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Sambar - A Maratha Invention from Thanjavur

Niranjan Bhombe

Rushikesh Shinde

6 April 2022

"It is claimed that word samabaravu had been mentioned in the literary work ‘Bhimakhandam’....."

Sambar! It is hardly possible that any Bharatiya either in mainland country or living outside has not consumed Sambar once in his lifetime! Dosas, Idlis & similar cuisines are incomplete without having the delicious Sambar by their side! Has anybody ever thought about where and when did it actually come into existence? Let’s have an insight into the same in this blog.

It was in the court of Thanjavur Maratha kingdom that Sambar was invented and named after Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj during his visit to Thanjavur! Thanjavur Maratha kingdom period is considered as the golden period in Tamil history for its contribution in the field of arts and architecture.

What is Sambar and how is it made?

Sambar is a lentil based vegetable stew cooked with pigeon pea and tamarind broth. Dravidians of south Bharat had been traditionally using tamarind for sour taste in their cuisines which is having reference in many historical records. Sambar is a staple diet for them. However Konkan region or Westren chat residents are still using Kokum or ‘Aamsul’ for the same sour taste which is obtained from plant having scientific name ‘Gracinia Indica’. The outer cover of fruit of this plant is dried in the sun to get the Kokum which is again having many pharmaceutical uses. Being souring agent it is used as an alternative to tamarind in curries and other dishes from south Bharat. It is also used to add flavor and tartness to dal (lentil soup) for flavor balance.

Kuzhambu’ a tamarind added dish of south Bharat can be correlated with Sambar. Even till date many people in south of Bharat eat this gravy cuisine on a daily basis. Having reference in Sangam literature, it is prepared without adding pigeon pea or toor dal in it. Similarly many other dishes were prepared since centuries in southern Bharat but no such dish named as Sambar as we use in today’s context.

The History behind the invention of Sambar

The Maratha rule in Thanjavur started in 1675 when it was conquered by Venkojiraje; half-brother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj who founded the Maratha Empire. Venkojiraje defeated Chokkanatha Nayak-the ruler of Madurai & subsequently declared himself a king of Thanjavur. His reign however lasted only few years as he died in 1684.Upon the death of Venkojiraje his eldest son Shahujiraje-I ascended the throne at the age of twelve ruling from 1684 to 1712. Here in mainland Maratha Kingdom Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj became king in the year 1680 after the death of Shivaji Maharaj. To expand the nascent Maratha Empire Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj took Karnataka campaign leading it from the front. In this campaign he decisively defeated Mysore King. It is during this time Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj visited Thanjavur. Shahujiraje greeted Sambhaji Maharaj with all heart hosting a grand royal party in his honor. Shahujiraje was interested in cooking as well. There were many chefs employed in the Thanjavur kingdom from different parts of the country dominantly from today’s Maharashtra and Tamilnadu. Many dishes were prepared along with some deserts. He personally visited royal kitchen to look after arrangements made. Dal Aamti was staple diet for Marathas back then which is still enjoyed by Maharashtrians having Kokum as one of its key ingredient. Shahujiraje was well informed that Sambhajiraje was fond of Dal-Aamti. Shahujiraje thought to prepare this dish by himself in order to memorize this royal visit.

All other ingredients were taken but kokum was missing to prepare the dish. When Shahujiraje asked the reason to his royal chief cook he told him about reduced supply of Kokum from Western Ghats due to certain conflicts. King Shahujiraje angered and confronted responsible officials involved in this misconduct. Looking at this high tempered situation, royal chief Marathi chef suggested his king to add Tamarind in Aamti to maintain its sour taste. Shahujiraje thought for a while and added the tamarind in order to please the palate of his King Cousin Sambhajiraje. After consuming the same, Sambhaji Maharaj himself praised this dish which relived Shahujiraje and his royal chefs. In order to remember this dish Shahujiraje named it after King Sambhajiraje as ‘Sambar’ coined by combining two words ‘Sambha’ &‘Aahar’; In Marathi ‘Sambhacha Aahar’. However it is also said that Sambhjiraje himself suggested use of tamarind to prepare the dish as he was equally interested in cooking. Later Shahujiraje added this dish in royal cuisines of Thanjavur which since then remain in diet.

Historical records & references:

It is claimed that word samabaravu had been mentioned in the literary work ‘Bhimakhandam’ by a Telugu poet belonging to 1st century AD and thereafter in some selective works in Dravidian languages. It is also claimed that sambar word stem from the word champaram. A Tamil inscription of 1530 CE evidences the use of word champaram in the sense of meaning a dish of rice accompanying other rice dishes or spice ingredients with which a dish of vegetable rice is cooked.

However Thanjavur’s Saraswati Mahal library has manuscripts that prove its invention in Thanajvur Maratha Kingdom. Bharat’s most widely acknowledged- renowned food scientist & historian K.T.Acharya noted that “There is no mention of Sambar before the Thanjavur Maratha era”. His famous work is a book named ‘Indian Food: An historical companion’. He admitted that the earliest extant mention of sambar in literature can be dated to the 17th century. This gives ground to the theory that the wide circulation of word Sambar among masses depicting its cuisine form that we consume today with some added/neglected ingredients can be observed after emergence of Maratha Thanjavur kingdom & its associated events.

Currently Bharat’s leading expert on the Bharatiya cuisine, food historian & Padma Shri awardee Pushpesh Pant also acknowledges that it was Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj’s visit to Thanjavur & subsequent events led the invention of Sambar. Historian, Member of Parliament from Thiruvanathpuram & former under secretary general of United nations Dr.Shashi Tharoor said in MBIF-2019 event that-

We have sambar in south India because of the Marathas ruling us in Thanjavur;They created sambar and named after Maratha ruler Sambhaji.”

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