As a child growing up in India, I have visited my fair share of temples, partaking in the rituals and the prasad handed out the priests and never quite questioning my parents on why we did what we did. Nevertheless, I did wonder about the role of religion in our lives. So, when I was asked to review Shoba Narayan’s Food and Faith: A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India, I jumped at the chance.
Calling herself a lapsed Hindu, who was first an atheist in her teens, then agnostic in her 20s, she says, “After having two kids, faith was a way of going back to my roots, finding meaning. The journey of writing this book also became a sort of pilgrimage.” Narayan sets about visiting many of India’s iconic places of worship, trying to understand their rituals and make sense of religious polarities. In doing so, she attempts to answer the question that confounds many of us as we seek spirituality: what sustains us?
In India, you can’t separate food from faith. If the 29 diverse varieties of Indian cuisines, each coming from one state in the country are not enough, we also have recipes that the temples and shrines in India dole out. Narayan attempts to spotlight many of them. “I started with a simple calculation. I would visit those temples that had good prasadam or sacred food offerings. These are, literally, foods for the gods, which belong to a time, place, and a specific deity. After offering it to God, the devotees partake of this ‘gracious gift of God’.”
The book is divided into fourteen chapters based on where the author is traveling to, each chapter can be independently read as a short story. Narayan coincides her visits with each region’s most important festival. She travels to Puri during the Kumbh Mela, to a Jewish household in Mumbai during the Passover, and to Haridwar during a time of convergence of yogis.
Accessibility was also one of the criteria in finalizing her list. Shobha also lists “geography, history and the seasons. Going to these temples at the right time, being able to speak to priests and scholars about the food, having some sort of connection with the food so that I could actually write about it, and also ensuring that the multitudes of faiths present in the land that we call Bharat or India” as the other factors she considered. She had wanted to include temples from the Northeast but “ended up not being able to because accessing those temples and interviewing the priests proved to be very difficult.”
In each chapter, Shoba talks not just about the food and history of the temples, but how her faith identifies with the practices and what makes her uncomfortable (like caste segregation). There are lovely little vignettes like the mechanization of Palani panchamritam, how onions were sneaked into the Udupi masala dosa, and why copious amounts of ghee is used in the food at the Kashi Annapurna temple, revealing that no outsider is allowed inside the Jagannath temple kitchen except the 1000 male cooks who make 56 different kinds of offerings called the chappan bhog, that is served to the Gods, six times a day.
I always knew that most traditions at temples always started with a logical reason, which then morphed into ritual. It was interesting to note that Narayan did dig deeper into the root of prasadam. The satvik food served at Udupi is what we tout as local and sustainable farming, the langar at Amritsar develops a feeling of community, that the strict food preparation practice at Puri is a tribute to the area’s tribal food habits, and the practice of drinking small sips of water before food was a way of activating the thyroid gland. A major instance of agriculture and the way it influences temple meals is during the Tamil month of margazhi, when vaishnavite temples serve ven pongal: “Hearty with rice and dal, with complete pepper for our ‘winter’ months and beneficent addition of ghee for heat.”
Apart from Hindu temples, Narayan also talks about experiencing “the layers of tradition” in a Goan Christmas, a dargah in Ajmer, where there was qawwali and kesari bhat, and being part of a Jewish Rosh Hashanah, or New Year with the Bene Israelis in Mumbai. “Each dish had meaning: a bowl of pomegranate signified bounty, there was head of fish and goat…,” she recalls.
Narayan has a narrative, oftentimes self-deprecating style, that draws the reader in, transporting us with her to the Kashi, Ajmer, or Kerala as she explores the cultural heritage that is passed on through religions, especially through their unique practices and cuisines. Most of the book is based on Hindu temples and customs, which she delves into deeply. She stresses that religions in India are inevitably interlinked in many ways, and while she tends to delve deeper in the beginning, Narayan seems to be in a hurry towards the end of the book and glosses over sections in Goan and the Bombay Jewish faiths.
It is refreshing to see Narayan’s candor as she writes about her own spiritual journey, which in turn encourages us to explore our relationship with religion. For some of us, the notion of a God, faith, and prayer might be difficult. But when Narayan talks about her visit to Haridwar, the pomp of the Kumbh Mela, the long line of Naga Babu’s jumping into the Ganga to seek salvation…I see her point. We look at prayer as a way of connecting to nature. Prayer as a way to touch flowers, fruits, stones. By giving thanks to nature and its bounty, by seeing the universe in a grain of and God in a single rock.
We may pray to Jesus, Ram or Allah, “but at the end of the day, we are all children of God. We each have many identities. Religion is one, but there are others. We are each of us son/daughter, spouse, sibling, friend, and professional. I tend to identify myself through my work, and I would suspect that most of my readers are the same way,” concludes Narayan.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: [email protected]