Photo: Shoba Narayan
Photo: Shoba Narayan

Ambalapuzha’s payasam

The most delicious payasam/kheer/milk pudding I have tasted, it has that implacable aura that makes a dish sing

Perhaps it is the fish they eat. Or perhaps is the kudam-puli (pot tamarind or Malabar tamarind)—with its musical botanical name, Garcinia gummi-gutta—that they ingest in vast quantities, along with shrimp, duck eggs and coconut oil—brain benefactors all. Whatever the reason, Malayalis possess an astonishing amount of intelligence, displayed and, you could argue, wasted in organizing protests, reading Karl Marx, engaging in quick repartee replete with stinging wit and withering sarcasm and figuring out where to go and what to do. The Gulf is the current favourite destination.

Their entrepreneurial zeal is legendary—witness the number of jokes about the Malayali opening a chaya-kada (tea shop) wherever there is a flat plateau in the Himalayas. In Bengaluru, where I live, all the small provision shops I frequent are run by Moplah Muslims from the Kozhikode area: Family Supermarket, Safe Medicals, Lake View vegetable mart—all of them are run by Malayalis.

My driver, Vinodh, is a typical specimen. With his starched white shirt and matching pants, he exudes the Malayali concept of vrithi or cleanliness, so abundant in this verdant luscious state, with flora and fauna practically falling out of the earth. Neat, punctual, crafty in his approach towards cutting through traffic, and disdainful of rules (“Rules are for lazy minds," he told me), Vinodh’s broad forehead is smeared with sandalwood paste. He arrives at 6am to take me to Ambalapuzha temple, famed for its paal payasam, or milk pudding.

The word ambalam means temple in Malayalam. Puzha refers to river. Ambalapuzha literally means river by the temple. The Krishna temple here is famous—world famous, if you believe the administrative officer, Hari Kumar—for its paal payasam, (pronounced paa-yuh-some). Milk pudding is a poor translation.

“People come from all over the world to drink this neivedhyam (religious offering)," says the genial Hari Kumar, who sits behind a desk in the temple office, counting wads of cash and directing the rituals and the 100-odd employees and volunteers who work at the temple.

Every field has a dress code. The dress code for Kerala temples is that the men wear a simple white veshti or dhoti and pretty much nothing else. The idea is to approach the deity in your simplest and purest attire. Certainly, the men who work at the temple are dressed this way.

As Kerala temples go, this one is typical, with wooden pillars instead of the carved stone or marble ones in north India. It does not have the majestic scale, the multiple praharams or sanctums of the Tamil Nadu temples. It is compact, clean and strict about rules. Men have to remove their shirts and appear topless in the inner sanctum, which is fine if you are wearing a dhoti, as most men used to. Today, men in pants awkwardly wear their shirts loosely on one sleeve in compliance.

Women are mostly in saris. Here, too, there are changes over the years. Gone are the pristine white handloom saris, known variously as kasavu saris, or set-mundu if the woman is wearing a dhoti like bottom combined with a half-sari like top. Instead, Malayali women have embraced polyester and garish colours like the rest of India. The minimal, simple and elegant aesthetic that was distinct to this part of the world is being replaced by attire that could fit into Chennai or Chembur. Thankfully, the long, dark, curly hair nourished by massaging and imbibing gargantuan quantities of coconut oil over a lifetime remains.

The first person I meet is Pran Kumar, who is deputed to take me around the temple. Pran manages the storeroom—behind a locked red door—and is a singer. He sings to welcome the lord in the evening. When I ask for a demonstration, he smilingly refuses, saying that he cannot call the lord at midday.

Pran Kumar, one of the three in-house singers at the temple.
Pran Kumar, one of the three in-house singers at the temple.

Funny how you remember certain things about childhood. The one thing I remember from travelling up and down Kerala by bus during my childhood is that the men in Kerala have pink gums. So it is with Pran when he smiles, which he does quite a lot.

Like most Hindu temples, Ambalapuzha’s origins are the stuff of legend. Historian Ambalapuzha Gopakumar gives me a rundown of the most popular one. The legend goes like this. Eons ago, the local king borrowed a huge loan of paddy from a Brahmin. Years passed, and suddenly, one day, the Brahmin appeared demanding his loan back, or else he would not allow the king to worship at the temple.

In a quandary, the king asked his minister to take care of the problem; and in those days, ministers would. The minister asked all the citizens to donate some paddy, and soon, the entire central hall of the temple was filled with paddy. The minister then ordered the Brahmin to clear the paddy before the noon worship.

Turns out that no person would help the Brahmin remove the paddy. In frustration that quickly turned to piety, the Brahmin donated the paddy to the temple with the instruction that it should be used to feed visiting pilgrims. And so it came to be that Ambalapuzha paal payasam was cooked to feed the devotees.

This particular legend is somewhat circuitous and really doesn’t make sense, because this particular payasam is made not with paddy, but with rice; although that can be explained away by stating that the money that came from the paddy is used to make rice payasam.

The other legend is more interesting and will please those who are mathematically inclined. In it, Lord Krishna, disguised as a sage, appears at the court of the local king and challenges him to a game of chaturanga, or chess. The king is a good player but he loses. Naturally, as kings do, he masks his failure by offering a gift to the sage.

The sage asks for a few grains of rice in a particular order. The first square of the chessboard would have one grain of rice; the second square would have two; the third square would have four; the fourth square, eight; the fifth square, 16. The king immediately—and foolishly, as those in the know about geometric progression would realize—agreed. The number of grains rapidly increases to the point where the king cannot fulfil his promise.

As an unknown math buff has explained on Wikipedia, the total amount of rice required to fill a 64-square chess board is 2 to the power of 64 minus 1, which is the first grain in the first square. It comes to a total of 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains or over 18 billion billion grains. This amount of rice would weigh about 460×1,012 kg, or 460 pentagrams, or 460 billion tonnes, assuming that 1,000 grains of rice weigh about 25 grams. This amount of rice would also cover the surface of India two metres deep. No king could have paid a price so great to a sage who defeated him at chess.

Naturally, the king fell at the feet of the sage, who then, in typical Amar Chitra Katha fashion, revealed himself to be Lord Krishna and magnanimously agreed to take the rice in future instalments in the form of paal payasam to devotees.

Ambalapuzha paal payasam—now famous enough to be a well-recognized phrase, at least in Kerala—is made by reducing milk for about six hours, says C.P. Arun, a junior priest in the temple. He is known as keezh-shanthi, while the main priest is called mel-shanthi. There are several junior priests but only one main priest.

Junior priest C.P. Arun. Photo: Shoba Narayan
Junior priest C.P. Arun. Photo: Shoba Narayan

Kerala priests usually have the honorific thirumeni, and so Arun is referred to as Arun-thirumeni. His day begins bright and early at 2.30am when he arrives at the temple for a dip at the special temple tank used by priests. At 3am, the temple opens and so does the cooking of the payasam. The ratio is one part milk to three parts water. The water is taken from two temple wells. The milk comes from the resident cows at the goshala (cow shelter) affiliated to the temple.

On the day I visit, 100 litres of milk mixed with 300 litres of water are boiling in the large brass uruli (vessel), but the quantity depends on the orders that have been received for that day. On this day, 8kg of pounded rice are added to this mixture. Rice, sugar and milk: that’s it, says Arun casually.

Of course, it is a little more complicated than that. Just as Chennai folk claim that the taste in their coffee comes from local milk and water, the taste of Ambalapuzha’s payasam comes from the well water, the local milk, the pounded red rice of Kerala, the smell of the metal uruli, and if you like, the stirring with the long wooden spoon. Most of all, the taste comes from the slow reduction of this mixture, which goes from 400 litres to 90 litres between 5am and noon, give or take half an hour.

While waiting for the payasam to reduce, I pay a visit to a distant relative who I have never met in my life. This is how religious tourism works in India. Most temple towns don’t have hotels. Certainly, the sole hostelry in Ambalapuzha, Vrindavan Lodge, doesn’t inspire confidence.

When I travelled with my grandparents to temples, elaborate arrangements would be made for food and lodging. My grandfather had a memory for connections that would make a Washington lobbyist envious. Before we went on pilgrimages, the wheels in his head would begin turning. He would phone relatives and friends who had some connection to the remote temple town that we were visiting to make arrangements for our stay and food. This tradition continues.

From a distant relative in Chennai, I hear about a relative who has a home in Ambalapuzha. Their house’s name is “Manthara Matom", and this is where I go while waiting for the payasam to reduce. A 96-year-old lady named Saraswati welcomes me and we immediately engage in the pleasant if pointless exercise of figuring out how we are related to each other. Turns out that she is from Vaikom and knows my father’s cousins. What follows is a typical recitation of our family tree, and a check on how various cousins are doing.

“Do you know Rajagopalan?" she asks. “He is my grandmother’s elder sister’s brother-in-law by marriage’s sister’s son."

“Yes, he is my father’s cousin brother," I reply.

“Didn’t he marry his elder sister’s daughter? The one who had polio?"

And so it goes, while she makes me dosas, serving one after another, ignoring my pleas of “enough", while determinedly reciting our mutual connections. She is agile and active. When I ask her how she spends her days, she points to the four cows tied in the backyard. “I cook, I garden, I milk the cows, take care of my grandchildren," she says simply. Healthy living for a healthy life, I am tempted to add, even though it sounds like an advertising slogan.

She wears a simple purple cotton sari with a temple border. I covet it and try my best to get her to offer it to me.

“You know, I love these old saris, such as the one you are wearing," I say, fingering her sari. “In fact, when I meet my elder aunts, I tell them not to buy me new saris. I just want their old saris. Yours is beautiful."

To no avail. She doesn’t get my hints. Nobody asks for old saris in India; only the raddi-wala and he too only wants the zari border.

Saraswati making dosas. Photo: Shoba Narayan
Saraswati making dosas. Photo: Shoba Narayan

Fully fed, I walk back to the temple, worried that the payasam will be ready. I have been told that the final mixing of the sugar is ceremonial. A man will shout “Vasudeva", and invoke the god before mixing the sugar. I don’t want to miss this bit of pomp and circumstance. Thankfully, the milk is still boiling.

In the intervening time, the ever-smiling (except when posing for the camera) and obliging Pran shows me the “cultural hall", where poet Kunjan Nambiar developed ottam-thullal, a type of dance.

Ottam-thullal is perfect for Kerala, given that its people are adept at satire and sarcasm. The lyrics are in Malayalam, not Sanskrit, and make fun of politicians, businessmen, teachers and people in power. A typical sequence goes like this. The actor on stage is playing Hanuman, who is captured in Ravana’s court. He sings about all the stupid ministers who are sitting in Ravana’s court but his hands point to the actual true-life ministers who are in the first row of the audience. The back benchers naturally hoot with laughter. The discomfited Kerala ministers who have been pointed at get up and walk out en masse.

Like kathakali, this dance form uses kabuki-like face paint and drums as pretty much the sole accompanying instrument. In fact, the first copper drum that Kunjan Nambiar used is still displayed in the temple.

Ambalapuzha was known for its cultural activities. Dance and music performances were regularly held at the theatre adjoining the temple. Like the famous Padmanabhapuram palace, much of Kerala architecture is made with wood covered by a red-tiled roof. The wooden beams are connected to each other using an interlocking system that eschews the use of nails. The idea is that these precise joints and alignments would allow for play during the monsoon when the rains would cause the wood to expand slightly, and later shrink in the summer heat.

Today, these naalu-kettu (four pillars) or ettu-kettu (eight pillars) houses are dismantled and moved from place to place by builders and developers who service rich clients longing for their past.

The community theatre, too, has long beams that are connected to the pillars without nails. It is here that the evening performance will be held, says Pran. In this season (April-May), the performance is called Velakali. Kali means game in Malayalam. Velakali has male dancers who hold a rattan sword in one hand and a shield in the other. They walk through the village, displaying martial arts movements, and end up at the temple tank. They stand on one side and sway gracefully so that their shadows ripple in the water in time to their—hopefully—rippling muscles. Across the tank stands a caparisoned elephant with the bronze idol on top, to witness the performance. Velakali’s movements are reminiscent of Kerala’s martial past in which soldiers fought each other on the banks of rivers and lakes.

The temple tank is quite beautiful, as these tanks tend to be. I don’t dare step in and swim in the water but see many people taking a dip before entering the temple.

The temple tank at Ambalapuzha. Photo: Shoba Narayan
The temple tank at Ambalapuzha. Photo: Shoba Narayan

Temples, much like medieval churches, were the places where the arts flourished; and so it is with Ambalapuzha temple. The walls of the sanctum sanctorum have beautiful Kerala murals painted on them. I find myself inordinately attracted to these and wonder if aesthetic beauty—what type of art resonates with you—has anything to do with personal history.

My Marwari friends for instance, are drawn to images of Nathdwara as depicted in the Pichwai paintings. The images of Krishna in Nathdwara don’t speak to me at all. But these Kerala murals do. Even though I didn’t grow up in an obviously artistic family, I must have imbibed this aesthetic: the round faces of the gods; the earth colours—vermillion, mustard yellow, dark green; and the distinct way of depiction. The older I get, the more I am drawn to these images, and indeed, the religion they represent. Happens to the best of us, my brother teases.

Although most people don’t realize it, the performing arts are vibrant in Kerala. Always have been. The sound of Kerala, you could argue, is the sound of the chenda (drums), most resplendently displayed during the Thrissur Pooram festival, when caparisoned and decorated elephants stand in a long line and receive (or endure, depending on whether you are an animal rights activist) this drumming display. Thousands of people watch and are reduced to a daze because of the rhythms.

Ambalapuzha temple has its in-house singers and drummers. Pran is one of three singers. There used to be nine of them, he says, but with budget cuts, there are now only three singers. As we walk through the office, the sound of drums draws us to a small room. Inside, we see a young drummer practising for the evening’s performance.

Walking around the temple works up quite an appetite and we return in time for the ceremonial adding of sugar to the payasam.

Just as with restaurants, the point of cooking prasadam is consistency: recipes are handed down through the generations and the cooking technique is unwavering. This must be boring for the regulars, and indeed, the young girl—Saraswati’s granddaughter—who takes me through the temple tells me that she is tired of drinking Ambalapuzha’s famous payasam.

Sometime between 11.30am and noon, the temple cooks determine that the payasam has reached the right consistency and its typical pinkish colour. This is when sugar is added: a ritual that begins when one of the cooks comes to the door and shouts, “Vasudeva", as if calling the lord to arrive.

On the day I visit, 30kg of sugar is added and stirred just before removing the payasam from the stove. During festivals, that amount triples or even quadruples, which takes longer to cook. “The midday puja commences only after the payasam is done," says Arun, defining the priority in this temple.

Nobody is allowed to cross the priests as they carry the payasam into the sanctum sanctorum: direct and first access is given to the deity in residence. A woman in an orange sari sprinkles water in the passageway between the cooking area and the sanctum sanctorum, a way of purifying the passage. Observers stand on either side and watch the main event: the carrying of the cooked payasam into the sanctum sanctorum. There are multiple large containers filled with frothy hot payasam.

Most religions incorporate sound into their prayers. Christians (and Hindus) ring bells at specific times; Muslims sing to the lord; and some Hindu temples use the conch as a way to remind, call, and register their presence with the almighty. Blowing a conch is no mean feat—I have tried. The man who performs this duty at Ambalapuzha does so with insouciance. He blows the conch several times as two priests carry large vessels filled with the sweet liquid as offering.

Right after the payasam is offered to the god comes the distribution to the long line of people who have been waiting to carry home 1 litre containers of sweet payasam. It costs Rs100 for a plastic container filled with payasam.

As for the payasam itself, it is the most delicious payasam/kheer/milk pudding that I have ever tasted. It is not thick but has girth if that makes sense. It is rich but not gooey. It is condensed milk, but made the old-fashioned way, not by adding a tin of Nestle’s condensed milk, which is my shortcut for rich payasam. This milk is condensed through fire and evaporation. The proportion of rice to milk is perfect. There is enough rice for body but it doesn’t overpower the milk. And it has that implacable aura—difficult to articulate—that makes a dish sing.

Shoba Narayan saved the Ambalapuzha paal payasam for as long as she could—a day—before her family devoured it.

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