If you do a modern-day high-school classification, the Cholas of South India were definitely the cool kids among empires — famous for their radiant bronzes and magnificent granite temples, their literature full of victorious battles and fabulous feasts, and their far-flung conquests beyond the Indian coastline.
As a mighty naval power grown wealthy on their dominance of the sea trade, the Chola ports had merchants arriving from various parts of the world to buy and to sell their goods. The open, canopied markets were full of produce from across the world, an ancient Free Trade Zone. The local cuisine, as a result, became interesting and flavourful, thanks to the varied spices the Cholas had access to.
Food was a big part of life for the Cholas: it had moved beyond sustenance, and was something to be savoured. They were a society fond of alcohol and good food. Feasts thrown by kings ended with a happy, drunk populace, and included meat, fruit and liquor that was "strong like an enraged snake".
If you do a modern-day high-school classification, the Cholas of South India were definitely the cool kids among empires
While working on Empire, my historical novel set in the time of Rajendra Chola, some of the most fun I had was while writing about the food. My story mainly centres in the 11th-century port of Nagapattinam. It was a city that had street food with plenty of choices, from duck eggs and goat meat cooked out in the open to more varied options, including roasted nuts, sweet jaggery rolls, rice cakes and crackers. My heroine Aremis, for instance, can often be found walking the city munching something — roasted peanuts with a sprinkling of fresh coconut, millet and jaggery toffee made with sea water, or spiced guava and jamun.
I love food and have to practice iron self-control around the food I like. It was consequently wonderful to write about a people who sang songs about their favourite dishes. I used their food to set scenes, evoke feelings and showcase social customs or social offences. Food is never just food: the Cholas knew that well. The wandering poets of the Chola empire often were invited into households for a meal, and they used that opportunity to make friends and observe the local culture. In the places they visited, ingredients were modest but exotic: meat from 'short-legged' boars or porcupine, as well as forest fruit and vegetables like bamboo, elephant-foot yam, jackfruit and jamun.
You learn about the culture by how the meal arrived on the table: vegetables are found in forests, plucked from vines blooming in the rain. Fatty pieces of porcupine are from animals 'killed by female dogs'. The poet sits in the same courtyard where these dogs are leashed, waiting for the meal. He watches the women mix the meat with sweet tamarind and buttermilk, admires them for their beauty.
There is a lesson here, I think, for us as well. The pleasure of food begins with the preparation, and is sweetened by the affection of the people serving it. The flavours are heightened by what came before: rice and millet is pounded and cooked by a woman wearing flowers in her hair, the scent of which mixes with the meal as she stirs ghee with a ladle. The bangles on her arms clink as she prepares rice balls, meat and split-legged crabs.
The pleasure of food begins with the preparation, and is sweetened by the affection of the people serving it
Mealtimes also become opportunities to talk and thrash out differences between people. You tend to let your guard down while eating, are more willing to talk. You can keep your eyes on your meal and mention what's troubling you. I used food similarly in my story. A meal shared in the soldiers' hall between Aremis and Anantha — two characters who have little in common — becomes a chance to explain themselves and talk about long-held feelings of resentment. They are served red tamarind rice on plantain leaves, beans and eggs, and a gravy of yam and fish. There is spiced yoghurt to accompany the meal.
One of the dishes mentioned in the ancient poems is avarai beans (broad country beans), cooked in tamarind gravy. This is a bean gravy served alongside bamboo shoot curry, which is a time-consuming dish to prepare, since the bamboo must be peeled before you can get to the softer insides. This vegetable was prized for its flavour and health benefits, and the texture, once soaked and cooked, had a rich, melt-in-the-mouth feel. But then, all these dishes sound quite irresistible. Reading these odes to the food and its eating is a pleasure to the senses, prone to making you hungry.
Empire by Devi Yesodharan is published by Juggernaut Books (hardcover, ₹599).
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