Lesson 3: Pānakam – Prasāda Infused with Ideal Spring Herbs
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The main prasāda for Rāma Navamī, in the traditions of South India, is called pānakam, a simple drink prepared with forest spices that are ideal for spring. It's earthy flavor, and the sense that there is great wisdom behind its choice for this occasion, takes my thoughts to Sītā, Lord Rāma’s wife.
Sītā is an incarnation of Lakṣmī, the divine power of abundance, generosity and beauty, the power of growth and nourishment. Literally born from the earth, Sītā embodies a profound connection with nature, prakṛti (प्रकृति), both in the sense of the natural world and as the sacred energy that brings the potential of creation to life.
Sītā grew up as a princess in the palace of the enlightened king Janaka. While her beauty and sweetness are often described, some tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa point out that she was also wise, accomplished and spiritually mature.
From a young age, she listened at length to the spiritual dialogues that took place amongst the many sages who gathered in her father’s court. This wisdom that was ultimately recorded as the Upanishads. In her appetite for this knowledge, Sītā mirrors the nourishing power of spiritual wisdom.
Regional tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa speak of Sītā accompanying her mother in the palace kitchen as she oversaw the preparation of meals for hundreds of visiting sages, royal guests, and hungry travelers.
Being a royal kitchen, it would have been stocked with the finest foods and herbs brought by traders from near and distant lands. We can imagine Sītā’s senses quickly becoming attuned to the secrets of the spices, to the unique nourishing qualities of each grain, vegetable and fruit, and to the ideal foods to prepare during each season.
Growing Black Pepper Photographer: Arjun Kale
Sītā’s Forest Kitchen
When Sītā accompanied Lord Rāma and his brother Lakṣmaṇa to live in the forest for fourteen years, she carried with her both the knowledge that had nourished her, and a profound ability to nourish others.
She was still the embodiment of Lakṣmī, of auspiciousness and abundance, despite leaving behind her royal finery other than what she was wearing, despite having no royal treasury or palace kitchen through which to express generosity and nurturing.
She played her role as Lakṣmī in their simple forest kitchen, preparing whatever could be found in the immediate surroundings to keep the three of them nourished and healthy. As prakṛti, she would have found natural delight in nourishing dharma, embodied by her beloved Rāma: nature nurturing the protector of the divine cosmic order. Sītā would have played her role not in stoic acceptance of her fate, but with fearless delight and intuition, and with spontaneous generosity.
In his telling of Rāmāyaṇa, the sage Vālmīki describes each forest, grove and river they visited in lush detail. He tells us of each tree and fruit, each flower and cluster of nuts, each beehive and forest animal that Sītā would have seen, along with their changing seasonal patterns.
We can imagine Sītā quietly reveling in her oneness with these forests and all of nature, while simultaneously discerning where edible tubers, ripening fruits and medicinal herbs grew.
Though Sītā’s kitchen and her cooking are famous in some of the oral traditions of the Rāmāyaṇa, pānakam is not based on a recipe attributed to Sītā. Yet its simple, rustic ingredients are so ideal for protecting people’s health in spring, when Rāma Navamī is celebrated, that it is easy to imagine the wise Sītā preparing such a drink for her beloved Rāma.
Vasanta Ritu: Spring, i.e. The Season to Clean Up the Inner Environment
Spring is the season when the wet stickiness that accumulates in our bodies as part of the natural course of winter begins to gets loosened. The longer, warmer days set this “melting” in motion.
You may not notice it at first. But day by day, our digestion begins to lose its winter strength, and in our lungs and nasal passages, the perfect environment for the familiar wet congestion of spring is quietly created. Whether you live in a city or a forest, the movements of the sun and the seasons have their effects on us all.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, spring is when we experience excess kapha (कफ) that needs to be cleaned up and balanced by eating lighter foods that are warm and drying, and enhanced with digestive spices.
Prasāda Infused With Perfect Spring Spices
So the prasāda for Rāma Navamī is not a mouthwatering sweet treat, filled with the kapha building qualities we need in winter. Pānakam is more like a seasonal, health boosting drink that is kaphaghna (कफघ्न): it alleviates excess kapha.
What this means is that pānakam is infused with familiar ingredients found in home remedies that relieve coughs, colds and congestion, and improve digestion: black pepper, ginger, and cardamom. So it could be called a medicinal drink that is sweetened with jaggery as an offering for this celebration.
It is amazing how a prasāda like this connects us with ingredients for good health in the season when it is offered.
In many South Indian temples dedicated to Lord Rāma, devotees prepare huge batches of pānakam for Rāma Navamī. All the visitors who come to the temple on that day are given a cup of this pānakam as prasāda.
Marica (मरीच): Black Pepper
The Sanskrit name for black pepper is one of the twelve names for the sun that are associated with Sūrya Namaskāra (you can learn more about it in our Makara Saṃkrānti Sūrya lesson), Marīci (मरीचि). It is easy to feel the heat of the sun as you eat black pepper. And like the sun, black pepper is traditionally known as a great catalyst of good health.
In the West, people often underestimate black pepper. They think of it as a table seasoning for people who want all their food to taste hot. But in the traditional medicine systems of Asia, it is praised for its numerous healing properties.
In the Charaka Saṃhitā, one of the main texts where the wisdom of Ayurveda is recorded, two of the many qualities that the sage praises black pepper for are its ability to kindle the digestive fire when it's sluggish, and as a prāṇavaha strotasa rasāyana (प्राणवह स्रोतस रसायन), a herb with the ability to help rejuvenate the whole respiratory system.
According to Ayurveda, black pepper has the perfect qualities to accomplish these tasks: its pungent taste and hot potency, combined with its lightness, its ability to create dryness in the places it reaches, and its sharp, penetrating movement. You can picture black pepper in action like this: like arrows released from Lord Rāma’s bow, quickly reaching their mark deep within our channels to overpower forces undermining the balance of good health.
Black pepper also has the special property of being a bio-enhancer: it increases the potency of the other herbs it is taken with. It brings out the best in others.
So black pepper brings two of the important actions we need in spring. It helps clean up all kinds of wet, mucousy conditions, along with rejuvenating lungs and breathing passages that have been the sites of ongoing congestion. Plus black pepper stimulates digestion, a much needed action as our digestion can get clogged and “waterlogged” by spring coughs, cold and allergies, particularly since our digestive fire is getting weaker as the sun moves closer.
Sunṭhi (शुण्ठी): Dry Ginger Powder
In the tradition of Ayurveda, ginger is praised as viśvabheṣaja (विश्वभेषज), a universal remedy, and mahauṣadhi (महौषधि), a truly great medicine. It is a staple of kitchen cabinet home remedies.
The pungent taste and sharp, warming effect of fresh ginger, ardraka (आर्द्रक), is a familiar taste in Asian cooking, and in herbal teas to settle the stomach or sip when you have a cold. The texts of Ayurveda particularly praise fresh ginger’s ability to ignite the digestive fire, boost the digestive process and help avoid getting gas.
Pānakam, however, uses dry ginger powder, sunṭhi, though you could substitute grated fresh ginger if you don't have ginger powder. Sunṭhi is amazingly helpful in relieving coughs and colds, as well as asthma, nausea, anorexia and many other problems that are not our focus here.
Dry ginger is one of three ingredients that make up a famous formula called trikaṭu (त्रिकटु), where it comes together with black pepper, marica, and long pepper, pippalī (पिप्पली). pānakam contains two of these three ingredients.
This combination of super hot, pungent, penetrating herbs is well known for its positive effect in relieving all kinds of coughs and colds, as well as many kinds of joint pain and other problems that we can't go into here. In Ayurvedic terms,we can say it is very helpful in relieving conditions where kapha and vāta are way out of balance.
Elā (एला): Cardamom
Cardamom is a delightful, fragrant spice. While it is great for digestion and for avoiding gas, it isn't heating and it even has a slight sweetness. It is actually useful in many of the same conditions as ginger. In fact, cardamom and dry ginger are often combined, along with honey, to relieve phlegm build up associated with coughs and colds.
Nimbūkam (निम्बूकम्): Lemon
Lemon juice is also excellent for stimulating good digestion and helps in the process of clearing the body’s channels of the kind of undigested matter that can turn toxic.
Guḍa (गुड): Jaggery
Jaggery is unrefined sugar, rich with minerals. It boosts both digestion and elimination, gives a slow release energy boost, and imparts a pleasing warmth throughout the body. Jaggery isn't just a sweetener though. It actually helps clear channels in the body, particularly respiratory channels. And it adds an earthy deliciousness to this prasāda, insuring that it doesn't just seem like a cup of strong medicine.
After you drink a small cup of pānakam, wait awhile before you eat anything else. Take a few deep breaths and experience how your lungs, throat and stomach feel. This will tell you a lot about the wisdom behind this spring prasāda. It might inspire you to make it more often during spring.
It is easy to imagine that Sītā, with her intimate knowledge of forest herbs, seasons, and what keeps people healthy, would have enjoyed serving such a drink to her beloved Rāma in the early days of spring. Experience this as a tangible expression of Prakṛti blissfully nurturing Dharma.
How to Make Pānakam
- Jaggery: ⅓ cup (dark colored jaggery has more health boosting qualities)
- Crushed black pepper: ¼-½ teaspoon (freshly crushed is best)
- Ginger powder: ¼-½ teaspoon
- Green cardamom seed powder: ¼ teaspoon (you can powder the seeds in a coffee grinder)
- Lemon juice: 1½ teaspoons
- Warm water: 1½ cups
- Soak the powdered or grated jaggery in the warm water to dissolve it completely.
- Stir in the pepper, ginger powder and cardamom powder while the jaggery is melting to allow the spices to release their flavors and qualities in the warm water.
- Stir well and allow this mixture to sit for 15 minutes.
- Add the lemon juice and stir well, making sure all the jaggery has melted into the water and here are no lumps remaining.
- Serve at room temperature. You can add a few tulsi leaves on top if you have tulsi growing in your garden.
- Nowadays it's common to serve this prasāda chilled. But it is much better for digestion and all the channels associated with breathing to avoid the chilled version. If the weather is still very cool where you live, you could even serve it warm.
- The first time you make it, you may want to use the smaller quantities of black pepper and ginger.
- If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, use smaller quantities of pepper and ginger for Rāma Navamī. Your spring would be a better time to explore the hotter version.
- As always, please remember that this is not medical advice.
Teacher: Hema Patankar
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