From serving as a meeting point for journalists to being a lunch stop for visiting dignitaries, this vegetarian restaurant in Kerala’s Kottayam was known for its simple yet delicious fare.

Hotel New AnandamandiramHotel New Anandamandiram
Features Heritage Thursday, July 01, 2021 - 12:40

On most days, there would be a queue of eager people waiting for a seat inside Kottayam's aptly named ‘Anandamandiram’ (abode of bliss) restaurant. Established 98 years ago and considered the city’s oldest existing vegetarian restaurant, this place will soon only be a memory. Situated near the Thirunakkara Mahadevar temple, Hotel New Anandamandiram has carved a niche for itself serving vegetarian delicacies to its customers for generations and has been a constant presence in the daily life of the town for nearly a century.

The restaurant has not been functioning since March 2020 following the COVID-19 lockdown, and difficulties arising from the situation has forced the promoters to sell the place. Positioned on 16.5 cents of land, the restaurant is located in the heart of Kottayam. Started in 1923 by Velayudhan Pillai, a native of Koduppunna, the restaurant was originally named SNV. Initially, it was housed in a rented building, which was later purchased by Velayudhan's son-in-law Gopala Pillai in the 1970s. In the early 90s, it was renamed Hotel New Anandamandiram after the construction of a new building to house it.

Over the years, the restaurant has been patronised by various socio-cultural leaders such as the former Marxist icon and first Chief Minister of Kerala EMS Namboodiripad, former Chief Minister and CPI leader PK Vasudevan Nair, S Kumaran, Pandalam PR Madhavan Pillai and Vaikom CK Viswanathan, to name a few. It was also the meeting point for journalists in the area. In fact, they were given a room on the premises for their events until the establishment of the Kottayam Press Club in 1970.

Literary icons of Kerala such as Jnanpith award winners SK Pottekkatt, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, P Kesavadev and others used to visit the restaurant for breakfast as well as lunch while attending meetings at the city’s Sahithya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham. After finishing lunch, you’d often find them sitting around and engaging in discussions. There was also a room set aside in the restaurant where people could rest after a meal.

Food quality unsurpassed

Anandamandiram’s main attraction was the lunch, which would be over within two hours from the beginning of service. At least 400 meals would be served per day during lunchtime. At closing time, there would be a special meal comprising a typical sadya (traditional Kerala feast) costing Rs 100.

Founder Velayudhan Pillai and his son-in-law Gopala Pillai

The meals had all the elements of a vegetarian sadya, beginning from parippu and pappadam with ghee, vegetable thorans, then sambar, pulissery, moru and curd. The sadya ended with a delicious payasam in a steel tumbler. Breakfast items included masala dosa, chapati, onion uthappam, curd vada and so on.

Prof CR Omanakuttan, a writer who often visited the restaurant for a meal, praised the quality and taste of the food served. This is echoed by other patrons as well.

“The taste of the meals – including the podiyari (broken) rice, ghee and pappadam – are still on my tongue. None among the hotels of Kottayam can match the taste of the vegetarian food served there,” said Ayarkunnam Raman Nair, a long-time customer of Anandamandiram.

He recalled that pure podiyari rice was brought from Kuttanad for preparing the meals. “The proprietors were very particular that high-quality food should be served to the public,” he said.

While the restaurant functioned on the ground floor, the first floor was used as an auditorium for events and functions and could seat at least 200 people. A cellar was available below the kitchen where vegetables and other goods were stored.

In the early days, the rice used in the restaurant was brought from Koduppunna in Kuttanad from the paddy fields of Velayudhan Pillai’s family. Later, when the family relocated to Thiruvathukkal, they would bring most of the raw materials needed in the kitchen, whether rice or milk, from their house, said Somasekaharan Nair, one of the stakeholders in the venture. However, later they came to depend on the market for these provisions, he added.

The owners of Hotel New Anandamandiram say they cannot afford to run the place anymore. They add that their employees have been given their pending arrears. “We cannot afford to run the hotel after it was closed down for the past year-and-a-half. It needs heavy investment to resume service, and after the impact of COVID-19 it will take even longer. There are at least 30 employees, most of them Tamilians, and they have been given settlements. We’re waiting for a prospective buyer,” said Somasekaharan Nair. He said that the restaurant was making profits till it was closed due to the lockdown. 

Abhish K Bose is a journalist based in Kerala.

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