Travel Shot: Madurai Malli| The Jasmine Flowers Of Madurai

The minute we entered our hotel in Madurai, we were assailed by the heady scent of jasmine. This was no ordinary scent, mind you, but a haunting, beautiful perfume that I haven’t come across with jasmine flowers anywhere. I looked around and, soon enough, found the source of the scent – a strand of jasmine flowers laid before the idol of Ganesha in the reception area. The famous Madurai malli! That moment, more than anything else, drove home the fact that we had, well and truly, arrived in Madurai.

For the uninitiated, the temple town of Madurai is well known for the special variety of jasmine flowers that it produces – popularly called Madurai malli or Madurai mallige. These flowers, grown abundantly in Madurai and surrounding areas, have thicker petals and longer stems, making it easier for flower vendors to string them. Also, these flowers retain their fragrance and freshness for up to two days, making them a huge hit with tourists and locals alike.

Apparently, it is the topography and climate of Madurai that lends the malli its special qualities and fragrance.

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Madurai malli for sale outside the Meenakshi Amman temple

So feted are these flowers, in fact, that they have received their own Geographical Indication (GI) tag! They have found mention in ancient Tamil scriptures as well.

In Madurai, you will come across these flowers for sale everywhere – on pavements, outside big showrooms, in marketplaces and, of course, outside the famous Meenakshi Amman temple. They are commonly sold by quantity here, though – a string of 100 flowers will cost you a certain amount (I forget exactly how much) – as opposed to sale by length (mozham) that I have seen in case of jasmine everywhere else.

How could we resist buying the mallige while in Madurai? I wore strings of them in my hair every day, and basked in the glorious fragrance of them.

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I hope you have been reading and enjoying my posts about our recent trip to Madurai. If you haven’t, here are the links for you!

On a jigarthanda trail in Madurai

Our street food (and drink) journey in Madurai

Madurai Diaries: Of hogging at Nagapattinam Halwa Shop

Thoughts after visiting MS Subbulakshmi’s house in Madurai

Gopu Iyengar’s, Madurai: Serving delicious for 80+ years

Bun sandwiches, 4 ways

Travel shot: Panneer drakshe aka Indian Gulabi grapes

Azhagar kovil dosai| Black urad dosa

The other Azhagar temple in Madurai: Koodal Azhagar kovil

 

 

3-Ingredient Amrakhand| No-Cook Mango Shrikhand 

I first heard the name ‘Amrakhand‘ while we were visiting Pune, en route to Shirdi. The name sounded royal, like something made for a king in the kitchens of his palace. And why not? Amrakhand is, indeed, a regal treat, made with the choicest of mangoes, a fruit often touted as ‘the king of fruits’. Deck it up with slivers of almonds and a dash of saffron, and this beauty can brighten up anyone’s day.

Amrakhand! Now, if that is not a bowl of sunshine, what is?

Considering how beautiful amrakhand tastes, this Maharashtrian delicacy is extremely simple to make. All it needs are a few everyday ingredients. It is, basically, a version of shrikhand – mango shrikhand.

Here‘s my recipe for the amrakhand.

Ingredients (serves 2):

  1. 1 cup fresh, thick hung curd
  2. 2-3 tablespoons powdered sugar, or to taste
  3. 1 medium-sized, ripe mango
  4. A couple of strands of saffron (optional)
  5. 5-6 roasted, unsalted almonds, chopped (optional)

Method:

1. Peel the mango and chop all the flesh into cubes. Puree this in a mixer.

2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the hung curd, mango puree and powdered sugar. If you are using saffron and almonds, mix them in too.

3. Let the mango shrikhand chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, covered, by which time it will set.

4. Serve chilled or after letting it thaw for about 15 minutes.

Notes:

1. Use curd made from full-fat milk for best results.

2. To make the hung curd, line a colander with cotton cloth and place it over a wide vessel. Pour the curd into the cloth-lined colander and let it sit for 2-3 hours. All the water from the curd would have flowed into the vessel at the bottom by this time, and you will find thick, creamy curd in the colander. Use this residual thick curd for this recipe.

3. Use fresh curd that isn’t too sour.

4. To make this mango shrikhand, use a variety of mango that isn’t too stringy. I used a Banganapally mango. Also, use a mango that is ripe and sweet, not too sour, but firm and not squishy.

5. Do not let the hung curd sit out for too long before you proceed to make the amrakhand. In that case, there are chances of the hung curd turning sour. You could make the hung curd in advance and refrigerate it, till you are ready to make the amrakhand, but trust me when I say it tastes best when freshly made hung curd is used.

6. You could add any variety of chopped nuts to the dish. I prefer adding roasted, unsalted almonds.

7. Do not blend the amrakhand after adding the sugar powder and pureed mango, otherwise the dish might get watery.

You like? I hope you will try this out at home too! 

Gopu Iyengar’s, Madurai: Serving Delicious For 80+ Years

While I was researching for our recent trip to Madurai, the name Gopu Iyengar’s popped up often. I read about this all-vegetarian little eatery being touted as one of the best places in Madurai for South Indian snacks, particularly the variety of dosas that they serve and their vellai appam. Of course, we had to include a visit to Gopu Iyengar’s while we were in Madurai!

The history

Long, long ago, a certain Gopala Iyengar was working as a waiter in one of the old restaurants in Madurai. He was a good, hard-working and earnest person, much liked by everyone. When the owner decided to sell the restaurant, he found a willing buyer in Gopala.

In the year 1930, Gopala launched his own restaurant by the name of Gopu Iyengar’s, on West Chitirai Street, near the famed Meenakshi Amman temple. On the menu were traditional South Indian tiffin items like dosas, idlis, vadas, thavalai adai, pongal and halwa. The eatery became hugely popular, with dignitaries like Supreme Court Judge AR Lakshmanan and former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu K Kamaraj making it a regular haunt. Priests from the Meenakshi Amman temple began eating here too. The fame of the hotel spread far and wide, and locals began referring to the place as ‘Moolai Kadai‘ (‘corner shop’ in Tamil, thanks to its location at a corner of the street).

Over time, Gopu Iyengar’s launched a second outlet on the bustling Bypass Road in Madurai, too. They also began selling some of their signature snacks and pickles online. I was also surprised to see this ancient, traditional hotel having an active and well-maintained Facebook page!

The branches, presently owned by Gopala’s son RG Srinivasan, remain open from 6.30 AM to 10.30 AM in the mornings and from 3 PM to about 7.30 PM in the evenings. It is believed that the menu and style of preparation of dishes here still the way Gopala Iyengar planned them out.

Gopu Iyengar’s, West Chitirai Street

While in Madurai, we decided to visit the old, first outlet of Gopu Iyengar’s, rather than the new one on Bypass Road.

The old outlet of the eatery was not difficult to find at all. It is, indeed, a small, hole-in-the-wall place that we might have missed if we weren’t really looking for it, but I am sure the throng of people getting in and out of it would have drawn us to it eventually. A blackboard by the door told us about the day’s specials, all in Tamil.

Both times we visited, the few tables and chairs inside were full of people who seemed to be relishing their tiffin on plantain leaves, slowly sipping on their filter coffee. Both times, we got a table after a short wait, and were soon relishing our own tiffin and coffee too. I don’t know how this works – it felt like we weren’t rushed at all, we were given time to leisurely enjoy our food, with the people waiting outside being managed efficiently as well.

Inside, the eatery retains its old-world charm – the interior still probably looks very much the same as it did when the place was started in 1930. Peeling paint on the walls, framed pictures of Indian gods, an old-fashioned cashier’s desk by the door, barebones tables and chairs, the lack of fancy cutlery, waiters in T-shirts and veshtis, a little washbasin to clean your hands, a bin where you drop the plantain leaves after you eat, all add to the quaint atmosphere of the place.

The food and drink story

Like I said before, Gopu Iyengar’s is an all-vegetarian outlet that mostly serves traditional South Indian tiffin items, and is particularly famous for its vellai appam and dosas. Every day, there are different specials, announced on the blackboard, while the signature dishes as well as the most-ordered ones are served every single day.

The eatery prides itself on serving fresh, homely food, made without the use of any artificial colours, flavouring agents or preservatives.

Over the course of our two visits to Gopu Iyengar’s, we tried out quite a few items, most of which we absolutely loved. I’m so glad to see that this eatery hasn’t taken its reputation for granted and, even after over 80 years of existence, is serving finger-licking delicious fare to its patrons.

Here is a round-up of all the food we sampled at this eatery.

Vellai Appam: At Gopu Iyengar’s, you are brought a plate of vellai appams first, even before you have decided what you are going to have. That is de rigeur. You could refuse them if you want, but why would you do that? These vellai (white) beauties are things of joy, after all. These appams, a recipe from neighbouring Chettinad, are nothing but deep-fried balls of lentil batter. We found them quite delectable, albeit a tad oily. The two types of chutney we were served alongside these appams made for perfect accompaniments to them.

Filter Coffee: Filter coffee was good, wherever we sampled it in Madurai. Gopu Iyengar’s was no exception.

Plain Dosa: The dosa here was very well done, just the way I like it – neither overly soggy nor overly crispy. It was quite homely and delish,  a far cry from the thick and greasy dosas that you get in most hotels these days.

Podi Dosa: Again, this dosa was made beautifully, just the right texture, sprinkled with a liberal dose of karuveppalai (curry leaves) podi (powder). The dosa tasted lovely, but we didn’t particularly like the taste of the podi within.

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On the left: Vellai appam, On the right: Podi dosa, both at Gopu Iyengar’s

Idlis: The idlis we sampled here were lovely, pillowy soft and delicious. They were quite homely too, as against the grainy idlis that you get in most restaurants now.

Ulundhu Vadai: The ulundhu vadais – deep-fried rounds of urad daal batter – were absolutely delectable. They were perfectly fried, neither overly crispy nor underdone. The coconut chips and curry leaves in the batter took the taste to a whole new level.

Godhumai Dosa: The godhumai (wheat) dosa here was another delicious affair.  It was, again, homely and made just right.

On the left: Bun halwa, On the right: Idlis and vadai, both at Gopu Iyengar’s

Bun Halwa: On one of the days we visited Gopu Iyengar’s, we were lucky to find bun halwa in the list of specialties. The halwa, made with bakery buns, came to our table in a little plastic cup. It was absolutely delish, loaded with ghee and dry fruits. It is a distant cousin of the Hyderabadi shahi tukda, if you may.

Prices and service

We found the service to be quite fast. The waiters were courteous, friendly, and attentive.

The prices are highly reasonable, considering the quality of the food here. We don’t remember the exact amounts of the bills we paid, both times we visited, but we do remember that they were quite, quite reasonable.

Though the place is small and cramped, it is neat and well-managed.

Verdict

Don’t miss this place whenever you are in Madurai. Do gorge on the lovely traditional fare here!

I’m not sure if the quality and taste of the food at the (relatively) new Bypass Road outlet matches up to this one. The West Chitirai Street branch is the one we visited and loved, and the outlet that I can’t recommend highly enough.

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I hope you have been reading and enjoying my earlier posts about our Madurai trip! If you haven’t, here are the links for you.

On a jigarthanda trail in Madurai

Our street food (and drink) journey in Madurai

Bun sandwiches, 4 ways

Madurai diaries: Of hogging at Nagapattinam Halwa Shop

Travel shot: Panneer drakshe aka Indian Gulabi grapes

Thoughts after visiting MS Subbulakshmi’s house in Madurai

Azhagar kovil dosai| Black urad dosa

The other Azhagar temple in Madurai: Koodal Azhagar kovil

Travel Shot: Kumbakonam Vettalai (Betel Leaves)

Degree coffee is certainly not the only thing that Kumbakonam is famous for, we realised while researching for our recent trip to this temple town.

Apparently, the town also happens to be one of the leading producers of betel leaves and areca nuts. In fact, the betel leaves produced in Kumbakonam are believed to be among the best in the world, as far as quality is concerned.

Armed with this knowledge, we were well prepared to keep an eye out for local paanwallahs in Kumbakonam, so we could taste a couple of these famed betel leaves.

We had, sort of, expected these betel leaves to be all over Kumbakonam, but they were so not! We came across just a few shops selling them, that too only in the local flower-fruit-vegetable market.

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Kumbakonam vettalai aka betel leaf for sale, in a market stall

When we finally got our hands on a couple of these betel leaves, we were surprised at just how fresh and strong in taste they were. They filled our mouths with a spicy juice that just isn’t present in the betel leaves we get in big cities like, say, Madras or Bangalore. The Kumbakonam vettalai is, definitely, different. Neither the husband nor I are betel leaf connoisseurs, and hence, unable to elaborate more on this.

Do try out some of the famed vettalai whenever you are in Kumbakonam!

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I hope you have been reading and enjoying my other posts about Kumbakonam! If you haven’t, here are the links for you.

Acquainted, finally: Degree coffee in Kumbakonam

What dining at a 100-plus-year-old eatery feels like: Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, Kumbakonam

Kumbakonam, in the midst of Masimagam

Kalyana Sundareswar Kovil, Thirumanancheri: The temple of marriages

Travel shot: The man and his friend, the beast

Garbharakshambigai temple, Tanjore: Abode of the mother who protects the womb

Garbharakshambigai Temple, Tanjore: Abode Of The Mother Who Protects The Womb

The Garbharakshambigai temple, about 20 km away from Kumbakonam, was one of our destinations on the recent trip we undertook. Thousands flock to this temple, located on the banks of the river Vettar, in the village of Thirukkarugavur, in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu. Most of these devotees seek the blessings of Garbharakshambigai (‘the Mother who protects wombs’ in Tamil) one of the presiding deities here.

Walking around inside the Garbharakshambigai Temple..

It is believed that Garbharakshambigai, one of the incarnations of Goddess Parvati, holds the power to grant pregnancy to those of her devotees who seek it. She is also believed to have the ability to guard the foetuses of her devotees, and protect them from anomalies, ill health, miscarriage, and other woes. There are literally thousands of women who can prove this point – they will tell you of how they begot children because of their prayers to Goddess Garbharakshambigai, reciting the mantra meant for her, and partaking of the ghee distributed for the benefit of pregnant women at this temple. The Goddess is also believed to aid her devotees with a relatively easier delivery.

The other presiding deity at this temple, Mullaivananthar (Lord of the jasmine garden), is an avatar of Lord Shiva, husband of Goddess Parvati. Offering one’s prayers to the Lord is believed to cure one of any chronic disease.

History of the Garbharakshambigai temple

As per legend, the origin of the temple has to do with a couple – the husband was called Nidhruva and the wife, Vedikai. The couple, whose job was to serve two revered sages in a place called Mullai Vanam (jasmine garden), was childless. At the advice of the sages, the couple prayed to Goddess Parvati, and Vedikai was soon blessed with pregnancy. One day, during the course of her pregnancy, Vedikai was extremely tired and was resting, when another revered sage called Urdhvapada visited their abode. Vedikai was alone then and, in her state of tiredness, failed to hear the sage call out to her. Urdhvapada felt terribly insulted by this and, without knowing about Vedikai’s pregnancy, cursed her to suffer with a dreadful disease. The disease soon inflicted Vedikai, and began to eat away at the foetus in her womb, too, devastating her.

Vedikai once again prayed to Goddess Parvati, who appeared before her and promised to protect her foetus. The Goddess then placed the foetus in a pot and safeguarded it till the term of Vedikai’s pregnancy ended, and the couple received a male child, whom they went on to name Naidhuruvan. Goddess Parvati continued to extend her grace towards Vedikai by sending Kamadhenu, the divine cow, to provide milk to Naidhuruvan.

Extremely pleased by these benevolent acts of the Goddess, Vedikai and the other sages prayed to her, requesting her to stay back with them. And so she did. Later, a temple was built to commemorate the Goddess, and the place (that was earlier called Mullai Vanam) came to be known as Thirukarukavur (‘village of the temple deity who saves wombs’, in Tamil). Since then, it is believed, the Goddess, in the form of Garbharakshambigai, has been safeguarding the interests of pregnant women.

When Kamadhenu descended on earth to offer her milk to the child, a spring of water arose where her hooves were planted, right in front of the temple. A tank was later built to enclose the spring, which came to be called Kshreeakundam. This tank exists at the very same spot even today.

The tank in front of the temple, apparently the spot where Kamadhenu’s hooves dug into the earth

No one is sure about exactly how old this temple is, but it does find mention in a 7th Century Tamil work of literature called Tevaram.

The story of our visit

Conception and pregnancy was a tough game for the husband and me, for a variety of reasons. Every moment of my trying for conception and then, during my pregnancy with Bubboo, had tension and worry underlying it. My mother, having heard of the many miracles of Garbharakshambigai, would pray every day for the baby in my womb. I was too scared then to not religiously consume the ghee that my mother managed to get for me from the temple, via some relatives. Coincidence or not, our darling Bubboo came into this world hale and hearty. So, on our recent trip to Kumbakonam, we absolutely had to visit this temple with Bubboo, and pay our respects to the Mother.

We hired a cab to take us from Kumbakonam (where we were staying) to the temple, and back. This turned out to be a good decision, because there are no great places to stay or eat around the temple. Roads en route were good, and we had a comfortable and safe ride.

The temple is not too big, but not too small either. It is beautiful and serene, filling you up with a sense of peace the moment you enter. We had a nice and relaxed darshanam, albeit a tad emotional one, recalling the huge turmoil we went through before Bubboo was born. It was good to find the temple retaining a rustic, old-world charm and a total lack of commercialisation, in spite of it being so popular.

Tips for travellers

  1. The nearest railway station to Thirukkarugavur is Papanasam, while Trichy is the nearest airport.
  2. Before you visit, do check on the pooja timings and proceedure.
  3. Kumbakonam and Thanjavur are relatively big towns, from which travel to this temple by road is easier. Accomodation and good food is easily available at both places, as are cabs for hire.
  4. ATM facilities might not be available at Thirukkarugavur, near the temple, so make sure you are carrying enough cash with you when you travel.
  5. If you do pray at the temple for a child, it is advisable to return here with child, to thank the Goddess.

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I hope you have been reading my other posts about our visit to Kumbakonam, and enjoying them too. In case you haven’t, here you go!

Acquainted, finally: Degree coffee in Kumbakonam

What dining at a 100-plus-year-old eatery feels like: Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, Kumbakonam

Kumbakonam, in the midst of Masimagam

Travel Shot: The man and his friend, the beast

Kalyana Sundareswarar temple, Thirumanancheri: The temple of marriages

Kalyana Sundareswarar Kovil, Thirumancheri: The Temple Of Marriages

Just a short drive away from Kumbakonam, 25 km to be precise, lies the quiet little village of Thirumanancheri in the Nagapattinam district of Tamilnadu. The village has thousands of people flocking to it every day, all thanks to the Kalyana Sundareswarar temple that it houses.

It wouldn’t be wrong to call the Kalyana Sundareswarar (‘the beautiful god who facilitates weddings’, in Tamil) temple ‘the temple of marriages’. This temple, where Lord Shiva (along with his wife Goddess Parvati), is the presiding deity, is famed for expediting weddings. A special pooja is performed at the temple for all the visiting male and female devotees who are desirous of marriage – irrespective of whether they are single, divorced or widowed. There are thousands who have entered into matrimony after a visit to this temple, and these couples then visit the temple together to thank God and to light earthen lamps so as to seek His blessings for a happy and long wedded life.

The facade of the Kalyana Sundareswarar temple, Thirumancheri

Legend has it that, thousands of years ago, it was in the village of Thirumanancheri that Lord Shiva got married to Goddess Parvati, thus granting the place sacred status. This legendary wedding is what, in fact, gives the village its name – ‘Thirumanam‘ means ‘marriage’, and ‘Cheri‘ means ‘village’, in Tamil. Over the years, the Kalyana Sundareswarar temple in the village has become famous for conducting poojas that help weddings happen.

Years ago, my husband’s family had prayed at this temple, asking for a suitable wife for him. Coincidentally or not, a year or so later, ‘we’ happened. On our recent visit to Kumbakonam, we drove down to Thirumanancheri, as a married couple, to offer our respects to the deity. Quite late – seven years into our marriage, yes – but we did get to it, finally, with the bub in tow, too. It surely felt good, cute almost, to light lamps together with the husband, at the temple. The bub had a good time of it all, pretty amused to see her Amma and Appa sporting garlands around their necks, as part of the ‘couple pooja‘ at the temple!

Considering how famous this temple is, particularly in the south of India, it was pleasing to see that it wasn’t commercial at all, the way a whole lot of temples in India are going these days. Performing the pooja here was a breeze. This is a small and simple, but beautiful, temple, and I hope it stays that way.

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I hope you have read my other posts about Kumbakonam, and enjoyed them too! If you haven’t, here are the links for you.

Acquainted, finally: Degree coffee in Kumbakonam

Travel shot: The man and his friend, the beast

What dining at a 100-plus-year-old eatery feels like: Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, Kumbakonam

Kumbakonam, in the midst of Masimagam

Kumbakonam, In The Midst Of Masimagam

The husband and I mostly travel during festivals, when he manages to get considerable time off work. Lately, we seem to be walking into places only to find ourselves in the midst of big celebrations, surrounded by throngs of people wherever we go. While we are planning our trip, we never know that our destination is a hot-spot for such a major event, and are always taken by surprise. Not good in some ways, but great in some other ways.

For instance, we landed in Calcutta in the thick of Kali Pujo, without ever expecting it. Now, recently, we ended up in Kumbakonam in the midst of Masimagam, quite by chance. We planned the Kumbakonam trip around the Hindu festival of Shivratri, and happened to be there right on the auspicious day of Masimagam, when thousands of devotees from across India visit the place, too.

Wondering what on earth is Masimagam? Here you go!

Masimagam is considered to be a highly auspicious day, particularly in South India. This day is when the planets align a certain way, an incidence that occurs only once annually, generally during February-March, when the Magam star is prevalent during the Tamil month of Masi. On this day, it is believed that all the rivers of India meet at the Mahamagam tank in Kumbakonam, and a dip in the waters of the tank is supposed to cleanse one of all sins. Grand poojas are conducted in all the major temples of Kumbakonam on Masimagam, with processions being carried out on the streets throughout the day. Devotees and holy men from everywhere, as well as tourists, visit Kumbakonam on this day, either to be a part of the bathing ritual or witness and record all of it.

Once every 12 years, this day becomes even more special, because of certain planetary alignments. This day is then called Mahamagam, or ‘the great Magam‘ in Tamil, when there are literally millions of people thronging Kumbakonam and clamouring for a dip in the waters of the tank. A few incidences of stampede have been recorded, in Kumbakonam during Mahamagam. The last Mahamagam was in the year 2016.

(Check out this Wikipedia link for more details)

Soaking in the spirit of Masimagam in Kumbakonam

The husband and I had booked a hotel in Kumbakonam very near the Mahamagam tank, quite by chance again. We were in for a big, big, big surprise the minute our auto guy turned towards the tank. There were hundreds of people on the street, many dripping wet from their bath in the tank, with pooja paraphernalia in their hands.

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Processions from temples across Kumbakonam, making the rounds of the streets on Masimagam day

Our auto neared the tank, and we were in for an even bigger surprise – the atmosphere there was not unlike a fair!

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The Kasi Viswanath temple, adjacent to the Mahamagam tank in Kumbakonam. A visit to this temple, especially on the day of Masimagam or Mahamagam, is believed to open the gates of heaven to one.

Fruit and vegetable vendors, loudspeakers, police patrolling, flower sellers, people distributing free water and buttermilk, beggars asking for alms, balloon and toy sellers, processions from various temples around town, tourists wanting to photograph every bit of it, devotees vying to get a dip in the tank.. it was BUSY, for sure. And, it was super-duper hot!

A rangoli on the street, near the Mahamaham Tank

DSC03542 Devotees taking a dip in the holy waters of the Mahamagam tank. Can you see how dense the crowd is?
We walked around with the bub, slowly, soaking in the atmosphere around us, taking pictures, committing things to memory.

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Selfie with the Gods?

We didn’t dip ourselves in the holy water, but enjoyed every bit of the looking around we did, getting to know more about this important cultural event in South India.

PicMonkey Collage
On the left: Prasadam being distributed from one of the many chariots making the rounds of the Mahamagam tank; On the right: A close-up of one such chariot

What saddened us a whole lot, though, was the piles and piles and piles of garbage left around the Mahamagam tank, by evening, when the rituals had slowed down and the streets had started emptying. I heartily wish this could be changed, for the better, about ceremonies like this.

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Have you read my other posts about our visit to Kumbakonam? I hope you have! If you haven’t, though, here you go!

Acquainted finally: Degree coffee in Kumbakonam

What dining at a 100-plus-year-old eatery feels like: Sri Mangalambiga Vilas, Kumbakonam

Travel shot: The man and his friend, the beast

The Other Azhagar Temple In Madurai: Koodal Azhagar Kovil 

On our trip to Madurai, we aren’t able to fit in a visit to the Azhagar Kovil, about 20 km away from the main city. We do, however, visit the other Azhagar Kovil – the Koodal Azhagar Kovil – which is just a short distance away from the famed Meenakshi Amman temple.

Legend has it that all the Gods and Goddesses got together at the Koodal Azhagar temple, for Meenakshi Amman’s wedding to Lord Sundareswarar. That is how the temple got its name, I understand – ‘koodal‘ refers to ‘gathering’ in Tamil. The ‘Azhagar‘ (‘beautiful lord’ in Tamil) here refers to Lord Vishnu, the presiding deity in the temple. For the locals, though, the Koodal Azhagar temple is ‘Perumal Kovil’ or ‘the lord’s temple’.

The beautiful facade of the Koodal Azhagar temple

The Koodal Azhagar temple is a lovely, ancient place, engulfing us with its aura of peace and reverence the minute we enter. How can we not feel awed, charmed, knowing that we are walking on sacred ground that has existed since the 7th century BCE? I have no pictures of the inside of the temple, though, as photography is not permitted within. I don’t want to snap away inside a place of worship, anyway.

Inside the temple, we find dosais being sold as prasadam, and I get one immediately. ‘So what if I cannot get my hands on the Azhagar Kovil dosai on this visit? I can try out the Koodal Azhagar dosai,’ I tell myself.

The ‘dosai’ prasadam we had at the Koodal Azhagar temple

The ‘dosai’ we are handed, in a square of newspaper, doesn’t look like a dosai at all. It is hard and chewy, beautiful in taste, redolent of black pepper. We munch on it, bit by little bit, sitting in the huge temple courtyard. It’s a tad tough to eat, but tasty nonetheless.

I’m not sure if this dosai is the same as the famous Azhagar Kovil dosai, since I have never seen or tasted the latter. Maybe this is a version of the original? I have no clue. For now, I’ll call this the ‘Koodal Azhagar dosai‘.

Azhagar Kovil Dosai| Black Urad Dosa

About 20 km away from Madurai, the Kallu Azhagar temple stands in the foothills of the lush Azhagar Malai (‘beautiful hills’ in Tamil). Lord Vishnu, the presiding deity of this temple, is believed to be the brother of Meenakshi Amman (the Goddess of the famed Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple), and it was he who gave the goddess’s hand in marriage to Lord Shiva (Sundaresan).

The Kallu Azhagar temple is popularly called the Azhagar Kovil (‘temple of the beautiful one’, in Tamil), and local legends abound as to how the place got its name. There seems to be no doubt, however, about just how serene and picturesque the temple and its surroundings are. Before embarking on our recent trip to Madurai, I came across quite a few blog posts about the temple, each one talking about how beautiful and peaceful a place it is. No wonder, then, that the Kallu Azhagar temple happens to be a favourite weekend picnic destination for Madurai locals and tourists alike.

Being the big foodie that I am, the one thing that leapt out from these many blog posts and grabbed my attention was the mention of Azhagar Kovil Dosai – a special kind of dosa that is prepared with black urad daal and ghee, spiced with black pepper, which is offered to the deity in the Kallu Azhagar temple and then offered to the devotees as prasadam. I have never come across dosas being offered as prasadam in any temple, ever, so this intrigued me, not to forget several people claiming that this dosa is stupendously delicious and guaranteed to disappear within minutes of the making. Sadly, though, on our holiday, we just weren’t able to squeeze out time to visit the temple, and all my dreams of partaking of this beautiful-sounding prasadam remained just that – dreams.

Once I had got back home to Bangalore, I absolutely had to try making these Azhagar Kovil dosas at home. I did, too, and they turned out to be a big-time hit. They were simply lovely, very different in taste from the regular dosas that we are used to, and they did disappear within minutes of the making. 🙂

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Azhagar Kovil Dosas, at home!

Since I had no clue about the recipe, I sought help from the Internet, which gave me many different versions. In the end, I decided to make the dosas using one step from this recipe, one step from that.

Here is how I made the Azhagar Kovil dosais.

Ingredients (yields about 15 dosas):

  1. 1 cup raw rice (I used Sona Masoori)
  2. 2 cups parboiled rice (puzhungal arisi)
  3. 1 cup black urad daal (halved)
  4. Salt, to taste
  5. A 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
  6. About 3 teaspoons pepper powder, or to taste
  7. A few fresh curry leaves
  8. 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  9. 1/4 cup grated fresh coconut
  10. Ghee to make the dosas

Method:

  1. Soak the raw rice and parboiled rice together, in enough water to immerse them completely, for at least 8 hours. I soaked them overnight.
  2. Soak the black urad daal in enough water to immerse it fully, for at least 8 hours. I soaked it overnight.
  3. When the soaking is done, drain out the excess water from the rice as well as the black urad daal.
  4. Using a mixer, grind the urad daal to a fine paste. There’s no need to add water, but you could add a little water if required. Pour the batter into a large vessel. (If you are using whole peppercorns, add them in while grinding the urad daal).
  5. In the same mixer, grind the pieces of ginger, grated coconut, raw rice and parboiled rice together, coarsely. There’s no need to add water, but add a little if required. Pour this batter into the large vessel too.
  6. Now, add salt to taste, pepper powder and cumin seeds to the batter in the large vessel. Roughly tear the curry leaves with your hands, and add them to the batter. Mix everything well, ensuring that all the ingredients are thoroughly combined together.
  7. Set the batter to ferment, covered, in a cool and dry place, away from direct sunlight. This takes barely 3-4 hours in hot weather and 6-8 hours or even overnight in colder climes. You will know the batter has fermented when it has become bubbly and has risen.
  8. Once the batter has fermented, you can keep it, covered, in the refrigerator, for later use, or proceed to make dosas immediately.
  9. To make the dosas, heat a dosa pan on high flame till water droplets dance on it. Spread a ladleful of batter in the centre of the pan, spread it out and add about 1 teaspoon of ghee all around the dosa. Reduce flame to medium. Let the dosa cook for a couple of minutes, and then flip. Cook on the other side for a minute or so.
  10. Serve the dosas hot with chutney, sambar or gotsu.

Notes:

  1. You could use oil (preferably sesame oil) to make the dosas instead of ghee. Traditionally, though, ghee is used to make these dosas.
  2. You could use either whole or halved black urad daal to make these dosas. I used the halved ones.
  3. It is critical to use black pepper powder and black urad daal, which are what give these dosas their distinct, slightly black, colour.
  4. I have used a mix of parboiled rice and raw rice to make these dosas, but the original ones from the temple use only raw rice (since parboiled rice is believed to be rice already cooked, which isn’t acceptable to make temple prasadam). I think the dosas made with only raw rice would be a tad chewy, while the addition of parboiled rice make them softer in texture.
  5. You could use whole peppercorns to make these dosas, too, instead of pepper powder. In that case, just add them in while you are grinding the batter.
  6. I doubt the original Azhagar Kovil dosas contain coconut. I decided to add it, to add flavour to the dosas.
  7. Once the batter has fermented, do not keep the batter outside for too long, otherwise it will turn sour. Keep the batter refrigerated, if you don’t plan on using it immediately.
  8. This might not be the original Azhagar Kovil dosai recipe; it might come close, but this might not be it. This is my version of the recipe, based on several different posts by several different people.

You like? I hope you will try making these dosas, too, and that you will love them just as much as we did!

Travel Shot: The Man And His Friend, The Beast

When you are travelling, you sometimes walk into moments that touch something deep within you. You instinctively know you have got to lift up your camera, and commit the frame in front of you to eternity.

For instance, this picture of this man and his friend, the elephant, both of whom we met at the Adi Kumbeswarar temple in Kumbakonam. Note how I don’t use the word ‘mahout’ here, but ‘friend’. These two are, really and truly, good friends.

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The elephant, a baby actually, was handing out blessings to passersby, and accepting gifts of money or bananas in return. We watched as it placed its trunk, gently, on people’s heads.

The husband wanted the bub to have the experience of meeting an elephant up close and personal, but I resisted. I was super scared to do so. The daughter was neutral, but I knew, deep within, that the experience would only enrich her. We held back for the longest ever time, just watching the elephant and the man do their jobs.

We noticed how the elephant was unchained, dangerous probably, but no aura of fear emanated from it. Instead, it radiated peace and joy. It was, in fact, dancing, shaking one leg after the other, the bells around his neck jangling merrily. The man kept up a steady stream of chatter with the elephant, his tone sweet and friendly, and it seemed to talk back to him, equally lovingly. We watched as the man fed the elephant a couple of bananas, and then went on to peel and eat one himself. He proceeded to take a few sips of the filter coffee that lay beside him, then got up and asked the elephant to open his mouth. The elephant obliged, and the man poured the rest of the coffee into little one’s mouth. It slurped all of it up, happily.
Meanwhile, passersby continued to visit the elephant, bearing little gifts for them. We watched the gentle manner the elephant had in blessing them. We have had some rather harsh whacks from temple elephants elsewhere, so I know just how gentle this one was.

By then, I was okay. I had observed enough, relaxed enough. I was ready, poised with my camera, for the husband and the bub to go get their blessings from the jumbo. And they did, very, very gently. The bub absolutely loved the experience, and still talks about it excitedly. I am glad I let go of my own fears, and let her have the experience.

I’m not here to talk about animal rights or the injustices meted out to temple elephants. All I can talk about here is the beautiful bonding between these two friends that I witnessed, and how I conquered my fears for the bub. I understand I might be judged too, for letting my daughter go through a seemingly dangerous experience, but then, isn’t parenting all about letting go and not allowing our fears to interfere with our children realising their dreams? Parenting is also, I believe, about following your gut instinct, letting your heart decide what feels right at the moment. That is just what I did.