The sadhyas of Travancore are a study in methodical complexity and ritualistic fervor, comparable only with the elaborate Japanese Tea Ceremony. Right from laying down the ‘thumbela’ with the ‘thumbu’ or tip to your left, to the way you fold it at the end of the epicurean delight, there is an order and significance to each step that is rigorously followed. The sadhya is a bow to every fine art that elevates man above the rest of his fellow creatures.
The serving of the several dishes itself is an exquisitely choreographed routine performed between the narrow aisles of banana leaves, by seasoned artists, with the nimbleness and dexterity that would do a Russian ballerina proud. It takes years to perfect that pirouette to serve the kichadi on either side, in one fluid motion without missing a single leaf or spilling a drop. The assembled sadhya itself is a visual treat – a beautiful painting with its perfect balance of colour and texture or a blockbuster with the perfect cast.
You always start with the salt, at the left end. This is followed by the banana, ethakka upperi, sharkkarapuratti and pappadam in a cluster on the left center. The chips are usually the first things you pop into your mouth as you sit down for your sadya. The all-important pappadam is another hot favorite that tempts people to start even before the rice arrives.
Next up are the item numbers. Every movie has one. This one has three… inji, naranga, manga, in that order. Hot, spicy, sizzling! The very sight can sometimes send your salivary glands into overdrive! Just like in the movies. Then the modest kichadi, the sweet pachadi, spunky mezhukkupuratti, and the staple thoran, before the heavy weights erisseri, avial and kootucurry move in to complete the picture. South Travancore has its own special version of kootucurry, totally different from what goes by the name in other parts of Kerala. This is chicken curry, minus the chicken, thrown in to add some masala to the script. To make it extra special you find bits of uzhunnuvada mixed in with the potatoes and onions.
Now that the stage has been set, the action starts. If you are a neophyte, watch and learn from the masters around you. You can spot the connoisseur a mile off. He can, with years of expertise, elbow his way through the hungry crowd milling at the door of the dining hall, waiting for it to be thrown ope