Dad has a sonorous voice and a great command over Sanskrit shlokas. For many poojes, however, he would read out the shlokas from one of his kannada books. Periodically he would stumble over one of the words, go back and repeat them, all the while conducting the pooje. First the Gods would be given a ritual bath in a brass thali. Then they would be dressed up for the occasion – first sandalwood paste, then bright red kunkuma on their foreheads. The temple at home would be cleaned up too and decked up with decorations made out of cotton with kunkuma and turmeric rubbed on them at intervals to add colour. A thorana or garland made of mango leaves would be put up. Dad would arrange potted plants on each side of the temple and then decorate with various flowers. Then while reading out shlokas he would instruct my sister and I in what to do – offer turmeric to begin with, then the kunkuma, flowers. My sister and I would compete to offer the biggest or most fragrant flower.
The noise of steel vessels clanking together in the kitchen accompanied dad's chants. The most delicious smells would be emanating from the kitchen – fresh coriander, tempering made from home made pure tuppa (ghee), frying ambodes or papads, the spicy aromas of saaru or huli, cardamom – while equally fragrant scents accompanied the pooje: melting camphor, agarbatti and the jasmines and roses The pressure cooker would whistle deliriously at some critical junction in the prayers and it'd be like a competition between the whistle and dad's chanting.
As I got older, I helped mom out with the small stuff in the kitchen – grating the fresh coconut, helping powder the cardamom, cutting up the cucumber for the kosambri…And of course, inhaling the scent of the payasa as it was cooking. I hated the rice and lentil payasa mom used to make but this was one of the favourites. We'd wait hungrily, torn between concentrating on the pooje and salivating for lunch, since on pooje days one was not supposed to eat before the pooje was over. Though mom and dad were fine with us having breakfast, we often used to skip it on that day so we could save our appetites for the festive food to follow. A silver plate was reserved for the prasada and minute helpings of all the items would be ritually offered to the Gods before we could sit down for our meal.
Small portions of the food were pre-served onto each plate before we sat down. The food was always served onto the plate in a particular order. Salt first, at the top, followed by pickle to the right of it. Then a small spoonful of the payasa, which was one of the prasadas or offerings to God, at the bottom right. The cooked but unsalted lentils came on the left of the payasa. Kosambri would be served next to the pickle, followed by the vegetable curry, palya. The ghee and plain rice would be on the left of the lentils while the flavoured rice of the day would be in the middle.
We had to start the meal by scooping up the payasa, and then we were free to dig in. We'd have the flavoured rice, followed by saaru-anna or huli anna and then the main helping of the payasa followed by curd rice which is an inevitable ending to any South Indian meal. Nothing I've ever eaten has tasted better than the festive meals at my mom's. And after that gargantuan meal, we'd curl up and sleep like babies!
Fistful of dried, thin vermicelli
1 tablespoon of ghee
1 litre milk
1 and a quarter cups sugar
4-5 saffron strands soaked in hot milk
Cashews broken up into quarters and fried in ghee until somewhat brown
2-3 cardamom pods, coarsely powdered with a rolling pin or in a mortar and pestle
Break the vermicelli into about 1 cm pieces by hand. Fry it on medium heat in the ghee until it starts turning a light brown and emanates a fragrance. Add the milk, ideally full cream, the sugar and the saffron and let it cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vermicelli is fully cooked – it'll look translucent. Add the raisins and cardamom and serve it hot or cold garnished with cashews. I usually like it cold so I refrigerate it and sometimes serve it with vanilla icecream.
You can also choose to serve this dish as dessert, garnished with a few pomegranate bits, halved green or puple grapes or almond slivers.