At the crack of dawn, when the sun rises to the tingling sounds of the bells at the historical Banashankari Amma Temple in Badami of Bagalkot district, the aroma of freshly seasoned dal drifts into the air from the houses in the villages located around the temple. The women here are multitasking with household chores. As they juggle between washing, cleaning, sweeping and mopping, the stuffed brinjals filled with masala get deliciously cooked. The children are attended to and the ablutions are completed, as the steaming rice is prepared, along with rasam and papad. The tangy pickle is packed, the green and red chutneys are made.
A delicious spread
The piping hot dal is precariously placed in the bread basket, or colloquially, in the rotti butti. It is secure in the company of a jar of spicy and dry chutney powders made of roasted peanuts and black sesame. An earthen pot of thick curds and roasted green chillies also go along. The task does not end here. It's now time for main course. Soon, the dough is kneaded and the pan heated as the deft hands roll out jowar and pearl millet rotis one after the other. The rotis are stacked and wrapped in a soft cotton cloth. The salad comprises slices of finely chopped onions, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes and capsicums.
A panting Gurammajji balances the rotti butti on her head and rushes to the bus stand to catch the first bus to Badami. She is on time as her feet carry her quickly to the saalu mantapa, her destination. As buses from other villages like Jaalihaal, Pattadakal and Katapu arrive, Gurammajji is soon joined by her peers, Pampamma, Hanumavva and Mudukavva, with their respective bread baskets.
They spread out their delicacies at the saalu mantapa and the search for customers begins. The usual locations for the famished visitors are the temple entrance where devotees stand in a queue, at the parking lot where tourists park their vehicles; at the Haridra Theertha pond, or the temple tank where devotees take a holy dip and at the row of shops where customers are engrossed in purchasing souvenirs.
After paying obeisance to the presiding deity and seeking the blessings of Goddess Banashankari, an incarnation of Goddess Parvathi and Amma Annapurneshwari, the devotees are now ready to soak in the pristine glory of the temple town. After visiting the monuments and shopping, the tourists are tempted to relish the mouth-watering delicacies of North Karnataka. The famished travellers are ready to relish every bit of food served to them. The women take their positions and play their hospitality to the hilt, cajoling and coaxing their guests to try every item. Just as a loving mother feeds her child, the hungry travellers are gently prodded to have some more morsels.
The monumental splendour of the saalu mantapa, the cool breeze, the ringing bells of the temple, the banter of the women serving with warmth and affection, and the delicious spread, create a perfect ambience. No wonder after being treated to gastronomic delights, one is induced to an afternoon siesta.
The women are good entertainers too. They discuss a variety of topics including politics, drought, rising prices and even the latest Sandalwood flicks. They are chatty and witty, leaving their guests amused. The women laugh with their guests, share their woes, and even pack parcels for the journey ahead. They are also gifted guides who ensure that the tourists have made the best of their visit to Badami.
On an average, each woman packs at least 60 rotis a day. From a humble Rs 5 per meal, in the last 30 years, they have hiked it only to Rs 20. Even if Rs 500 is collected at the end of the day, it is a bumper. After attending to their guests, they rest, chatting about with their mouths full of paan. They pack the leftovers as dinner for their families. Soon, it is dusk and they hurry to the nearby market to purchase vegetables for the next day.
For Gurammajji, life has not been kind. Shouldering the responsibility of her family, the worry of kin who have migrated to greener pastures, the perennial drought, the drying Malaprabha River, are all matters of concern. Hailing from a region which depends on crops that are rain-fed and rainfall playing truant most of the time, the money earned from the bread basket has become the only means of survival for these women.
Despite their woes, these women do not forget to thank Banashankari Amma for looking after them. Neither are they deterred by the mushrooming hotels nor by the Anna Dasoha that has begun at the temple for the last few years. Their unmatchable culinary skills have kept their houses running. The only thing that bothers them is the dwindling number of tourists in the temple town. The adjacent Haridra Theertha pond has touched the bottom and the number of tourists has declined. The drying Haridra Theertha mirrors the grim realities of these women. But they hide their pain behind those beaming countenances. As for the visitors, the spread is unlimited and the affection infectious.
(Translated by Jyotsna P Dharwad)