No celebration in Himachal is complete without serving the traditional celebratory food called ‘Dham’ .
Every Summer and Winter vacations as I visited my Grandparents house, the one thing I eagerly awaited was an invite from friends, family or even a distant or unknown relative, who would invite us for a Dham.
And if the function was at our ancestral home itself, then it meant, witnessing this delightful meal not just only being served, but also seeing the men at work, the traditional chefs called ‘Bhotis’ arriving at the given venue with their army of helpers, displaying their culinary skills.
Soon they occupied their checkposts near the boundary wall of the house. And as soon as they were stationed near the eventful house, it became the hotspot, buzzing with activities, where the Master chefs, our very own ‘Bhotis’, start from the scratch, literally.
The first thing they did was cleaning and scratching the huge pots called ‘Charotis’, next was the digging of the trenches, but of a different kind, as firewood was used to cook the sumptuous meals there, as it is an age old belief that wood flames kills all germs. Using huge motar and pestal, the spices to be used in cooking of the food are prepared on the site itself.
And how like hungry souls, we as kids watched the whole process and eagerly awaited to be served with this festivity food and treat our taste buds. How enthusiastically, we sat down in criss-cross position on the ground and kept cleaning or playing with the plates called ‘Pattals’, made of Sal leaves, before the meal was served.
The moment the first dish, hot steaming plain rice was served by these traditional legacy holders, some of the kids would gobble it down, even before the ‘Madhara’ or lentils were served.
It is now that I realise, to consume this heavenly and rich meal, one has to be grounded or down to earth. Sitting down to consume it , meant equality amongst all the masses and classes attending the Dham. And for us as kids, this delightful meal was the major star attraction of any occasion and the one serving the sweet called ‘Mithee’ towards the end of the Dham meal became the ‘show-stopper’.
We ate to our heart content, this finger licking afternoon traditional festive meal. But with changing times the essence of Dham is soon losing its sheen.
Though fire wood has been replaced by LPG Gas cooking and ‘Pattals’ with disposable plates that leave the environment damaged. However what is loosing out are the traditions and other original tastes as most young men are not interested in adopting the profession of their Bhoti forefathers.
There are only few remaining gems guarding the family treasure of past generations. Today what we get, is more of a diluted form of this community feast in terms of taste and mannerism in which it is served.
Recently, while attending one Dham, I noticed the people preferring the buffet serving system.
This Dham was attended by many ex-politicians and this simple community meal has become more of a political meeting point. As maroon and green caps played their cards in the gathering, the ones mostly attending the Dham, were out of power, of course. Making this culinary largesse more of a promotional event of their respective political parties, which appeared more like a tale of two caps and its power hungry loyalists.
People found it difficult to sit down and consume food, it appeared more of an outdated concept for them, as most of them, whether young or old, preferred to go for table and chairs as a mark of modernity and felt relieved on finding spoons, instead of eating a ‘Dham’ out of ‘Pattals’ with their hands .
Well, I guess it is only for clicks people prefer yoga poses, or may be just for Yoga day, otherwise sitting down for Dham is considered below their dignity nowadays. The whole event appeared more like a food circus, long queues with people pulling and pushing about as there was a tug of war contest out there among the buffet lovers.
They not only left aside the traditional food, but sat next to the ones, out of power and for being clicked with them for a ‘posie’ by making various poses such as joining hands or touching the feet of the high and mighty, giving the onlookers like me, the feel of a crowded fish market.
While the common man was busy in the jamboree, the politicians made their presence noticed by attending the Dham. It is all too noticeable that Dham’s today play an important role in politics and power negotiations in Himachal.
As some of our politicians saw politics in food and some food in politics. Dham is somewhere caught between tradition, modernity and competitive democratic politics.
I can only wish and hope for a laissez-faire for our traditional soul stirring food of Himachal.
Anjali, with a masters in English is a teacher on a sabbatical, loves travelling and spending time in the lap of nature, observing its bounties and being thankful to the hills.