Rajoo and his family travel to Batu Caves, Selangor from their home in Kuantan, Pahang every year to celebrate Thaipusam. Coming from a middle-class family with four children, Rajoo relies on public transportation to get there, using whatever little savings that he has.
It usually takes Rajoo and his family at least five hours to reach the temple vicinity and another two hours to complete his prayers amidst the hundreds and thousands of people.
By the end of it, the whole family is famished. While there is plenty of food at the stalls set up around the Batu Caves area during the festival, most of them mark up their prices to fit the increased demand.
For Rajoo and his family, turning to annadhanam food is the only way to get a decent hot meal after their exhausting journey.
For those unfamiliar with the term, annadhanam is a form of charity in the Hindu religion. The word itself is made up of two words: annam stands for food and dhanam stands for the act of giving or donating.
Among all the forms of charity, annadhanam is considered as an act of the highest virtue, simply because unlike all the other human needs such as clothing and shelter, which impacts only the quality of life, food affects life itself.
Annadhanam is a way of viewing life as precious and aiding its survival by showing compassion towards fellow living beings. It is also said that those who give annadhanam will reduce their negative karma and sins.
For people like Rajoo and thousands of others who are in the same boat, the annadhanam program by the Kuala Lumpur Arul Nilayam (KLAN), a branch of the Malaysia Hindu Dharma Maamandram NGO, is a need.
A constant at the annual Thaipusam festival since 2010, KLAN is known for serving vegetarian nasi lemak to devotees. They have become so popular that people refer to them as 'Nasi Lemak Tepi KTM', a term that was coined due to the location of their service booth which is situated on the vacated parking lot at Jalan Station near the Batu Caves KTM station.
Rojak Daily previously highlighted their initiative two years ago. Recently, we caught up with KLAN Secretariat Nantha Kumar Arumugam again, to learn about the decade-long journey of feeding hungry mouths.
10 years of service
Nantha Kumar said that this year, KLAN's annadhanam service was renamed the Dharma Dhaanam Project 2020. Despite the name change, the goal remained the same - to reduce the financial burden of devotees.
"If two years ago we said that the cost of eating a meal in Batu Caves could easily cost RM40 for a family of five, we believe with the increase in food prices, it now could costs them a minimum of RM50 including drinks."
"This sum is quite a large one and this is where we come in. We serve devotees complimentary vegetarian nasi lemak from the evening of Thaipusam eve to the big day itself," he said.
Nantha Kumar added that the whole team learnt a lot from manning the stall throughout the years.
"The first most important lesson we learnt is to subscribe to the idea of giving without expecting anything, which is at the heart of this project. Secondly, is learning to value of teamwork, without which the project would not have lasted.
"The final lesson is fiscal discipline. The Dharma Dhaanam project abhors wastage of any type – before, during and after the service – and we are always looking to bring down the costs of running it," he explained.
The same #NasiLemakTepiKTM that everyone loves
Nantha Kumar said, however, nothing much has changed with the way they run their operations and the quality of food served.
"It has been a decade and the recipe has remained the same because the number of people that we have been serving over the years has been increasing!"
"We have considered switching to another recipe, especially in the last two years, but we could never find the gravy that betters the existing one," he shared.
Nantha Kumar said the well-loved recipe belongs to Thiruvanandan Kunjambu Nair, a long-serving member of the team who his own catering business in Rawang.
KLAN members address the 70-year-old as 'Acha' or father in the Malayalam language.
"Acha is always ever-present at our services and has been instrumental in guiding us even before we embarked on this service. We will always be grateful to him," he said.
While the nasi lemak is a staple, devotees who love #NasiLemakTepiKTM can expect a new addition to the menu this year - a refreshing drink to go with the piping hot rice dish!
Nantha Kumar said that devotees who stopped by their service booth in Batu Caves have always asked for drinks, but they previously could not fulfil the request due to a lack of funds.
This year though, they managed to get some help from someone who found them through Facebook.
"Shan Meyyappan who runs the Nyummy Restaurant has contributed a substantial number of biodegradable cups in line with out zero waste policy. This partly solves the issue of costs for us but we intend to serve some refreshing drinks, with or without any external help," he said.
This year, the KLAN is all geared to welcoming devotees during Thaipusam on Feb 8.
"Last year was the first time we managed to serve nasi lemak non-stop for 24 hours. This year, we plan to achieve the same feat, so preparations are well underway."
"The service will begin on Feb 7 at 6pm and end at about 7pm on Thaipusam day," he said.
Nantha Kumar said that KLAN's service has always been dependent on the goodwill of the people who contribute in cash and kind and as such, the organisation is very grateful to its sponsors.
"Locating funds for a project such as ours isn't easy, and we are turning to our well-wishers, supporters, family members and friends to help us out again. We can't thank them enough - more so our families and friends - as they have been very much part of this project since 2010."
"We have been very fortunate to have Yayasan MyNadi as one of our most generous supporters. The funding from MyNadi, an independent and apolitical organisation, allowed us to purchase machinery that managed to decrease operational time and speed up the service in the last five years," he said.
He added that the aid channelled by Yayasan MyNadi was due to the support of it's late former chairman Datuk Seri Dr Jeyaindran and this year's Dharma Dhaanam 2020 is dedicated to his memory.
The other two significant sponsors are Padiberas Nasional Berhad (Bernas), who contributed rice bags by the thousands in the last two years, and Etika Sdn. Bhd., who contributed bottled and canned drinks for the volunteers.
When asked about volunteers, Nantha Kumar said that KLAN always needed more hands to help.
"Thaipusam is not just about kavadis and milk pots. Volunteerism is a blessing as well. We're always on the lookout for volunteers to help out with the service," he said adding that non-Indian volunteers were welcomed as well.
Those interested in volunteering can visit KLAN's Facebook page, Thaipusam Annadhaanam Batu Caves 2020 - Nasi Lemak For All or contact 012-2359484 for more details.