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Photo: Shoba Narayan
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Kottarakkara’s unniappams

Long-time devotees say that the quality of the unniappams has gone down because of the quality of the jaggery or sugar that is used

One of the frustrating and perplexing things about religion—all religions—is the petty hypocrisies and double standards that seem to come with the territory. Of course, this is because most of us hold religion and religious types to a higher standard. Because they pray, we expect them to be better than us. Because they have an intimate and direct relationship with god, or so we think, we expect them not to be morally frail and pedantic. When they do, we feel disappointed and occasionally angry.

While growing up, this was one of my biggest problems with my Hindu faith. My grandmother, for instance, would pray every day; but she would have no problem bargaining with the vegetable vendor to the point where she essentially cheated him out of his livelihood. She even occasionally stole an “extra" banana or two, something that scandalized my judgmental teenage eyes.

Visiting temples brought a whole other set of contradictions and complexities. At the larger temples such as Tirupati and Guruvayoor, we essentially had to buy our place in front of God by bribing the priests with silks, nuts, fruits and money. What was the point, I often complained to my mother, of teaching truth and honesty while engaging in the religious version of match-fixing.

Hinduism calls pilgrimages tirtha yatra. Tirtha means “crossing over", and the idea is that you leave behind the mundane travails of everyday life and move to a higher plane, a sacred space. Many temples, including the one at Ambalapuzha, have a metal sculpture of a tortoise below the kodimaram (flagpole) in the central courtyard. The idea is to emulate a tortoise, which pulls back all its limbs into its shell when touched. Similarly, when entering a sacred space, devotees are encouraged to pull back their senses, control their mind and raise their thoughts to a higher plane.

Oil lamps being lit on the kodimaram. Photo: Shoba Narayan
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Oil lamps being lit on the kodimaram. Photo: Shoba Narayan

The problem in India is that most large and ancient temples don’t necessarily encourage the peace and tranquility that comes with such a crossing. Indeed, they are as transaction-oriented as betting on the turf club, or at the Bombay Stock Exchange. There is the shouting, the jostling to catch the eye of the right priest so that you can slip in between the crowds and stand in front of the main deity for at least a minute. There is the fee that you need to pay the priest so that he will treat you well the next time you visit. And there is the ignominy of being crushed amid hundreds of sweaty bodies who are intent on communing with the divine by crushing the feet of or elbowing the person next to them.

Churches are better at nudging devotees towards God, and indeed, I find that I commune best when sitting quietly in an ancient church. Visit St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and you can sit quietly in one of the pews, collecting your thoughts and reflecting on the divine in repose. Occasionally, the choir comes along to sing; and although I don’t understand or even appreciate the falsetto voices of opera, used as I am to the “true" voice garnered from the navel in Carnatic music, the organ and choral singing are tolerable, even enjoyable.

Congregations are another matter, however. Religious cults are simultaneously holier than thou and bitchy, particularly when a guru or godman is involved. The politics of any religious coterie—and I grew up being exposed to several—are unbelievable. People snipe at each other, sniff for back channels to get close to the guru, and engage in a kind of one-upmanship that borders on the childish (“I chanted more mantras than you"). They demean themselves in front of their teacher; their sycophancy so obvious, and so sickening.

Even if you took a guru out of the equation, religion ended up being a highly political exercise. While living in Connecticut, I became part of a group of Indians who wanted to build a temple in Fairfield County. This led to a beehive of problems. The north Indians wanted a marble temple, with a priest from Varanasi, and Radha Krishna idols as the main gods. The south Indians wanted Venkatachalapathy or some south Indian god like Murugan. There was bickering, and difference of opinion, on everything from the architectural style to the types of prasadams that could be offered. Eventually, the discussions fell apart and divided the community. The only god that was acceptable for both the south and the north Indians was Ganesha or Ganapathy, as he is traditionally known.

What is it about this god that makes him endearing and pan-Indian? Is it the elephant head? Is it the rotund stomach that makes us feel at ease and less guilty about not going to the gym? Is it his beatifically broad face and curved trunk? Or is it because he reflects an animal that we have grown up with? I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, the only god who seems to bring Indians—all Indians—together is Ganapathy. Why is that?

It is this question that I am attempting to answer at the Ganapathy temple in Kottarakkara, Kerala. An hour’s journey from Thiruvananthapuram, the Kottarakkara temple is an anomaly. Kerala is known for its Shiva temples; its Krishna temples; and its Devi temples, known in the state as Bhagavathy temples. Ganesha temples are rare in the state.

Kottarakkara is unique, not only because it has a Ganapathy temple, but also because it houses a Shiva temple. “The son has become more famous than the father," says the priest of the temple, a smiling man called Mohan-thirumeni.

Senior priest Mohan-thirumeni. Photo: Shoba Narayan
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Senior priest Mohan-thirumeni. Photo: Shoba Narayan

One of the first people I meet is a woman named Ganga. I immediately dismiss her, I’m ashamed to say, as “one of those temple types". Her home is opposite the temple and she is clad in a simple sari. She has been deputed by my uncle in Chennai, who specializes in temple visits. This is normal among south Indian families. We have people specializing in jobs that are absolutely essential to our lives but have no economic value altogether. Growing up, everyone in my family flocked to a septuagenarian named Vaithi-athaan for anything to do with astrology. Vaithi-athaan’s skill was not necessarily the accuracy of his predictions but the fact that he was willing to doctor horoscopes to suit the situation. My uncle Rama, for instance, went to Vaithi-athaan to make sure that his horoscope matched with the woman he loved. Love marriages were unheard of in his generation, and the only way Rama could pull off his marriage was through Vaithi-athaan’s certificate that the girl, Kalyani, was an excellent match for my uncle. Thanks to the certificate, the elders listened. My uncle and aunt have been happily married for 30 years.

There was another man who was simply called “storeroom mama". He appeared like clockwork just before a marriage and took charge of the storeroom to make sure that the caterers were not taking off with an extra coconut or mango.

Visiting temples, too, was a preoccupation in my family. Depending on the location, relatives were called to ease the way. When my in-laws heard that I wanted to visit Kottarakkara, they immediately called Seetharaman, who knew not just the temple opening and closing times, but also shortcuts such as which priest to approach for what favour. It was Seetharaman who told me to get in touch with Ganga, who, he said, knew everyone in the temple.

Ganga and I stand at the entrance of the temple, chatting desultorily. Turns out she is a kathakali dancer. She plays male roles, she says, and usually prefers to play the villain in any dance drama. Her favourite role is that of Ravana, she says. I ask for a demonstration and she obliges. Before my eyes, I watch her scrunch her eyes and pull down her lips. Her face and upper body gain girth and gravitas as she turns into a demon. She shakes her body, face and head. At the end, it takes her a minute to calm down.

I am stunned by her transformation. But perhaps, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, kathakali was invented in Kottarakkara by its ruling prince. Before kathakali was invented, the dance form in vogue was called Krishnanattam or Krishna’s dance, based on the life of Krishna. When the prince of Kottarakkara invited a dance troupe to perform in his kingdom, the zamorin of Calicut twirled his moustache and made a snide remark about how the Kottarakkara princes couldn’t appreciate the sophistication of Krishnanattam. Now, the normal princely thing to do in such situations is to either wage a war or kidnap the dance troupe in question. But the royalty in Kerala were different. They were aesthetes. The prince of Kottarakkara decided to invent a dance form in response to the snide remark from the zamorin of Calicut. Rather than use Sanskrit verses for the dance, he used the local Malayalam language, albeit a highly Sanskritized version called Manipravalam. He called this Ramanattam, or Rama’s dance, based on stories of Rama’s life. Years later, a refined form of this dance was presented to the world as kathakali.

Kathakali, I have to say, takes a while to get used to. Every time I went to Kerala for holidays, my uncle in Kottayam used to take a gaggle of us cousins to a kathakali performance as if it was some kind of treat. Before long, every cousin developed a mysterious and unexplainable stomach ache on the evening of the performance and had to bow out till it was only me—naïve and uncomprehending—who was exposed to this “profound art form", as my uncle said.

Kottarakkara has a museum of classical arts—a musty building—which contains the nine expressions, or navarasas, of kathakali as part of the display. The museum is most definitely not a “must-see".

The Kottarakara temple is known for its “unniappam", or fried dumplings made with rice flour, coconut, jaggery, ghee, dry ginger, cardamom and squished banana—a local variety known as “palayankodan". These are loosely mixed in giant vats, and fried in coconut oil (here) or ghee (the way my mom makes it). On a slow day, the temple makes 50,000 such dumplings, which can rise to 170,000 during festivals, according to Mohan-thirumeni. Unusual for temples, these unniappams are cooked in front of the deity, in an alcove, rather than a separate, sometimes, secret chamber.

How a temple chooses its offering has to do with myth and locally available ingredients. So it is with the Ganapathy temple of Kottarakkara. While this particular elephant-headed god is known for his fondness for modaks, here in Kerala, he dines on unniappams.

It all began when the king did not have a child; he was “issue-less", as the local books say. He prayed to Ganapathy saying that he would offer a garland of these unniappams if a child was born. The god granted his wish and he garlanded the Ganapathy with unniappams.

How the Ganapathy came to the temple is an older legend. It involves a carpenter, beloved in this area, known as Perunthachan. While sculpting the bottom of a jackfruit tree, Perunthachan discovered that he had sculpted a Ganapathy—unconsciously and perhaps by accident. He asked the priest of the Shiva temple if he could install the Ganapathy idol there and was refused. So he walked to another local Shiva temple and secured permission from that priest. That temple had not just Shiva, but also Parvati, Shasta or Ayyappa and Murugan. The carpenter installed the Ganapathy idol in this temple, which is now known as the Kottarakkara temple.

The unniappams are prepared at the temple all through the day. Some 32 men work in shifts to produce the unniappams. It is tedious, hot work to sit in front of a stove for hours, pouring the liquid, forking out the cooked buns, and sprinkling them with sugar—day after day after day, all in the service of the lord.

As for the sweet offering itself, I have to say that I have had better. Long-time devotees say that the quality of the unniappams has gone down because of the quality of the jaggery or sugar that is used. I’m sure it also has to do with the cooking itself. It cannot be easy for these temple cooks to produce this many appams day after day.

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