Despite a flagging industry, their popularity runs high

What are Bhojanalayas? If the answer to this question happened to be as simple as saying that they are North Indian restaurants which provide more of Roti and less of ‘chawal’ (rice), then the Bhojanalayas would not have survived for more than six decades in Madurai, a city where Idli, Dosa and Saappaadu rule the roost.

These eateries are the prime reason why pilgrims and tourists from the North feel at home in the city. They are a favourite hub for a considerable number of North Indians who have settled down here pursuing a variety of businesses including the sale of toys, glass bangles, electrical components, sports goods and gold plated-jewellery.

Apart from being a tourist destination, Madurai is also a pilgrim centre. A majority of the Hindus headed towards the Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameswaram, one of the most important holy Hindu sites in the country, make it a point to pay obeisance to Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar here. The need to satisfy the hunger of the visiting pilgrims led to the opening of the city's first Bhojanalaya – Shri Shank Wala – named after the conch, regarded as sacred and auspicious by Hindus. Started in 1957 at Jada Muni Kovil Street, abutting the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, it continues to function at the same place even today.

The only change is in the price of the meals which has risen from 75 paise to Rs. 110 per head at present. Established by L. Sardarmal Rajpurohit, a cook from Jalore in Rajasthan, it is now managed by his eldest son S. Ramlal Rajpurohit. Pure vegetarian food sans onion and garlic is the speciality here.

The guests are treated with unlimited hot and fresh rotis that melt in the mouth and copious quantities of dhal, vegetables, pulses, gravy, salad, pickles and chutney. The rotis are followed up with rice and the thali comes to a close with a bowl of fresh mango pulp.

Favourite

Over the years, Shri Shank Wala has also become the favourite of the locals. Rotis, baked dry and laced with ghee, based on the preference of the guests, are a big draw with customers. The locals are often awestruck with the way the wheat flour-dough is kneaded as soft as a cake at the Bhojanalayas.

"It is because we employ the toughest of labourers to knead the dough and ask them to think of their most hated enemy while kneading it," jokes M. Dinesh Kumar, co-owner of Mohan Bhojanalaya, which functions at Dhanappa Mudali Street, a much bigger premises than most Bhojanalayas.

Started by his father Mohanlal S. Raval way back in 1968, this Bhojanalaya has relocated many times over before settling down at its present location in 2000. Lip-smacking food and warm hospitality are the reasons this eatery is popular despite the industry facing several odds including labour shortage.

Mr. Kumar manages the Bhojanalaya with the help of gadgets — a collar mike helps communicate with the kitchen staff and closed circuit television cameras keep a watch on the activities in the kitchen and the service provided to guests. He never lets guests rise from the dining table without ensuring that they have had their fill.

C. Champa Lal, a wholesale dealer of toys at West Avani Moola Street, says that Bhojanalayas take care of his food requirements whenever his family is away. North Indian labourers working under him have the option of low-cost Bhojanalayas which offer packed food for as low as Rs.35 a plate.

Fluent in Tamil, having been born and raised in Madurai, Mr. Kumar points out that pilgrims, tourists and businessmen flock to his Bhojanalaya through word-of-mouth publicity. "In fact, our team of cooks has been to the Circuit House here many times for preparing food for election observers and other top bureaucrats from North India," he says proudly.

At the same time, the future of these Bhojanalayas does not seem to be bright, say their owners. "Finding labour is the most difficult task. It is not easy to bring cooks from Rajasthan and Gujarat and pay them around Rs. 9,000 each, apart from providing them food and accommodation. I don't think my children will continue this business," says Mr. Ramlal.

"I am happy that Madurai Meenakshi has provided us succour all these years. My family is indebted to her for we have survived all our life drinking the water from the Vagai. Our Bhojanalayas too could not have existed all this while without the support of local people like my building owner Shanmuga Sundara Bhattar, a man of compassion. I only hope this camaraderie between the North and the South continues for years to come," adds Mr. Kumar.

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