Among the southern Indian Tamilian Brahmins, as among Hindus, death is the culmination of the present life cycle; rebirth and reincarnation are the next phases. Many hope to break free from this cycle and attain moksha — a release from the pain of birth and death, and a liberation of all the sufferings that relate to those phases. The journey of the soul as it leaves one body and reaches its next destination is an important one, and ritual foods nourish that lonesome path. The Parsees, decendants of Zoroastrians, wet the lips of the dead with the same haoma, or pomegranate juice, that welcomes the newborn. They leave the body at the Tower of Silence for the vultures to consume, as they believe in not polluting the five elements — earth, air, water, fire and ether — created by God. Brahmins invoke the God of Fire, the same God that ushered them into the human world at birth, one last time to cleanse the body from years of sin.
The 13-day journey began when my father’s soul was released from his diseased body. His eldest son, my brother, placed grains of rice and black sesame seeds in his mouth and poured clarified butter over the body, laying on a pyre, as he lit fire to the chest area close to the heart.
Ashes and a bereft mother
The ashes from the cremation were collected the next morning in an earthen pot and dispersed in the Arabian Sea. My father’s mother sat on the terrazzo floor in the room where he had slept, her body rocking to and fro in childless sorrow. The shadow cast from the flame of an oil lamp was pitifully warped; her frail 82-year-old being shook with uncontrollable grief. It was unfair of him to have died when he was the one who should have been around to light her funeral pyre. She grieved for a son who bore harsh abuse from his father, a son who protected her from her husband and provided her a safe haven all his life, a son who loved her unconditionally, a son whom she could not save from cancerous harm.
My father’s soul wandered for nine days, looking for every excuse to stay in this world. The only guidance we could provide was a small cotton wick dipped in oil and kept lit in the corner of the room where he died. The oil was never allowed to dissipate, which kept the flame alive. Merely two rice balls were kept out on the veranda for its sustenance for the next nine days.
Sending a soul on its way
The vadiyaars, Brahmin priests, came on the 10th day and offered the soul an elaborate meal without salt, placing it on the veranda. The soul, no doubt angry at the tasteless food, hungry from the nine days of near starvation, was nudged to consider joining its ancestors as the rituals, held in a square area defined by bricks and fueled with dung cakes, rice husks and clarified butter, and the Sanskrit verses filled the soul and our lives with purpose. On the 11th day, a single priest arrived and cooked his own meal, a simple one fashioned from rice, lentils and plantains we furnished him, nurturing his body and the restless soul for one last satisfying meal.
The 12th day is the most important for the soul as it prepares to join the ancestors. Our kitchen fires were lit, and the women busied themselves with roasting and grinding spice blends — black sesame seeds, rice and black peppercorns — never used in everyday cooking. Legumes used for festive celebrations, like yellow split peas and split and skinned black lentils, were put away, while split and skinned green lentils took their place. Soon the air was filled with the sweetness of sesame seeds toasted golden brown, pungent peppercorns, nutty roasted uncooked rice and fresh curry leaves. Turmeric, an everyday occurrence in our Tamilian kitchen, a symbol of my mother’s marriage to my father, was markedly absent. Arid rice husks; sweet-smelling, sun-dried dung cakes; ghee and sprigs of tulsi (the aromatic sharp-edged leaves of holy basil) stoked the flames of Agni, the god of fire.
Three priests sat around the fire, one representing my father’s soul, the second his father’s and the third his grandfather’s. The priest representing my father’s soul was handed an umbrella, slippers, a hand fan, a bell to symbolize a cow, a water urn, pepper-spiked buttermilk and cloyingly sweet jaggery, essential gear and sustenance for the spirit’s one-way passage to the afterlife.
A widow succumbs
At this juncture my mother was brought into the ceremonial circle. Her wailing erupted from the pit of her soul and oozed from her sobbing throat. My aunt raised her palm to wipe off my mother’s sun-like bindi, her third eye, deep red and husband-blessed, now disappearing into the horizon in companionship with my father’s soul. Her mangalsutra, a 24-carat gold amulet that hung around her wheat-colored neck at the end of a turmeric-stained thread, tied by her husband during their marriage ceremony, was yanked and handed to the priest. Her bangles were removed, one at a time, stripping her of her marital dignity. She stood her ground, short and defeated, simply dressed in a plain-colored sari, all alone, disrobed of her wifely role.
On the 13th day, my father, who had been born a Brahmin and lived a good life, reached his destination, a soul completely free from earthly desires, prepared for a fresh beginning. He had attained moksha, spiritual release from the cycle of reincarnation.
Ritual foods served on a banana leaf
Dressed in new clothes, we welcomed friends and family who stopped by with a feast that is also served during weddings and joyous occasions. I sat cross-legged where the priest representing my father had been positioned two days ago. The chilled floor offered no comfort for the sorrow, but the scent of a banana leaf in front of me and a sprinkle of holy water to wipe it shiny green caused a rumble in my belly. A drizzle of clarified butter on one corner of the leaf ritually purified it. An array of snacks and condiments dotted the top half: fresh fried plantain chips candied with jaggery; minced fresh turmeric pickled with ground red pepper and roasted mustard seeds; pigeon pea fritters studded with yellow split peas, fresh curry leaves and dried red chiles, and a small mound of coarse sea salt.
The offering of coconut-smothered stir-fries and saucy curries ensued, delectable combinations that prove Indians are masters of teasing vibrant flavors from plantains, potatoes, summer squash and spinach. A dollop of yogurt swirled with chile-stewed tomatoes placed on the right-hand corner, just above the leaf’s rib, completed that section’s palette of flavors, colors and textures. The lower half of the leaf was yet to be addressed. Within seconds, a heap of perfectly cooked, steaming grains of white rice took center stage. A volcano-like cavern on the top of the mound became an ideal home for stewed pigeon peas yellowed with turmeric and a liberal drizzle of clarified butter. A spoonful of dessert, creamy rice blanketed with homemade condensed milk, was placed on the lower right corner of the leaf, a prelude to the feast’s final course and a promise of a comforting finish. A delectable tamarind-based stew of seasonal root vegetables; sambhar, redolent with roasted red chiles, legumes, coconut and coriander, poured over the same pigeon pea-smothered rice, completed the mélange as my eager fingers and mouth momentarily silenced the ache in my heart.
Reprinted with permission from “Creating a Meal You’ll Love,” published by Sellers Publishing, Inc.
Zester Daily contributor Raghavan Iyer is a cookbook author, culinary educator, spokesperson and consultant to numerous national and international clients, including General Mills, Bon Appetit Management Company, Target and Canola. He co-founded the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes, Ltd. and has written three cookbooks, most recently the award-winning “660 Curries.” His articles have appeared in Eating Well, Fine Cooking, Saveur and Gastronomica, and he has been a guest on TV and radio shows throughout the U.S. and Canada. Iyer sells spices at turmerictrail.com.
Photos from top:
Brahmin funeral foods.
Ritual foods on banana leaf.
Credits: Raghavan Iyer