During my recent pilgrimage, three of my four meals were at temples – two at the Horanadu temple and one at Sringeri. For the fourth meal, we took a conscious decision that a temple meal may not be suitable for an overnight bus journey on a bumpy road, so we ate at a restaurant.
The temple meal was kinda standardized. In both places. Steaming hot gooey rice. Rasam. Sambar. Buttermilk. Grey coloured payasam. Actually the Horanadu meal also included puliyogare. And the day we landed up in Horanadu, there were a large number of homas because of which we got an additional jilebi each as a treat.
The food was “all you can eat” in a weird sense. It was as if it was all you could eat in the limited amount of time. So you have these servers who bring rice in trolleys and dump large steaming ladlefuls into your plate. You then need to somehow spread it out and immediately large helpings of sambar/rasam (also steaming hot) fall into your plate. The challenge now is to mix these two hot substances in double quick time and gulp it all down before the next serving occurs, which is after about three minutes. The process repeats itself a couple of times by when you see everyone around you rushing to the taps. And you follow.
I was wondering what is the incentive for the temples to serve good quality food. Consider that the food is free, and that most people who are eating it are unlikely to eat it again for a long time to come. Most importantly, most people consider the temple food to be “prasad“, on which you are not allowed to pass negative comments, but have to just consume dutifully. You can also expect most of the eaters to be grateful that you are giving them unlimited food (albeit in limited time) for free, and so they shouldn’t crib too much about the quality.
The only thing I can think of is in terms of indirect income. Apart from the time limit and heat, I found the food pretty good, and made a substantial contribution to both the temples, so that they would continue to serve good food in the time to come. If one were to be able to separate out how much contribution comes out of “devotion” and how much comes out of appreciation for the good food, one might be able to figure out the actual impact in terms of revenues of serving good food.
Actually, from the temple manager’s perspective, it’s not tough to find this out. The situation is extremely suitable for a randomized trial. Given the large number of visitors every day, all the manager needs to do is to randomly change the quality of food on different days. And then observe the contributions made on those days. If this kind of experiment is run over a reasonable number of days, the manager will be able to get a good picture of the impact of good food, and then do a cost-benefit analysis to figure out the optimal quality of food being served.
As an aside, after being used to a wheat-heavy diet, it is tough to get enough calories if you eat rice throughout the day. Going back to my density argument, once you’re used to a wheat-heavy diet, your stomach capacity is lower in terms of volume, though there is no change in calorie requirement. Hence, even if you eat a stomachful of rice, it’s tough to not be hungry till the next meal. This, combined with the fact that I had to literally swallow the food without really chewing it (thanks to the time limit), didn’t do my stomach too much good.
I also have to mention here that the temples at both Sringeri and Horanadu accomplish the Brahmin discrimination in an elegant fashion. Both have segregated dining halls for Brahmins, the only catch being that there are no signboards. The only way you know about the presence of these halls is to be with someone else who knows about these halls (these halls are also away from the main dining halls in both places, so it’s tough to find them out unless someone shows you). Men are required to take off their shirts at these halls, so as to display the janavaara (I wore back my janavaara to exploit this arbitrage; and then have been too lazy to take it off). Sometimes you are asked your gotra, and if you can confidently name a Brahmin gotra, you are through.
So the temple manages to discriminate without being too explicit about it. Most of the people being discriminated against don’t know and those who are discriminated for are happy to accept the arbitrage. A significantly superior solution than at places like Mantralaya where they make the discrimination explicit blatant.