The story of Aviyal

When my children were small, we would all cuddle up and I would tell them some of the stories I remembered. But however many times I tried to change the stories to new ones, my sons would want to hear a few of the standard ones. I used to wonder why for they were basic Aesop’s fables or Panchatantra stories, and I assumed that I probably narrated them in a more melodramatic and thrilling fashion for them to like it. The challenge of course was to make subtle changes each time. If I made drastic changes they would protest and make it clear it was not acceptable. And so it went. These days, I wistfully think of the times when the kids were small and innocent, when conversation was prime and texting was just starting.

When I was small and living at Calicut, it was pretty much the same for me, I used to love the stories my Valiamma and Valiachan told me often, though they were mostly from Hindu mythology, and almost always dealing with Lord Krishna and the Bhaghavatam, sometimes the Mahabharata and rarely from the Ramayana. So I racked my brains to see if the story I will retell today was one I had heard from Kochoppa. I am sure it was not one of those I heard and am convinced it was made up by somebody in recent times. Anyway let’s first cut to the chase, and hear a couple of versions of the story before discussing it with those who have not walked away from the room.

The Mahabharata is understood to be an ancient Vedic period epic, and though there are hundreds of versions, the main story thread has not been altered too much. It has always been a narrated story and so naturally just like I did with my children, generations would have added, changed and altered the story here and there, to suit the changing morality, fashions, behavior and social rules existing at a particular time. Written in a cabbage concept, new stories start as you get deep into the first and the theme unravels, layer by layer. But we will not get into all that, for you will all run away in no time, if I start discussing such aspects.

The good lads, the five Pandavas and the bad lads, all of one hundred Kauravas are key characters in the main story. Their consorts, parents, uncles and friends come in now and then and with Lord Krishna in their midst and in support, the story heats up to culminate in the great Kurukshetra war. As the uninitiated can imagine, all this boils down to a claim for the throne, a battle of succession. Should it be Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas or should it be the crafty Duryodhana the head of the Kaurava clan? As the fascinating story unravels, unisons and marriages take place, petty fights happen, ogres are slain, tales of deceit and honesty unravel, keeping up the anticipation and suspense all the way to the great climax of the Kurusehtra war.

The Pandavas children of Pandu, brought up by the venerable Kunti (The three eldest are hers and two are from Pandu’s second wife Madri) being Yudhishtira, Bheema, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva grow up to be strapping young fellows. The blind Dhritarashtra fathers a hundred sons and a daughter with his wife Gandhari (That my friends, is a macabre tale!) and Duryodhana is his eldest son.  Pandu who held the seat as the ruler of Hastinapura cedes his seat to Dhritarashtra who takes over, though blind. As the children grow up, the eldest Pandava Yudhishtira is proclaimed the crown price and Duryodhana is miffed by it. The enmity, hostility and rivalry between these cousins in the name of succession to the throne and leading up finally to the Kurukshetra war, is what the epic is all about.

A little break here. What if I said that there is a legend which narrates that Bhima invented Aviyal, the favorite dish of Malayalees? Before Tamilians and Mangalorians scream blue murder, let me also add that Aviyal is popular in those environs, but is staple to a Malayali Sadya and a main dish in a Kerala feast. As the legend goes Bhima, the second of the Pandavas came up with the recipe. So let’s zoom into that tale of the Mahabharata, mentioned mainly in a Tamil version (or so it seems). Bhima was a master chef and a wrestler to boot, in fact they even have a style of cooking attributed to him. So we note that there are two schools of traditional Brahmin cooking, the Nala pachaka and the Bhima pachaka. Nala pachaka if you ask me, is tastier and includes larger amounts of salt and spices. Bhima pachaka on the other hand is blander and austere. Incidentally Nala was also a gambler who lost both his wife and kingdom, but regained both eventually and in his story, we find another King Bhima mentioned. Nala was also a great chef and there is a book containing his recipes (Pakadarpanam) for those interested.

Aviyal, a popular dish, is a colorful mishmash of various well cooked vegetables mixed with ground cumin, a little turmeric - optional, green chillies and coconut, a little salt and yogurt, dollops of coconut oil and finished off with a mustard and curry leaf tadka.  Without too many spices, red chillies or coriander, it stands apart. The striking aspect of this dish is that it contains all kinds of vegetables quite contrary to the culinary rules of the period, for they were particular about which vegetables went together and which didn’t. The first of the legends that ties up the heavenly dish of Avial with Bhima dates back to a time when Yudhishtira comes back with his mother Kunti and his brothers as crown prince to claim the throne.

As you can imagine, the son of the reigning king, Duryodhana, is furious, that his claim has been usurped by his elder cousin. Anyway the ruling of the elders had to be obeyed and so they all lived an uneasy life, with the Pandavas not faring too well, with no real powerbase in the country in support. On the other hand, Duryodhana and his brothers were particularly irritated with the behavior of a boisterous and bullying Bhima who picked up a fight with these cousins every now and then, winning each bout with ease, being a powerful wrestler. So one day, the evil cousins decided to finish him off and invited him alone to a feast where they fed him poisoned food. Bhima, as you can imagine, was overjoyed and tucked away the food with no qualms, only to slide into a comatose slumber from which nobody could arouse him. The still body was then weighted with chains and dumped into a river (Pramanakotithirta - Ganges) through which he drifted off into the Bengal Seas perhaps and settled deeper and deeper….

As you know, under the seas is situated the kingdom of snakes, and it is called Bhogavati, ruled by the venerable Naga king Vasuki. Bhima’s body slowly made its way down into the realm of these great Nagas which seeing this intruder, stung him with their poisonous fangs (now some clever guy might wisely quip that there are very few poisonous water snakes, don’t interrupt… shut up and listen, this was way before Christ and in those days poisonous snakes lived everywhere….). This venom which got into Bhima’s blood stream miraculously neutralized the poison fed to him by Duryodhana and he was soon revived. If I were telling this to my son, he will ask ‘how come Bhima did not drown underwater?’ That I don’t know maybe there were in some subterraneous cave or something….The spluttering and angry Bhima was taken to the king Vasuki as a foreign alien by the local chief Aryaka. Vasuki incidentally (though a snake) was related to Kunti, Bhima’s mother, through Yadu who was a Naga and so welcomed Bhima as a guest of honor. So Bhima stayed there for a while, Vasuki fed him a little of the Amrut potion to protect him from future poisoning and to give him the strength of 10,000 serpents and while there, also managed to get married to a Naga princess, who later bore him a son Bilalsen.

Up in the land of humans, the Kauvaravas were inwardly rejoicing, but outwardly decided to throw the usual ceremonial fortnight death feast celebrating Bhima’s move to the world of the departed. A huge amount of vegetables and rice were being readied for the feast, when lo and behold, our man Bhima arrived and strode into their midst, hale and hearty. But the trip up had made the big man, mighty hungry and he was craving for a large amount of food, and he needed it, like, pronto. Seeing the large pile of vegetables, he lost no time in crafting a quick and easy dish to be chomped with rice, using some coconuts and a little green chilli…That my friends, was how Aviyal was first made, according to this Tamil legend…

But this got me thinking. All this happened in Hastinapura which was purportedly near today's Meerut, famed for its elephants and close to the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. If the body of Bhima was tossed into the Ganga waters, it had to flow all the way to the nearby sea which would have been the Purva Samudra or the Bengal Sea. Perhaps he drifted down to the southern Patala regions where Nagas lived? Anyway he got back after a sojourn in less than 14 days, which is might efficient and then went on to make a curry with coconuts in Northerly Hastinapura? Maybe he got enamored with fresh coconuts while in the southern Naga kingdoms, so that gives this Aviyal the coconut and Kerala connection. Maybe Vasuki’s kingdom was west of the Malayagiri or the Western Ghats. As we all know, we had serpent worship in the past and that was a land of serpents when Parasurama brought in the Brahmins from the North, according to Keralolpatti. We also know that Bhima slew Bakasura and Bakasurakottai is situated near Mettupalayam.

While that was purportedly the origin of this magical and mythical vegetable dish which is becoming increasingly popular around the world, not just South India, and staple to Kerala, there are further mentions and connections with the Mahabharata. Some years ago, my friend Jina D’Cruz had written about it

As the Mahabharata story canters along, we find that Yudhishtira is an obsessive gambler and gets trapped in a game of loaded dice with Duryodhana, which he loses over and again. He ends up gambling away his wealth, kingdom, family and even his brothers and their common wife Draupadi. At long last truce is brokered and as part of the deal, the Pandavas are exiled for 13 years into the dank and dark forests, which as you can imagine were aplenty in those days, full of wild animals and ogres. People were simple, though doing all kinds of wrong things now and then. But deforestation, wiping out of an entire animal kingdom etc were not yet in vogue and humans lived more in harmony with nature. So the Pandavas were consigned to the forest and adventure after adventure followed them.

The last or the thirteenth year was a tricky one as per the agreement. The five brothers and Draupadi had to live incognito during that last year. If they did get caught, the whole exile would have to be restarted all over again and they would need to go back into exile for 12 more years. As you would have thought, we are going into that 13th and thrilling year of exile, not all of it though, but just one event from it to illustrate our present tale. The chapter (4th among the 18 chapters) of the epic which deals with this part is titled Virata Parva following the Aranya or Vana parva detailing the 12 exile years in the forests. Meanwhile spies have been sent by Duryodhana to track and find out what the Pandavas were upto. Here we go…..

The brother’s and the sole lady trek on to westerly Virata, maybe an oasis in the middle of the desert (or probably the Thar Desert had not formed then and the Saraswati was flowing serene), to the hospitable Matsya kingdom ruled by Virata. They were all known for various powresses and skills, so the new identities had to encompass those too. Yudhishtira decided to pass himself off as a courtier Kanka, a skilled dice player in the kings court, Bhima would don the role of Vallabha an expert cook and wrestler, Arjuna as a dancing eunuch named Brihanalla, Nakula would become the stable and horse keeper Granthika and Sahadeva would become Tatipala, a tender of cattle and the cowsheds of the palace. Draupadi would become Sairandhri an expert hairdresser for the ladies of the anthapuram.

Very many harrowing adventures take place, Kanka makes money off dice games, Vallabha wins a major wrestling bout, then gets involved in saving Sairandhri from the clutches of a lusty army chief Keechaka, but this event raised a doubt in the minds of Duryodhana and he suspected that the Pandavas were in Virata. He then calls a meeting to discuss how they could flush out the five.

Let’s take an interlude at this juncture and focus on the activities of Bhima a.k.a Vallabha in the palace of Virata. Vallabha had entered the royal kitchens as an expert cook and had quite a few recipes in his collection, getting the feasters to simply sigh in contentment and happiness after consuming his specialties making king Virata happy. It was here that he came up with one of his greatest delicacies, as legends portray, the Aviyal.

One fine day, the king heard that Sage Durvasa and his entourage was coming to visit him. The message immediately raised a huge alarm in the palace. This sage was not to be trifled with, he would fly into a rage for silly reasons, and his rage was inherited from Siva. I really don’t know how he became a sage with this kind of uncontrolled rage, or how people put up with him!!  But you don’t ask such questions in a story. It looks like our man Durvasa had specific food tastes and preferred blander, but good food. If he did not get it in time and as he wanted it, he would curse Virata. Bhima was in a quandary, all he had was a good amount of different vegetables, and some coconuts. So, as the story goes, Bhima cut and boiled all the veggies together and mixed them with grated coconuts and curd, thus inventing Avial. Durvasa khush huva. On the other hand, he may have remembered how he made the dish after he came back from the land of the dead!

Continuing on with the Virata parva, Duryodhana decides to launch an attack on the Virata kingdom now without an army chief, seize all his cattle, knowing that this would flush the Pandavas out. Anyway as you can imagine, Duryodhana and Susarman from trigatha (near Lahore) attacked the land, and the Pandavas came out of the entire episode unscathed…But that is another story…

The Aviyal recipe is also claimed by many others, including Lord ganapati and of course mere martals lime Saktan Thampuran King of Cochin and ramayyan Dalawa. So let’s make a passing mention of some of those stories to complete. Some day if I get more information, I promise to update this account.

According to Aswin, who mentioned this in an Avial posting of my departed friend P Tharakan, Apparently one his first acts as ruler of Cochin was to inspect the palace kitchens and behead the chief palace cook and probably a few assorted assistants as well when he saw the filthy condition of the kitchens. The practice then was to use the best pieces of vegetables were used for cooking and the rest (tips etc) were thrown away. To avoid wastage and achieve better food costs (hoteliering terms) he ordered that all the left over pieces of vegetables be mixed, cooked and made into one dish and aviyal was born. 

The Ramayya dalava story mentions a kootu about which I had written before. The Ramayyan curry that he is credited with was apparently made for Marthanda Varma when he was suffering from a stomach upset. It comprised ground coconut, curry leaves, curds, some jaggery (normally not a part of Avial), green chillies, other vegetables and yam. Many old timers in Travancore insist on this Aviyal version.

I cannot resist adding a few tidbits – It is said that the famous poet Ramana maharshi could subtly distinguish the tastes of the two kinds of aviyal - one, when all the vegetables were boiled together for the same length of time, and the other, when the easily cookable and the hard to cook vegetables were given different durations to boil so that the former was not over-cooked and the latter was not undercooked.

The writer and famous judge M Anatanarayanan in his acclaimed novel ‘Silver pilgrimage’ spends many a page on this exotic but simple dish, such was his love for this vegetable concoction. Here he mentions of a Lankan prince Jayasurya who learns the art of making Aviyal from Kerala and takes it to Sri Lanka and preserves the recipe in a tablet. Aviyal is in that book called the flower of Kerala civilization! He mentions that by custom, Aviyal should never be prepared by the deformed, by pregnant women, by those pale of caste, irreligious or by drunkards and should always be eaten with crisp pappadums….

Guys, it is time to wind up…

Tomorrow is Onam, and everybody will be feasting, including me. All those feasts will never be complete without a liberal portion of Aviyal. So my friends, go for it and when you munch those great vegetables, with that super coconut flavor…spare a thought for Vallabha, whether or not he came up with the recipe…

Happy Onam