There are thousands of temples, mosques, churches and other centers of worship in India where free food is served to the devotees ad libitum. Many devotees feel gratified by this gesture because they consider the food offered in these holy places as symbols of blessing from the God. In almost all temples in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka state food is served after the pooja to thousands of people in specially made dining halls. Modern kitchens have been established in places like Tirupathi, Dharmasthala, Mantralaya and in many other major temples using latest stainless equipment and cooking and serving personnel maintaining reasonably good sanitation standards. It is not a surprise that not even a single case of food poisoning was reported from any of these temples during the last several years.
While fresh food preparations are made in modern kitchens, what is disturbing is the conditions that exist in preparation places where "sacred" prasadam is made in substantial quantities. In Tirupathi millions of Laddus are made in different sizes in kitchens which were not considered satisfactory till recently and it was only after the intervention of the internationally reputed CFTRI from Mysore in late nineteen eighties that some reforms started to improve the kitchen conditions. Fortunately to day these kitchens have installed many stainless steel gadgets for handling the materials though Laddu making by machines has not yet been fully achieved. Modernization is hampered by religious conservatism and age old blind traditions. Still Tirupathi management deserves appreciation in achieving a fair degree of modernization in kitchens under their control.
Sabarimala is another sacred temple in Kerala and along with Guruvayur attracts very large crowds of devotees from all over India through out the year. While these two temples do not serve any free meals to their devotees, Sabarimala temple prasadam in the form of Aravana Payasam and shallow-fried Neyyappam are in great demand. Travancore Devaswam Board (TDB) which controls this temple has been producing these products in facilities equipped with modern canning machinery and other mechanized gadgets. Still it has not been able to meet the increasing demand for these products from millions of devotees visiting the shrine when ever it is opened during the year. One is reminded of kitchens in gurudwaras in Punjab where automatic roti making machines are reported to be working with capacity as high as 2000-3000 pieces per hour to serve at the Langars. It is a progressive sign that temple authorities are becoming more and more receptive to ideas of modernization.
Regarding Sabarimala, this shrine was recently in the news after about 28000 cans of Aravana Payasam were found blowing up due to fermentation of the product inside. This incidence raised serious doubts regarding the safety of the product, sanitation in the processing facilities and adequacy of the process deployed. In response to a Court directive as a result of a PIL case, TDB conceded in its testimony that the mishap occurred because of deficiencies in the process and negligence of the personnel on the shop floor. In its directive the Court directed the authorities to set up adequate Quality Control facility near the processing facilities for better control of the process and increased safety of the products. Here is a case where two processed products are served as prasadam, both of which are not considered technically sound. In spite of CFTRI offering technical help in early nineteen nineties the TDB spurned the same, continuing with its own way of doing it. The Neyyappam is another product which is in urgent need of reformulation and process modification as the current product is hardly edible though it is supposed to be a"divine" one!
Technically Aravana Payasam is supposed to be a high sugar product and with right recipe it can be preserved in any container for a long time with no spoilage. The panchamrutam of Palani is another example of a high sugar product preserved on its own. Only the water activity has to be maintained correctly to prevent growth of bacteria, mold and yeast during storage. Why the TDB had gone for a sophisticated canning facility costing more than a crore of rupees investment is still not clear. All that is needed is a bottling facility worth about a few lakh, the equipment easily available locally. Normally canning process depends on thermal treatment and vacuum to preserve its contents whereas in bottled products preservation is achieved through osmotic pressure and water activity manipulation. With abundant reserves at its disposal, TDB can afford to truly modernize its prasadam preparation facility bringing it on par with ISO/HACCP certified food industry standards. All that is required is a certain degree of commitment and a few dedicated technical personnel.
What is said about Sabarimala is true with regard to all big temples in India. Most of them make the preparations manually posing real risks to the devotees. While complete automation is not called for, many unit operations can be mechanized to reduce human handling as much as possible. It is ironical that many state governments are "nationalizing" many rich temples with high income and administering then under the Muzrai department staffed with hard core petty officials, interested only in "Hundi" collection while no attention is given to invest in providing facilities to devotees who come from far away places for worship and solace.