Stop! A loud voice was heard as we approached the big gathering on the left of the temple. The Pal Payasam caravan was on the march into the shrine from the auspicious kitchen, thousands of litres of boiling rice pudding making its way from the gigantic vessel into the God’s Altar for the sermon before getting blessed and distributed to the crowd.
In the heart of a chanting crowd, praying for many things in front of God, I was left ascertaining the white vapours of boiling milk and fragrance of sweet rice pudding, this’s the ultimate destination for the finest payasam in the world.
I began a journey with my friend Unni to this beautiful Krishna temple to offer a surprise visit to my father on his birthday. The historic shrine of Guruvayoor in Kerala has infinite stories connected with Lord Krishna, his miraculous power and favourite elephants. Devotees endow their faith in the Godly presence and unconditional love for this place. It’s a dream pilgrimage for many like my father on their birthday to savour the sweet stories of Krishna and surrender to the command of God.
You will find children and women of all ages clad in traditional Kerala attire of auspicious cream with vibrant golden borders. We grew up learning about young Krishna’s playfulness and stories of beautiful young girls following him everywhere, obviously girls believe in falling in love with Krishna even before dreaming of their own future husbands, so unsurprisingly you will find more happy girls in the vicinity.
When I looked towards the eastern part of the temple near the elephant’s corner, my inquisitiveness rocketed knowing the presence of the tantric chief priest and the whole clan of Namboothiri commune. Just like the Krishna stories these guys also have enormous influence in what goes on here, all rituals to preparing many offerings to God. So their cooking flair and gift of making food taste divine is known for generations. This will be the first hunting place for me, if I am looking for a vegetarian cook.
Apparently the senior priest doesn’t come everyday for the pooja other than for annual festivals, his assistants are hired on a monthly basis in a draw from hundreds of applicants and when chosen they will spend a month with in the shrine from 3am until late night.
I had long waited for this occasion to taste payasam here and I made most of it by having almost a litre by myself! Since then I have been contemplating everyday about that unbelievable taste and magic which came out of just three ingredients—rice, milk and sugar. I couldn’t forget my passionate dream 20 years ago about this payasam and attempted making it in the middle of the night without even knowing how to do it.
We stepped forward following a savoury scent from the other kitchen where they cook the well-known prasadam lunch for devotees. Folks generally sponsor these meals as their offering to Lord Krishna. Originally this temple food was meant for Brahmin families in the area but in 1982 they opened the gates to the public.
During the annual festival, breakfast and lunch are cooked for up to 15,000 people. Unni reminded me that locals don’t cook anything at home during this period, and literally live in the temple compound. Unfortunately, it was too early for me to taste that divine meal on the day (since we had to leave early), however that aroma of the atmosphere still stay within and it’s a big reason to go back to this special place in Kerala.
I strolled towards the car with my smiling father after he recited his favourite poems to many in the temple. Looking at his face I could feel his happiness as he blessed me by putting his hand on my head. I felt more zeal and serenity, the surprise really worked and maybe we need to repeat this farther in life for our loved ones.
The author is a London-based restaurateur who owns the Rasa chain