The Many Origin Stories of Payasam

Payasam is said to have been mentioned for the first time in ancient Buddhist-Jain manuscripts that were written around 400 BC as payas. From the start, this sweet dish seems to have had a connection with the Buddha. It is said that Buddha broke his seven-year fast by having a bowl of kheer. But experts believe that the simple formula of rice, milk, and sugar had been around 2000 years prior to their mention in literature.

Sujata offers Milk-Rice (Kedah, Malaysia).

Odisha Origins of Payasam

When Hinduism reclaimed the subcontinent, payas became a staple temple food. One famous form of this temple food is “Gointa Godi” kheer from the Konark temple in Odisha. This dish draws its origins from the time the Konark temple was being built. Legend has it that the foundation of the temple, which had to be laid in the sea, could not be laid after several attempts. Every stone put into the sea sank without a trace.

But just as the project was about to be abandoned, the chief architect’s son provided a solution. He took a bowl of warm milk and dropped rice balls in it to show how a bridge could be built to the point so that the foundation can be laid. Two things happened that day – the Konark temple project was brought back on track, and the “Gointa Godi” was invented! The dish went on to become so popular that it is said to have been served at King Ashoka’s palace as evening snacks.

International Influence

Now you must be thinking that the payasam is just an Indian thing. Well, my friend, you’d be surprised to know how international this dish actually is! There are records of ancient Romans using this dish as a stomach coolant. But the name “kheer” suggests that the dish came to India from the Middle East because “sheer” means “milk” in Farsi. The Middle East had a rich history of rice puddings – it is said that the Angels on the Seventh Floor of Heaven made rice pudding (sheer biring) when the Prophet ascended there to meet Allah. And given Kerala’s extensive trade relations with the Middle East, one can’t help but wonder if our payasam came to us via the sea and not the land route.

The Lillys Delicacies

Either way, we Malayalis have made it our own and guess what, we have our own mythical origin story too! But before we go ahead, we want you to check out The Lillys Delicacies‘ version of this ancient delish delight. After all, no Onasadya is complete without a bowl of thick payasam.

If you’re from Thrissur or Kunnamkulam, they’ve got you covered with some lip-smacking one-of-a-kind payasams. You can choose from a variety of them, such as Tender Coconut Payasam, Pazham Payasam, and Palada Payasam. What’s more, they even have kidilin payasam-inspired cakes such as Coconut Jag Cake, Palada Payasam Cake, and Pazham Payasam cake. What are you waiting for? Order now here:

Kerala Origins of Payasam

Now, coming back to the history of payasam in Kerala. It is said that Krishnan, in the guise of a sage, approached the king of Ambalapuzha and challenged him to a game of chess. The king was a grandmaster of his time so he gladly accepted the challenge. There was a condition, however. If the sage won, the king would have to give the sage rice that amounts to one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second, four on the third and so on, doubling the amount on the previous square.

Spoiler alert, Krishnan won the game. And if you know how compounding works, you know that the king now owed Krishnan trillions of grains of rice. Krishnan then revealed himself and told the king that he did not have to pay it to Krishanan in one go but had to provide payasam to every pilgrim who came to the Ambalapuzha temple. 

I’ll leave you with one more story, another one with a sweet ending. It is said that Kunchan Nambiar attended a royal feast one day. He finished the meal with great difficulty, but the king wanted to test Nambiar. So he ordered for Nambiar to be served from palpayasam. Kunchan Nambiar looked at the payasam and finished it all. Astonished at the sight, the king asked him how he accomplished the feat. Kunchan Nambiar is supposed to have said, “Your Highness, imagine a huge crowd; when your arrival is announced, don’t they make way for you to pass?” Impressed with the reply, the king decreed that from then on every royal feast will end on a sweet note with payasam. 

All this talk of payasams is making us hungry for this sweet delicacy. We’re ordering from The Lily’s Delicacies right now.

Govindan K
I believe in challenging the status quo; I believe in thinking differently. I think differently because I try to absorb knowledge from anyone - regardless of the industry they’re working in.


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