Small eateries have become the lifeline of the temple town of Srirangam. Not just the thousands of pilgrims who visit the pilgrimage centre all through the year, but even hundreds of families, who are permanent residents of the town, are dependent on them. Most of these eateries can accommodate hardly a dozen customers at a time.

As a techie puts it, the eateries are “customer-specific initiatives.” While there are some which prepare food without garlic and onion to satisfy the orthodox, there are others which prepare with less salt. There are some which prepare meals early in the morning and some serve only tiffin. Some even dole out “sambar”, “rasam”, “vathakuzhambu”, “morekuzhambu”, “koottu”, and “curry” separately, for Rs.10 each. A caterer’s name is prefixed with “carrier” because he serves food at doorstep.

Srirangam has become a pensioners’ paradise, thanks to these eateries.

The children employed abroad are so affectionate that they dump dollars and calcium tablets on their aged parents in Srirangam. Only thing – they have no time for a personal touch. This matter-of-fact comment from an eminent doctor captures the mood succinctly.

Another techie quipped that Srirganm is fast becoming another Bangalore where there is an association titled — Parents in India Children in America (PICA). Most of these senior citizens wait for the carriers from these eateries everyday as they find it difficult to cook.

“Our objective is not only to satisfy our customers but also to take care of their health,” says V. Gopala Iyengar, who has settled down in Srirgam setting up a mess. “They should feel this is their home and hence we prepare only homely food.”

A veteran in the hospitality industry with more than six decades of experience, from the days of selling idli and bajji for five paise and tea for 10 paise, he is happy to observe that the eateries in Srirangam have come of age by building brand loyalty. We have permanent customers. We indulge in no publicity; it is word of mouth that brings even judges and VIPs to our mess,” he declares proudly.

It is his wife Jayalakshmi who continues to cook since his days of running a tea stall. P. Hariganesh, whose father T. Padmanaabhan, set up a tiffin centre close to Rajagopuram about 25 years ago points out that almost all these eateries rarely employ a “master” (cook). “It is the family that prepares everything. All that we permit others to do is slicing vegetables, serving and other works. In order to maintain quality and our special taste, it is the family members who cook.”

“”We also do not add garlic or onion for 48 days during Mahalya Paksha. We have several loyal customers and some hospitals too prefer our idlis,” he added. There should be about 200 eateries in Srirangam-Thiruvanaikoil region, a substantial of them night stalls, he estimates.

S. Murali, whose coffee stall attracts patrons in droves including the family of former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, and who hails from a family which set up a hotel in Srirangam as early as 1955, estimates that at least 1,000 families of senior citizens are dependent on these eateries. He observers that there is a vast difference in the type of customers now. Earlier pilgrims used to stay here, even for 10 days together during the Chithrai Festival and at least three days for other festivals. Now, it has become ritualistic; they visit the shrine and return the same day.”

Hence, though the numbers of pilgrims visiting the temple town have increased manifold, the footfalls in the eateries have not increased proportionately. Besides, earlier, almost all the houses and choultries in and around Srirangam temple used to provide food to the pilgrims. “Gone are those days and most of the pilgrims have to take recourse to these small eateries that are considerably cheaper.”