Srivilliputhur’s century-old affair with palkova

The story started around 1921, when Dev Singh, a Rajput, set up a sweet stall near the Andal temple and started making the dish

Updated - July 19, 2022 03:52 pm IST

Published - July 07, 2022 10:36 pm IST

The Geographical Indication (GI) tag was procured for the Srivilliputhur
palkova in 2019.

The Geographical Indication (GI) tag was procured for the Srivilliputhur palkova in 2019. | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

It is a marriage between two very mundane ingredients — milk and sugar — and the resultant product is a dish that touches the sweetest note in one’s taste buds.

But for the food aficionados, this treat, called palkova, hits the right spot only if the milk is sourced from the region around Srivilliputhur in south Tamil Nadu. To protect this product that has its origin in the plains that abut the Western Ghats, the Geographical Indication (GI) tag was procured in 2019, thanks to the sustained efforts by the Srivilliputhur Co-operative Primary Milk Producers Society (SCPMPS).

Folklore has it that in olden days, the teats of milch cattle raised in places such as Vathirairuppu (Watrap), S. Kodikulam and around Srivilliputhur would sometimes overflow with milk. The reason for this abundance was the fertile soil which enabled the growth of rich fodder.

The story of palkova started around 1921, when Dev Singh, a Rajput, set up a sweet stall, Lala Sweets, near the famed Andal temple. Seeing the copious production of milk and also inspired by the prasadam in the temple made of milk, sugar and varied nuts, he started making palkova.

Now it has been renamed as Sri Venkateswara Vilas. Its fourth-generation proprietor, Vijay Merchant, says that even today it is this sweet that flies off the shelves. There are three major players in Srivilliputhur — Sri Venkateswara Vilas, Puliyamarathadi Bhagyalakshmi Palkova, and the SCPMPS. But there are hundreds of little shops selling this sweet in the car streets around the temple.

The day starts early for workers at Sri Venkateswara Vilas. By 7 a.m. farmers bring cans of milk. Using a lactometer, the milk’s quality and fat content are measured. If the fat content is more than 7% the milk is used to make palkova. Milk with lesser fat content is used to make other sweets. The fat-rich milk is poured in huge vessels and for 10 litres of milk around 1.5 kg of sugar is added and set to boil. Earlier, cashew shells sourced from Kerala were used as firewood but now the unit is semi-mechanised. Within half-an-hour, the boiling milk starts to thicken and the worker increases his stirring pace. The milk begins to condense with some clinging to the ladle. A wee bit begins to congeal and a little portion even sticks to the side of the cauldron waiting to be scrapped, while the rest curls around itself and lightly tumbles to the bottom. The decadent dish is now ready to be removed and placed in racks that are left to cool for 15 minutes. By 8 a.m., the first batch of palkova is packed and is on the counter for sales.

For all who love this dish, the first scoop gently dissolves in the mouth leaving a lingering taste. One is never enough, say lovers of this sweet.

The sweet is sold for ₹300 a kg. By the time the shop closes, all the packets have been sold. Every day 2,000 litres of milk is procured and half-a-tonne of palkova is made, says Mr. Merchant.

Nisha Bai, wife of Mr. Merchant, says, “Even during the COVID-19 lockdown when there was no production, we had people calling us up and asking us if palkova was available, for it is one sweet that even a baby can have. Though many customers buy and take it to other countries, we never thought of tapping into this market.”

Though some manufacturers have tried to take to online sales to widen the market, it is fledgling because the shelf life of the product is shorter. Even the business development division of the post office, which of late is supplying Kovilpatti peanut candy throughout India, expressed its apprehension about taking palkova as it retains freshness for only a week. Thus, in recent time, the focus has shifted to packaging, which is essential to break into the online and export market.

Work is on to increase the shelf life of the product, says Mr. Merchant, who is against using preservatives. A very fragile sweet with delicate flavour, it does not retain its freshness if it is packed in an airtight container. The dish needs air. Thus, steps are being taken to make packets filled with a gas mixture after the air inside is removed. These industrial gases are designed to combat microbial growth, enhance product quality and extend the shelf life.

Labour is also a problem for this industry. With workers migrating from one sector to another, many units bear the brunt. Outsourcing of labour is now seen as a viable option. Sri Venkateswara Vilas is going in for a fully mechanised unit within six months and Mr. Merchant hopes to bring in workers from north India for that unit. “If provided with shelter and food, these workers are ready to work continuously and for less salary. This way we can keep our production going,” he says.

During Deepavali and the temple festivals such as Aani Alwar Uthsavam, Adipooram, and Purattasi Uthsavam, the sales and production double up, as also during the Courtallam waterfalls season, as tourists make a beeline for buying this moist sweet. Ms. Nisha says they are unable to meet the heavy demand on some days of these periods.

Natural constraints also inhibit the manufacturers, especially when they focus on the quality. With jersey cows replacing the native breed, the cooks are forced to make a slight change in the manufacturing process. The jersey milk has a more filament-like texture; hence, temperature during the churning process has to be carefully monitored. Of late, the quality of the milk is also coming down as buffaloes vanish from the landscape.

“Buffalo milk is high in fat content and we try to get it as much as possible as it adds more taste to the sweet,” says Mr. Merchant.

Over a century since his forefathers got into the business, Srivilliputhur and palkova remain inseparable, and the affair goes on.

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