At Ramanasramam, the giving of food has long been a part of daily life. This first started in about 1917, when Ramana’s mother, Alagammal, joined Ramana to live at Virupaksha cave. Once she joined Ramana, she started a kitchen, and daily cooking became a part of ashram life. Whatever food was prepared was shared by all, equally.
Giving of food is very significant for Hindus. This food-giving is called “annandanam.” Here is a bit on the significance of giving food, from annadanasangham.org.
Annadanam Samam Danam Trilokeshu Na Vidhathe
These are the verses from the Vedas, meaning Annadanam is supreme and incomparable to any charity. Food is the basic requirement for all humans. Thus according to Vedas, the one who does annadanam to devotees, attains heaven (Punya Loka) in this Universe (Brahmanda) itself. In this whole universe, the creation and its progression depends on food. Hence giving food to the devotees is more than attaining heaven.
Gaja turaga Sahasram Gokulam koti danam a
Kanaka Rajatha patram Methini sagarantham
Upaya kula vishuttam Koti kanya pradanam
Nahi nahi bahu danam Annadanam samanam
Donating 1000 elephants & horses, donating 10 million cows, donating any number of vessels of silver and gold, donating the entire land till sea, offering the entire services of the clan, helping in the marriage of 10 million women, all this is never ever equal to Annadanam, the feeding of hungry and needy.
This food giving was a part of daily life with Ramana. Formal “poor feeding,” as distinct from the regular meal service, was started sometime after the Ramanasramam Dining Hall was completed in 1938. Below is a photo from that time from the archives of Ramanasramam. This was some kind of special event. It must have been in 1938 or soon after, based on the Dining Hall to the left of the photo. Look at Arunachala in the background, bare and rocky.
About 15 years ago they gave a formal name to this poor feeding: Narayana Seva, Service to God.
The photo below, taken today, is about from the same location as the old picture above; the Dining Hall is to the left and Arunachala, green now from the reforestation efforts, overlooks Ramanasramam in the center.
This is why I know the date of the Dining Hall.
This is the grinding room. Grinding of food ingredients is an important element in Tamil cooking. Now they use electric grinders. In Ramana’s day this was done by hand, using stone grinders. Much work required.
Here are the three main dishes for today’s Poor Feeding: rice biryani and two other rice dishes. Notice that the biryani kettle has a fire burning on top of the cover. This is the usual way this dish is finished, heating from the top with fire.
These photos were taken about 10 o’clock in the morning. The kitchen already has been going for many hours. They start cooking for breakfast before 5 AM, and start cutting vegetables for the Narayana Seva and the ashram lunch about 6 AM.
In the kitchen now the meal for Narayana Seva is mostly finished, and the lunch preparation is well under way. Until I started working on this story, I thought that basically the poor feeding meal and ashram lunch were pretty much the same. I see now that that simply is not true. And it seems like more different dishes were made for the Poor Feeding than for a regular lunch.
Below are more photos from the kitchen. Mostly it is lunch being readied. These photos give an idea of the present Ramanasramam kitchen.
A rice dish being cooked on a gas burner.
Tomatoes cooking on the right. Maybe they will go into today’s rasam.
The Chief Cook, Gopal, pours what I think is sambar into a big pot.
Gopal stands so that I can take his photo.
I took the opportunity to look in the pot from which Gopal just poured. Now I’m not so sure that it’s sambar.
This is a pan of peppers that has been fried. They are shiny with the oil from the frying.
Most of the cooking is done with gas, but some must be done with wood (like the top cooking of the biryani), so there is a pile of cooking wood in the midst of the kitchen.
The other cook, Balu, stirs something into a pot.
A big fry pan.
Another pot, cooking away on a fire.
Balu is working on lunch.
Another view of the kitchen. The size of these steamer pots shows that some major cooking production is done here.
They have many big pots stacked and waiting to be used. Sometimes, like on big festival days like Ramana Jayanti, they cook for several thousand people.
Now it is almost time to serve the Poor Feeding. Last minute touches must be made.
A helper stirs the pan of fried chilies into a rice dish. I think that maybe this is some kind of curd rice.
Then he stirs the biryani, releasing a cloud of steam.
Now it is almost time to move the food to the feeding area. A bicycle cart is backed up to the steps into the kitchen.
Here is the man who is responsible for moving the food today.
They put a wooden ramp from the kitchen floor level with the bicycle cart. They will have heavy pans to load onto the carts.
Two strong Tamil men come to carry out the pots.
They each have good hold of the handles on the side of the pot.
You can see their muscles straining under the weight,.
They load the pan onto the cart.
They bring out another pan of food, and then the load for the first cart is complete.
The next cart will take the biryani. This pan is so heavy that they use a wooden pole through the handles to carry the pot. I think the pot must also be hot, since it recently had a fire on its top.
The third cart gets the other rice dish. Yes there are three main dishes, all made from rice.
Loading it onto the cart.
After a lid is placed on the big pot, another smaller pot is loaded on top.
Now the carts are loaded. In a few minutes they will go to the feeding area. There are three carts altogether, so there will be three bicycle cart drivers.
The feeding area in the front of the ashram is marked off for the feeding.
Sadhus have been waiting for a while now.
To claim their place in line, they have set their food pots out in a row.
More sadhus wait.
The ashram guard starts cordoning off the parking area, to keep it clear for the daily Poor Feeding.
A sign goes up on the gate about the restrictions.
The lineup of pots has gotten longer.
Poor women wait also. They will be fed next, after the sadhus.
Here is a sadhu I have known for several years, Swami Annamalai. He wears 1008 rudraksha beads, beloved by Lord Siva.
Now the carts are rolled through the ashram. They go by the Vedapatasala, the school for priests, which boys enter into as children. You can hear them chanting Sanskrit as we pass by.
The carts are wheeled though the grounds.
And into the feeding area, where all the sadhus wait.
Here comes the first cart.
The the second. Carol took this photo, and Richard is in the background, following the cart.
The sadhus are now standing in the line, ready to get their food. For many I think this is the main meal they will have today.
In the photo below, we see the man and woman, Pardhasaradhi and his wife, Jayasri, coming from Hyderabad, who sponsored the Narayana Seva today. Ramanasramam asks for a Rs 2000 donation for this sponsorship. The actual cost is quite a bit more.
People sponsor these feedings for various reasons. A common one is to commemorate something, like a birthday. If this is something that you want to do, contact their office directly, or use the contact information they provide on the Ramanasramam website.
The second cart has arrived and is in place.
They carry a pot of something and put it onto a table.
The servers wait.
Food is ready. This cart serves a rice dish and sambar.
A crunchy treat and some chutney is served from the table on the right, and sour pickle from the one to the left. Altogether there are five feeding stations: Biryani (and leaf plates), curd rice, rice and sambar from the three bicycle carts, then the two tables seen below.
They are almost ready to start. Notice the big pile of plates, made from leaves sewn together and dried. Pardhasaradhi, today’s sponsor, stands and watches.
Now the line starts to move. Poor Feeding has begun!
For the next twenty minutes, the food line is busy. About 250 meals will be served today.
The line has gotten to the second cart.
They are now going full speed. Some people take leaf plates.
Some have their own metal plates or cans to fill.
The line keeps moving.
Here is Swami Annamalai coming through. He gets his pot filled with biryani.
Then he moves through the food line.
The line keeps growing.
Sadhus wait patiently.
Some people that are not sadhus go through the line.
Most are. Some sadhus wear green. I am not sure what this means. Can anyone tell us?
Poor women sit and wait behind the rope barrier. This woman sweeps Ramanasramam grounds every morning. She begs outside it during the day.
Some more people wait until the sadhus are fed.
Sadhus keep moving through the line.
Woman (and girls) have now joined the back of the line.
They now start to be served.
We see several children, boys and girls, in line with the women. I assume these are very poor children.
This woman shows me here plate.
We know the woman in orange, being served in the photo below, from a nearby village. She walks several kilometers to come to this feeding.
This women begs outside Ramanasramam and Ramana Supermarket. She has an artificial leg. She is happy with the food.
Some of these old women are so bent over from years of work that they cannot stand straight.
After the poor women comes another group of men, I think poor men, not sadhus (and a few sadhu stragglers).
This old man has some henna coloration of his white bread. This is pretty common here.
He seems to have an armload.
Look at the size of the servings that are given out. This is a very substantial meal that is provided,.
I think this is just some man visiting the ashram, getting a free lunch.
Now, all around the grounds, people sit and eat. Some eat here. Some carry their food cans elsewhere and eat later.
The last few stragglers are fed big plates of food.
He gets some sambar on his rice.
He gets it in a plastic container.
Among the last few people though the line is this lady in a nice saree. She surely is an ashram visitor, making use of the free food being given out.
A street urchin looks on. I did not see her in the food line, though.
Even at the end, there is still some rice left.
The sambar is all gone. Here goes the last drop.
Then it is time to pack up, and take the carts back to drop off the pots and wait for the next day’s feeding.
This boy wanted to help drive the cart.
He is happy that the man lets him help. Carol is in the background taking his photo. She is wearing a nice saree.
The last cart is pushed out.
Back to the kitchen.
The feeding is over for today. Early tomorrow morning the work starts again on the next day’s meal.
Ramanasramam serves about 90,000 meals per year in this Narayana Seva. Their other normal feeding activity, the other annandanam–food served three meals a day to guests, friends, and employees–must account for 200,000 to 300,000 meals each year, so in total certainly more than 300,000 meals are given out each year by Ramanasramam.
Giving of food brings spiritual merit. So maybe the peaceful atmosphere felt at Ramanasramam is partially the result of millions of meals given out over almost 100 years now. So many meals means much merit has been brought to Ramanasramam.