It’s not often that one gets to feel like Indiana Jones. Or Captain Kirk – going where no man has gone before. But this bright and early morning, as I navigate my way through the quiet streets of Sampangiram Nagar, I come pretty close to feeling like a bounty hunter on the brink of a great and exciting adventure. My skin tingles in anticipation because I am on a critical mission to uncover a well kept secret tucked away in a corner of this urban sprawl – some of the best Idli’s and Dosas in town ! For me that’s a pretty big deal.
The sounds of Sampangiram Nagar waking up are all around me as I walk past Ranganna’s Refreshments but I don’t stop because that’s not what I’m looking for. Since the area is inhabited by the Vokkaligas and the weaver Devanga communities ( along with a smattering of Tamil origin urban migrants ), I also hear the clickety-clack of power looms as I walk by. I turn left at the Chamundeshwari Coffee Works and … run straight into streets lined with fruit, flower and vegetable sellers laying out their wares. There is very little space to walk.
This is a street market with a difference, or so Suresh Jayaram, the Founder -Director of the artist’s initiative, 1, Shanthi Road tells me later because this rural mindscape right in the heart of the urban sprawl is driven by a quaint community ownership. The market belongs to everyone because the neighbourhood quite happily allows the market into /in front of their homes when vendors set up stalls each morning.
En route we walk alongside a lovely old Kalyani, fairly large but not very deep. Carved animals set in stone stand watch at the steps while Draupadi and her five Pandava husbands oversee this space from a niche in the wall. But here I must pause and ask the prudes to walk on quickly in case they get mortified by the rotund little men and women on either side of the steps, clutching onto their nether regions for dear life !
Speculations about these little fertility symbols and propriety in public spaces are irrelevant when combating an empty stomach that does not understand delayed gratification. But the little boys playing cricket in this water body are oblivious to both improper little people and extensive debates about impropriety.
Just as my feet start to wonder about the feasibility of this mission and my mind plays games with my stomach, I am at the Geo Hotel and voila, there it is ! The gate to the Panchaligeshwara Temple and the Mutt ! My spirits soar. We are finally here ! But before you wonder what dosas and idlis have to do with Mutts, let me guide you past the Mutt and the Nagana Kallus towards the queue. We can talk while we wait.
The queue is indeed a great leveller. Everyone stands in line patiently in front of a modest, no fuss shed with an asbestos roof and blue walls. Periodically the line moves up as people come out, but no one complains or tries to gatecrash. Quite civil if you ask me. No matter who you are, or what you drove up in, you have to wait . For some of the finest Dosas and Idlis in town at Siddappa’s Mess, amidst the Serpent Stones.
The turmeric smeared, Serpent Stones scattered around are potent fertility symbols usually found on stone platforms under two Pipal trees ( or a Pipal and a Neem ) growing together ( representing a male and female ) with a Neem and Bael tree ( sacred to Shiva ) growing nearby as witnesses to their union or formal marriage. Many stones are placed by women anxious for a child or those who might have to atone ( the Nagaprathisthana ) for killing a snake in their previous birth which is why they were cursed ( Sarpa Dosham ) with infertility in this current one.
The stones often depict the seven headed serpent ( symbol of a high degree of psychic initiation ), a woman with the lower body of a snake, or two intertwined serpents. Like the two serpents coiled around each other, sacred trees and serpent worship are closely connected in India with trees and stones often found side by side ( as in the mysterious Sarpa Kavus, the sacred serpent groves of Kerala ). Though snakes are symbols of fertility and immortality the world over, in India, they play a prominent role in our mythology, rituals ( the Nagamandala, Nagaradhane ) , traditions ( Sarpa Tullal in Kerala, Dakkebali in Karnataka ) and sacred practises
Finally we inch our way into the Mess. Siddappa’s son informs us that Siddappa had a cataract operation that morning. But it doesn’t affect the number of dosas or idli’s being dished out or the pungency of the lipsmacking chutney that accompanies them.It doesn’t affect Siddappa’s spirit either !
The Mess serves only Dosas ( Rs.25 ), Idlis ( Rs.4 ) and a Rice Bhath. No coffee. You wait ( again ) with a square section of banana leaf in hand and a newspaper underneath. The manufacturing section is in the corner and the consumption is…well…on benches all around.
Dosas are thumped into your hands, chutney is poured with quick efficiency ( no plates or bowls to wash here ) and the business of eating begins without any need for pleasantries. The Thuppa Dosas are simply divine, ensuring that conversations are kept to the bare minimum- ” Chutney hakiree” or ” Innondu dosa kodi “ and finally, when you’ve totally had it, ” Saaku ! Saaku ! “
The crisp Masala Dosas are given in halves just in case we can’t eat it all, but I do know many who most definitely can ! That wonderful man, the botanist Benjamin Heynes, suddenly comes to mind. He was responsible for the first crop of potatoes grown in Bangalore at Nandi Hills, under the strict eye of a certain Colonel Cuppage. Thanks to them, the Masala Dosa may never go out of style for want of `potato palya ‘ .
The Dosas and featherweight Idli’s have lived up to their reputation of excellence and no wonder, considering Siddappa served only Idli’s for many years. The temptation to attempt another round is irresistable, but not advisable as it won’t go down too well with the establishment. There’s a long line waiting outside. When done, wash your hands, pay up ( there’s no cash counter, Siddapppa’s son sits under a tree for collections ) and wander through the Mutt for a bit.
At Siddappa’s Mess it ‘s not an Idli or a Dosa you pay for, but an experience. But then, for me, this is what life’s all about. Moments like this one that go beyond our daily transactions or the passive motions of living, snatched from a busy schedule to add richness to our lives.
On the way back, stop at the Chamundeshwari Coffee Works for a cup of strong South Indian coffee. No expresso-shepresso will do after this outstanding breakfast. Cup in hand, stand under the tree at the corner of the footpath and linger for a bit. We’ve almost forgotten how to linger, no ? Then get set for a great day. It’s already begun on just the right note.
Siddappa’s famous Dosas and Idli’s can be found opposite Geo Hotel, at the Panchalingeshwara Temple, # 38, 7th Main, 5th Cross, Sampangiram Nagar, Bangalore. He starts at 8:30 am and goes on for about three hours thereafter.