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Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan: Dipavali as a time for the traditional

Diwali 2016 Updated: Oct 26, 2016 16:36 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
Shebaba,Renuka Narayanan,Diwali

The festival of lights is also a festival of mithai, jalebi and rabdi, and other things sweet. But did you know there used to be a right way, even for gorging?(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

This is how jalebis with rabri are described in London’s oldest Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy’s, which turns 90 this year: ‘crispy lattice swirls with Indian clotted cream’. Such random thoughts have a way of popping into one’s head between Dussehra and Dipavali. This and the noir notion that ‘sweets to the sweet’ is literally an instance of killing with kindness, particularly if a diabetic is given a box of kaju katli.

Eating our way wisely and well from festival to festival is no laughing matter. As more and more of us are discovering, the traditional lifestyle believed in checks and balances. So one of the first things they did for Dipavali across the Vindhyas was to prepare a medicine, like a spicy marmalade or chyavanprash, called Dipavali lehiyam or Dipavali marunthu. Everybody at home was dosed with a spoonful to protect their tummies from the ravages of too many festival sweets.

Those with the time and inclination still make lehiyam. The recipe is a click away on the internet so I need only say that it’s made of powdered jaggery, whole peppercorns, coriander, cumin and ajwain seeds, dry ginger, a dash of til oil and a dollop of ghee, ground and cooked into a marmalade.

Watch: An animated take on the true meaning of Diwali

As to which, I read an interesting piece the other day on the health benefits of ghee. One of the plus points described was that ghee helps heal stomach inflammations and ulcers, is “rich in butyric acid. Beneficial intestinal bacteria convert fibre into butyric acid and then use that for energy and intestinal wall support…butyric acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid that reduces inflammatory conditions, reduces seepage of undigested food particles and aids in repair of the mucosal wall.”

These graphic tidbits of ayurvedic information brought back a curious fact about life in a Vedic paathshala, over 400 years old, which I visited in the temple town of Kumbakonam in the Kaveri delta while on assignment for HT in 2008. I discovered that the arduous lifestyle required for learning the Vedas by heart, and with understanding, came with its own health risks. The course is very rigorous even today in such old-style paathshalas — eight hours a day of lessons for eight years with only two holidays a year.

At the end of those eight years, a student must face a frightening examination: any line from the entire body of the Vedas can be flung at him for recitation and explanation. It takes 45 hours of non-stop chanting to do a full paaraayanam or Vedic recitation. To give the scholars stamina, day-old rice with buttermilk is the prescribed paathshala breakfast. The rest of the diet is equally austere.

Chanting produces great heat in the body, so priests are prone to ulcers and a regular dose of ghee is a must to save their stomach linings. It’s a world away from Veeraswamy’s menu and ours, but for the milkfood; and how did they know so much about ghee’s medicinal properties back then?

First Published: Oct 22, 2016 18:34 IST