I was introduced to Shrinathji Bapa of Nathdwara at a very early age by Ba, my maternal grandmother. A staunch Vaishnavite, she had a little folding temple with a framed picture of Thakorji, as he is fondly known, in her room. For all the early induction, however, my first visit to Shrinathji happened only when I was in my early 20s, when my Masi, my mother’s sister, wanted to visit Nathdwara, in Rajasthan, a place that held such a fascination for her mother. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have made the pilgrimage many times.
Gujarati Vaishnavites comprise most of the religious tourists in this temple town and they come from far and wide: Mumbai, of course, but also countries in Africa, the US, the UK and Canada, besides local Rajasthanis. Located an hour’s drive from Udaipur, Nathdwara is firmly focused on ‘Thakorji ki Haveli’, as the temple is called, but, given the Gujarati predilection for good food, the small town doubles up as an unexpected smorgasbord.
Euphemistically called Chowpatty, the laid-back market square metamorphoses into a vibrant son et lumière show soon after the 7pm Sayan darshan. Freshly blessed, walking through the narrow lanes jostling friendly, well-fed cows and dogs and fielding ‘Jai Shri Krishnas’ from passersby, one follows one’s nose to the delicious aromas wafting through the air, past the stalls selling kitschy souvenirs, blingy garments, costume jewellery and farmers displaying large bunches of locally grown fresh, vibrant green mint for Rs.20 each.
Our first stop is at the famous bhang (cannabis)-infused thandai cart—it has a government licence, mind you! After knocking down a glass or two of this nutty milk loaded with an extract of freshly hand-ground almonds, cashews, rock sugar, anise, dried rose petals, black pepper and creamy chironji, seeds of the Buchanania lanzan tree, we head to the square.
Nathdwara is famous for its purple yam (ratalu, as it is known in Gujarati), a variety different from what one gets in Gujarat or Mumbai. Deeper in colour and a foot or more in length—as opposed to the usual squat, round shape—the ratalu has a wonderful texture. So the next stop is the Tanantan Masala Kand stall for the melt-in-your mouth cubes of deep-friend purple yam sprinkled with a chatpata salty-spicy masala, which is handed out in little foil bowls with toothpicks. There is a variation: The yam is first stuffed with potatoes and other veggies and then fried and served with a masala. Yes, one must completely forget to count calories while in Shrinathji.
Having downed two katoris of this starchy deliciousness, I crave for some tangy, cooling shikanji, lemonade with black salt, roasted cumin powder, black pepper powder and a dash of ginger. The stall run by the jovial Shankarji has the best one in town.
Giving our taste buds and stomach a break, we head to one of the many shops that sell delicious churan/mouth fresheners, dried rose petals, readymade packets of thandai masala and kuttu (cracked buckwheat, which makes excellent dhokla and pancakes). Another must-buy is the rock salt (sendha namak in Hindi), a naturally occurring mineral form of isometric crystals of sodium chloride, which is found in the hills around the town.
Before turning in for the day, however, I can’t help but visit the little corner shop near our hotel for a small portion of the delectably rich and decadent kesar-masala doodh, a saffron and cardamom-flavoured milk that is boiled down to a thick consistency.
The next day, as we walk to the haveli for the 5am Mangala darshan, the ambience is something difficult to put into words. Stepping out after the darshan, my nose twitches with the inviting fragrance of mint from the tea stall at the end of the lane. The special tea, piping hot and served in kulhads—small, wide-mouthed clay glasses—is divine, to say the least. Its USP is the large-leafed mint, which the tea-maker deftly plucks off the bunch and crushes between his thumb and fingers and adds to the ginger (and often cardamom) brewing with the tea on a wood-fired sigdi (stove), which gives the beverage a unique smoky flavour.
With other hungry devotees—the first darshan must be done on an empty stomach— we line up for our first cuppa, to wash down the famous khaman dhokla and bataka poha sprinkled with sev. Our next stop is at a shop down the lane, where a fresh lot of hot crispy, deep fried fafdas, a popular Gujarati snack made with gram flour, turmeric and carom seeds, are being churned out and served with fried green chillies and a pungent grated radish salad tempered with mustard seeds. And, of course, piping hot jalebis are a must with the fafdas.
Happy with ourselves, we head back to the hotel to pack up. As we make our way to the parking lot about a kilometre away, we come across a roadside stall where a man is shaping and stuffing perfect, irresistible kachoris with a flavourful moong dal filling and deep-frying them to a beautiful golden brown in a large kadhai on a wood fire. We order a plate with two, punctured with a thumb in the centre and filled with tamarind chutney. They are to die for, flaky on the outside but hollow and well-cooked inside. And so we leave Nathdwara, spiritually and gastronomically satisfied, till the next time we get an invitation to visit and sample more of the temple town’s delicacies.
Nandita Amin is an architect, landscape architect, educationist, intrepid traveller, a bon viveur and also runs an animal shelter in Vadodara.