks to school were especially fun during the monsoon. Khaki raincoats provided some protection, but we were drenched to the skin nevertheless! The collapsible umbrella was a relatively expensive commodity when I was in middle school. But it was the one thing we would make sure we carried in our bags to school. The day would dawn bright and the barometer would soon rise from warm to sweltering. It would stay that way through morning recess, midday lunch and afternoon recess… right up until 10 minutes or so before the gong sounded to signal day’s end. As we exited chattering away, we would notice the grey clouds gathering overhead. And out came the plethora of umbrellas.A vivid spread of colors and patterns, interspersed with the ubiquitous black ‘old fashioned’ kinds, would sail through the school grounds and down the streets; some to the bus stop, some to waiting cars and two wheelers, while I walked back home with a kid sister in tow.
Being the older one, I was expected to be responsible and mature. Amma would berate us if we did not use our umbrellas or raincoats, coming home soaked to the skin. The lack of washers and dryers meant she had to hang dry and iron the sodden clothes for school the next day.But I must admit; while I tried to keep my active sister from puddle jumping, trying very hard to be stoic about it, I did give up and engage in it myself once in a while.Peppa Pig had nothing on us when it came to “jumping up and down in muddy puddles!” We would laugh about it and figure out ways to get around Amma’s inevitable scolding.
Some memories stand out brighter than visual snapshots – and they are associated with my nose. The wizened old woman sitting outside the school gates, selling salted peanuts, steamed or roasted over coals, was a regular fixture. She came everyday and sat sheltering under her patched-up black umbrella, squatting on her haunches, chewing tobacco. The kids gathered around her braving the tobacco spittle spraying out at them from in between her missing teeth. But her twinkling eyes and smile ensured her a faithful clientele!
At the end of the school day,my poor rumbling stomach was tortured by the fragrant little newspaper cones she sold! My parents were not partial to the practice of handing out pocket money. We lived close enough to the school and walked back and forth. They did not understand why we might need money for ‘accidental’ spending. There were strictly to be no ‘accidents’ of any nature between school and home – and there ended the matter, should we dare to discuss it.
So every day, the aroma of gently steaming peanuts wafted into the moist humid air as I desperately sheltered under my umbrella; trying to assuage my overactive taste buds with a stern lecture about the perils of ingesting the newsprint that formed the cone packaging. My sister was less disciplined about this matter. Her friend bought some every day and generously shared it with her! It made me crave the little 50.paisa treat all the more!
Finally, tortured to the point of distraction, I made bold and asked Amma if I could buy some the next day.I must have made a good case, citing the health benefits of peanuts or some such, I don’t exactly recall. But as luck would have it, she agreed. I went to school pleased as punch about the fortuitous change in my finances! One might think I’d won the lottery! Such was my excitement!
The monotonous school day dragged on as it usually did, with one class flowing into the next. And as the hour of departure loomed, my anxiety mounted with it. My mind plotted the quickest exit from the classroom the second the gong sounded, so I could beat the hordes milling about my much anticipated prize. There was no way I would miss out on getting myself some warm, salty, steamed peanuts – newsprint be damned!
As usual, the clouds gathered for their seasonal duty.Securely tucked under my umbrella, I tried to wade through the melee holding tightly to my sister’s hand. All the pushing, shoving and navigating got us to the other side of the swarm successfully enough.But when we got there – there was no aroma of peanuts! My poor nose, diverted by the anxious chatter in my brain – failed to alert me to the absence of the old woman and her basket of coals! Utter disaster! Of all the days she could pick, she seemed to have chosen to absent herself from her station – on the very day my tastebuds had launched into overdrive! There was no disappointment keener than the one I experienced that day.
What else was to be done, but to walk home trying to console ourselves with puddles, while avoiding cow patties, clinging to the hope that the next day would bring with it a warm peanut promise!
1/2 cup fresh coriander, roughly chopped, (stems and all)
1-2 tablespoons red chilli powder ( optional)
salt to taste
freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
In a medium non stick pan, dry roast your peanuts to release the aromas. (You could add a teaspoon of oil)
Add a little salt and then add the onions. Allow them to soften and then turn off the heat.
Add the coriander, Chilli powder and more salt at this stage. Stir to combine and then add the lemon juice. Taste to check seasoning.
Serve warm with chilled glasses of beer!
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.
Any person who has grown up listening to stories of the lovable Krishna from Hindu mythology, the blue-faced one sporting a naughty smile and holding a fistful of butter, will know that Mathura and Vrindavan were Krishna’s stomping grounds.
The numerous temples and the flow of devotees into the towns of Mathura, Vrindavan and and the adjoining hamlets of Gokul, Barsana, Nandgaon that constitute Brajbhoomi tell the story of how Lord Krishna is loved as much as revered. The colorful stories of the innocent pranks of adolescent Krishna vanquishing demons as a child and his playfulness as a youth and of his teasing and frolicking with gopis and ardently wooing his beloved Radha with a peacock feather tucked in his hair-band and a flute in his hand ensure that the Krishna legend continues from Dwapar Yug (epoch) to Kali Yug.
It was on a sunny spring morning that we drove on the Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to the twin towns of Vrindavan and Mathura. It was just a week prior to the celebrated festival of Holi and a joyous mood pervaded the towns.
As we got off the Expressway on to a narrow road snaking through the cultivated fields towards Vrindavan the soothing rays of the sun warmed the cockles of our hearts. Spring was in full bloom and cheerful flowers set the mood while vast fields of potato cultivation spread a verdant hue. Harvesting of the tubers had commenced and heaps of potato lay on the roadside. Bullock carts trudged past and farmers walked to work while stray dogs roamed around.
The laid back charm was soon replaced by the cacophony of a pilgrim town as we entered Vrindavan. Once known for its fragrant groves it now resembled any other dusty mofussil town from the Gangetic plains.
With signboards showing the direction to Vrindavan’s most famous Banke Bihari temple we reached the site before the Lord retired for his afternoon siesta. The roads were all spruced up and the lanes cleaned for Holi. Rahul, a local student who doubled as a guide in his free time was awaiting the festival during which hordes of devotees and curious foreigners flooded the town. “Everything is awash in color and on the day of Holi. ‘Lathmaar Holi’ is played and then beats of dholaks rend the air as the participants enthrall everyone with mellifluous folk songs,” he described.
Banke Bihari Temple
As we walked down the lane leading to the temple, hawkers were arranging peacock feathers, shop owners were displaying Radha-Krishna pictures for sale, and sweets were being arranged at mishthan bhandars or sweetmeat shops. Sadhus with their weird hairdos and saffron robes sat whiling away time as monkeys pranced around causing commotion. It was hilarious to watch devotees struggling to hide their spectacles and prasad from the monkeys. The only sight that unsettled us were those of widows clad in white sitting quietly by the roadside. It was ironical for a town known for the youthful shenanigans of Krishna and his gopis to be so cruel to its widows who are driven away from their own homes to live in penury.
Inside the temple there was much jostling and without much effort we were pushed to the front. The black luminescent idol of Banke Bihari draped in shimmering brocade and silk and adorned with jewels looked awesome. The aura of the divine deity had a calming effect on us as we fervently prayed.
With prayer on our lips and hope in our hearts we looked around for the famous “Mathura ke lal pede” or the famous red sweets made from evaporated milk in Mathura. Outside the temple there were stalls that dated back a century. We bought some delicious pede from Lakhan ki Dukan (Lakhan’s store).
Janmashtami and Holi are two festivals that are celebrated with much fanfare in Vrindavan and Mathura. The Holi celebration, the rite of spring heralding the New Year, starts almost a week before the actual date (March 6, 2015). The devotees play Holi inside the temple. As fistfuls of abeer and gulal fly, they create a haze of pink, red, yellow and saffron hue.
The Holi festival is strongly associated with Lord Krishna and Brajbhoomi comes alive with frenzied celebrations during the period. For a week, priests and devotees partake in the celebration as colored water and powder cover everyone.
Games People Play
In the afternoon the Banke Bihari temple organizes Huranga (a game played between men and women using liquid colors) or Lathmaar Holi (a game where women chase men away with sticks) on its premises. Hordes of tourists throng to the temple to soak in the mood of joy and gaiety and hundreds of photographers vie for a perfect shot. After the games the women and men sing folk songs inside the temple and immerse themselves in devotion to the deity to seek his divine blessings.
The tradition of playing Lathmaar Holi has an interesting genesis too. The legend says that Krishna once went to see Radha in Barsana when her friends chased him and his friends away with sticks. Krishna later came back with his friends from Nandgaon to play Holi with Radha. The modern festivities ensure a playful enactment of the scene when women in ghunghat (head covering) chase the menfolk with sticks while the men protect themselves with shields.
Nidhivan and ISKCON
Listening to all these colorful tales we decided to pay a visit to Nidhivan, where Krishna indulged in RasLeela (a dance) with the gopis in the forest. It was here in a secluded spot that Krishna’s devotee Swami Haridas meditated. Legend says that Lord Krishna transformed himself into an idol on Haridas’ request and the black luminescent idol was installed in the temple in 1864. The aura of the idol is such that no one can continuously look at it. This is the reason why a curtain is drawn every few minutes over the idol in the temple.
From there we headed to the Krishna Balram temple of ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness) that has made “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” chants an anthem for foreigners and Indians alike who are drawn to Krishna’s allure. The society is also credited to have taken up a number of social projects including feeding the poor.
It was post noon and the rumble in our tummies signaled that we too needed some succor. We ate at the Shri Govinda restaurant on the premises. They are known the world over for delicious vegetarian food prepared sans onions and garlic. Besides the Indian cuisine we also loved the Italian spaghetti and macaroni and coaxed the manager Balram Das to tell us the secret to his sauce. He explained that it was the addition of a specially made organic sauce that gave the unique taste to the dishes.
In the evening our next stop happened to be the current hot favorite of tourists, the Prem Mandir (Love Temple) built entirely of white marble enticing the public with a colorful musical fountain (7pm-7:30pm) and a bedazzling display of lights. The grandeur of the temple, its vast garden with statues depicting events from Krishna’s childhood and the intricate carvings inside draws old and young alike.
Delectable Desserts and Savory Selections
Next day as we continued our temple trail from Vrindavan to Mathura, we noticed that modernization had brought newer chains of eating outlets. But North Indian cuisine still predominated in the region and most restaurants served vegetarian food even without onions and garlic in both Vrindavan and Mathura. The bylanes of Mathura are the places to go to gorge on delectable sweets and savory snacks from the umpteen hole-in-the-wall shops and kiosks. My morning stroll in old Mathura from Chowk Bazaar to Holi Gate was a sensory and culinary experience. As the street stirred to life the tea stalls were first to light the stoves with hissing kettles letting off an inviting aroma and I could not resist a piping hot kulhad (terracotta cup) of sweet milk tea. A little later the Mishtan Bhandars and bhojnalayas (eating places) would also become busy frying hot kachoris to be served with delicious aloo ki sabzi, syrupy jalebis and chhena ki mithai.
After breakfast it was time to visit one of the oldest temples that was built as a haveli (historical mansion) in 1814. Here Lord Krishna is depicted as the King of Dwarka so his idol is flanked by his queens Rukmini and Satyabhama. The temple is famous for its annual 13 days Jhulan Yatra (swing festival) celebrated with grandeur in the month of August.
In the evening as we walked towards Vishram ghat on the banks of the river Yamuna from Holi gate to Chatta bazaar the tangy chaat, aloo tikki, pani-puri, hot samosa with chutney, chana chivda, moong dal pakode, stuffed parathasand dal vati vendors eateries could be seen doing brisk business. We gorged on some hot and spicy treats before settling down for the evening aarti at the ghat where once Lord Krishna and Balram rested after killing the cruel king Kansa.
In the birthplace of “Makhan Chor” (another playful term for Lord Krishna) one is spoilt for choice of food and drinks and dessert with lassi, rabri, badam (almond) milk, pede being sold at every nook and corner.
So what better place to have lassi and rabri than the temple of Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi itself? This temple holds great significance as Krishna is said to have been born here and a jail has been erected in the temple to get the feel of the captivity of Vasudev and Devaki (Krishna’s parents) by the evil king Kansa. As legend goes a lot of miracles happened when Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, was whisked away to the cowherd village of Gokul on that stormy night when the river Yamuna swelled with heavy downpour.
When we drove to the Gokul Barrage over the river Yamuna, I couldn’t help getting down and watching the river that appeared so calm. I could visualize, many centuries ago, a naughty Krishna being chased by a loving Yashoda in Gokul after breaking the pot full of butter. Truly Krishna still resides in Brajbhoomi, his presence can be felt everywhere.
Famous Mathura Eating Joints:
Om Pahalwan Kachoriwala (Holi Gate) and Brijwasi Chaat Wala (Tilak Dwar) are good for Indian street food.
Brijwasi Mithaiwala has seven outlets and is famous for mawa sweets. The Mathura ke pede, Meva vati peda and export quality special peda last for three months after purchase. At this store, you get Mathura specialities likeKhurchan, Rabri, Ghewar, Faini, pista sweets and lots of namkeens.
Shankar Mithaiwala (Tilak Dwar in Holi Gate) is an institution in itself where traditional food is prepared in shudh Desi Ghee. Their pede, sugar free moong dal burfi, creamy lassi, sumptuous breakfast of chhole bhature, khasta kachoriand dahi bhalla will keep you full for a long time.
Kavita Kanan Chandra is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Mumbai. She has lived and worked in different parts of India and understands the pulse of her country.