With 10,000 visitors daily, ISKCON Bangalore has seven kitchens to serve different needs from offerings to temple deities to midday meals. A behind-the-scenes glimpse into what goes into this undertaking.
Walking through one of the seven kitchens at the ISKCON temple premises in Rajajinagar, there’s a sense of awe at the scale of operations. Giant cauldrons of milk being churned mechanically, kadais, the size of drums, with boondi being fried in hot oil, hundreds of trays of ghee-laden Mysore Pak, laddoos, gulab jamuns, ras malai, namkeens and more being packed by a line of workers — for a moment, it’s easy to forget that we are on temple premises, this could easily be a mithai factory.
It’s about 4.30 pm so all is quiet in one of the neighbouring kitchens, which incidentally, is where the Akshaya Patra or midday meal scheme was first initiated in 2000. But a visit early next morning presents equally hectic scenes with workers in uniforms wearing face masks and hair nets, using shovel-sized ladles to transfer steaming hot mounds of vegetable rice into vessels that are then ferried in steel carts to be packed into massive dabbas that will be distributed in 487 schools covered under the midday meal programme.
Rivalling the output of these two kitchens is a third one that prepares the daily prasadam of khichdi that’s distributed among the 10,000 visitors that come to the temple every day (on a festival day like Janmasthami this number goes up to a lakh).
In all of this, there are two underlying principles that unify these commercial-scale operations. One, all of the food is Sattvic (which means no onion, garlic or meat and egg-based products) and two, everything is first offered to the Lord first — smaller idols of the temple deities adorn the entrances of all these kitchens and as soon as a batch of food is ready, samples are laid out for the Lord to bless. This, basically also means that cooks cannot taste the food while preparing them, hence, they need to follow very precise recipes.
Away from the chaos of the kitchens, seated in the hush of a conference room, ashram initiate Bharatarshabha Dasa, head of their communications team, talks about the philosophy behind their many community kitchens. “At any temple, the primary focus is prasadam because no worship is complete without it. Even what is offered in the restaurant (Higher Taste, their fine dine space which opened in 2005 ) is also prasadam,”
Bharatarshabha says going on to recite lines from the Bhagavad Gita that forms the essence of this idea: Yatkaroshiyadasnasiyajjuhoshidadasi yat. “It essentially means, ‘whatever I do, whatever I eat, should be an offering to the Lord’ and that is the fundamental principle.”
He’s one of the 25 ashram devotees who is dedicated to the various sevas of the temple deities — eight in all: Radha-Krishna, Krishna-Balaram, Nitai-Gauranga, Prahlada Narasimha and Sri Srinivasa Govinda — one of which is preparing seven offerings that have to be presented to the Lord through the day. So, Bharatarshabha’s day begins at 3.15 am following which an offering of sweet rice is made to the deity around 3.45 am. Thereafter, they offer milk, dry fruits, sweets, fruits, etc, at regular intervals, with the largest offering being the Raja Bhog with a minimum of 12 items (this can go up to 108 items during festivals) at 12 pm — with separate plates for each of the eight deities. Unlike the other kitchens, which have a mix of volunteers and paid staffers — about 250 in all — supervised by an ashram devotee, the deity kitchen can only be accessed by ashram initiates like Bharatarshabha. And at any given point there are about 10-15 devotees who are in charge of cooking for the deities.
Even the food that is cooked for initiates like Bharatarshabha, who work full-time at ISKCON, comes from a separate kitchen. In all, there are about 120 ashram initiates — a 100-odd brahmacharis who live within the premises and the rest like Bharatarshabha, who is a Grihasta (even his wife is a full-time devotee at ISKCON), are given an allowance to rent a small place nearby. “The food that’s cooked for the deities is usually distributed among the initiates and volunteers who come from outside. Apart from that, two simple meals consisting of rice, dal, sabzi, roti and buttermilk or curd is cooked for us,” Bharatarshabha says, adding that their food is very light, and made without spices. The whole idea being that Sattvic (pure) food is nourishing and elevates one’s thinking unlike Rajasic (stimulating) and Tamasic (base) foods. “It goes beyond vegetarianism; we are Krishnatarians. Meat, onion, garlic and intoxicants, even caffeine, is in the mode of passion which increases your desires, pushes you to think on the mundane platform.”
Interestingly, the Higher Taste kitchen has a separate team of about 40 employees that are overseen by ashram devotees who are passionate about food. An in-house food lab, set up in 2005, a sort of mini kitchen, is used by the chefs to try out some of the more innovative items on the menu such as paan ice cream, gooseberry soup, Kabulistani biryani (made with potato and cauliflower), Vedic coffee (like a kashaya). “For instance, one of the devotees who had gone to Brindavan found some old recipes there and we tried it out here during the week of Janmasthami. So, we test on a smaller scale at the lab and then introduce it
on the menu,” Bharatarshabha explains.
A bird’s eye view of ISKCON today can easily make one forget its humble beginnings in 1997 when they had only about 3,000 visitors.
With the growing number of devotees visiting every year, their plans include setting up an annadana hall where visitors will be served prasadam. But the core idea of serving food that’s rich in Prana or life-force remains their divine purpose.