New Vrindaban Recipes: A Village Built on Oat Water and Rice

New Vrindaban Bahulaban Pits Sobhavati, Sankirtan, Bhokta Advaita 1977 or 1978

New Vrindaban Bahulaban Pits 1977 or 1978. From left to right: Sobhavati, Sankirtan, Bhokta & Advaita.

By: Madhava Smullen

Over the years, New Vrindaban has been famous for a long list of mouthwatering prasadam dishes – Hladini’s cinnamon rolls; Radhanath Swami’s sandesh; Madri, Dharmakala and Kutila’s cheesecake; Dharmakala’s baked goods and milk sweets; Taru and Amburish’s sweet rice; Vani’s dokla and idli, and many more.

But first, no story about New Vrindaban cuisine is complete without mentioning the legendary rice and oat water breakfast introduced in early 1976 and prepared by Sankirtan Das from 1977 until 1992.

It all began when Madhava Gosh read an article about how oat water was fed to inmates because of its energy-giving properties, and suggested it be adopted at New Vrindaban. Sudhanu Das then developed the first recipe and passed it on to fellow cook Tejomaya, who taught Sankirtan.

Oat water fueled the devotees who built New Vrindaban, and was symbolic of the austerities practiced in those early days. But, although an acquired taste, it could also be rather relishable.

“Oat water was not thick like oatmeal, but rather a savory liquid oatmeal brew,” says Sankirtan, who moved to New Vrindaban with his wife Ruci and their children on Gaura Purnima 1976. “I made it for 60 or 70 devotees, using 10 gallons of water, one gallon of oats, a cup of salt and ginger and raisins to taste.”

Sankirtan was one of those who relished oat water. “It was fantastic,” he says. “It was like having your morning cup of coffee before you got on the road. Sometimes it was sipped, and sometimes poured over the plain rice that went with it. In winter time, served hot, it warmed your insides and was a source of immediate heat against the cold.”

Just as the oat water symbolized the hardships of New Vrindaban life, it was also a challenge to cook.

From 1977 to 1979, Sankirtan prepared the rice and oat water breakfast in an outside kitchen in Bahulaban called “the pits,” which was just about as delightful as it sounds. Adjacent to the Deity kitchen, it had only a tin roof to protect one from the elements.

“I would collect my firewood the night before, because if it was wet, it would just smoke and wouldn’t ignite a decent fire to cook with,” he says. “I’d also fill the pot up with water at night.”

Bahulaban Pitts Sobhavati, Sankirtan, Bhokta, Advaita, Kutila, Kuladri 1977 or 1978

New Vrindaban Bahulaban pits 1977 or 1978. From left to right: Sobhavati, Bhokta, Advaita, Sankirtan, Kutila & Kuladri.

The next morning, Sankirtan would begin cooking at 5:00am, as in those days, devotees chanted most of their japa before mangala arati, had no japa period, and were finished the entire temple morning program and ready for breakfast by 7:00am.

The pits were literally three holes in the ground containing wood fires, with a grating over them on which the pots sat. Cooking over them was tricky.

“It was like a juggling act,” says Sankirtan. “You had to maintain a wood fire that would fluctuate if you weren’t attentive, while stirring the pot constantly so as not to burn anything. For the first few weeks until I got the hang of it, the rice was either uncooked, burnt, or mushy.”

The oat water was also a very precise recipe that could be easily ruined in a myriad of ways. At times over the years when Sankirtan was away for a few weeks, New Vrindaban residents would pray for him to return while his substitute undercooked it, oversalted it, or tossed in experimental ingredients to disastrous effect.

When each dish was done, Sankirtan struggled to lift the huge 20 gallon pots they were cooked in off the pits on his own, so that they wouldn’t burn. This left his apron covered in charcoal so black and all-encompassing that a visitor once mistook him for the mechanic.

The weather didn’t help, either.

“In the winter, it was an ordeal by both fire and ice,” Sankirtan says. “You were scorched on the side closest to the pits, but freezing cold on your back. And of course, if it rained or snowed you would be dealing with wet wood which didn’t give off too much heat but a lot of smoke.”

Sankirtan also cooked lunch six days a week, until the early 1980s. Fortunately, he had help with cutting vegetables and cleaning up from Shobavati Dasi. And in 1979, an indoor kitchen was built on the ground floor of the guest house in Bahulaban, making the cooking less challenging.

It was still hard work, however, and from 1981, what really kept Sankirtan going was pairing with fellow theater performer Lokamangala Das. Sankirtan would cook breakfast on his own, lunch with Lokamangala, and in the afternoon the two would work on developing plays.

“Sometimes we’d even rehearse our lines while cooking,” says Sankirtan. “It was kind of fun!”

Although he stopped cooking lunch when the devotee kitchen moved to the current temple complex in 1983, Sankirtan continued to cook breakfast until 1992. Both meals were plain – lunch was rice, dahl, chapatis, and later one subji too; what’s more, after lunch there was nothing to hold residents over until the next day but some leftovers.

Of course there were treats, too. On Sunday mornings, Jaya Murari would make a pancake breakfast with fresh homemade syrup. And Sunday Feasts would be a sumptuous spread, with New Vrindaban’s best cooks going all out, and families stashing the goodies for during the week.

But on an average week day, it was the oat water that woke the devotees up in the morning, and gave them the energy to go out and work hard to build Srila Prabhupada’s Palace, Sri Sri Radha Vrindabanchandra’s temple, the Palace Lodge, the residential cabins, vegetable and flower gardens, cow barns and everything else we think of as ISKCON New Vrindaban today.

“In the early days , devotees were performing austerities on a lot of different levels – the oat water was part of them,” says Sankirtan. “And personally I think that’s what built New Vrindaban. Everyone was performing the same austerities; we were all in it together. And that’s why, in one sense, there is a kind of comraderie between the older devotees here.”

Of his part, Sankirtan says, “I wasn’t a cook by nature. But I relished cooking because it was both a form of surrender for me, and a service to the devotees. And in that, I felt that I was helping to build New Vrindaban.”

We’ve modified the recipes for rice and oat water for home cooking and shared them with you below. Try them out and let us know how they inspire you with a flavor of that classic “Brijabasi Spirit!”

Rice (Serves 2)

2 cups of water
1 cup of rice
1 teaspoon ghee (butter, or ghee impurities)
1/4 teaspoon of salt

(Approximate cooking time: 15 to 25 minutes)

1. Bring the water to boil in a sauce pan.
2. When the water boils, stir in the rice, salt, and ghee (if using), and bring it to a gentle simmer.
3. Cover the pot and turn the heat down low.
4. Start checking the rice around 15 minutes.
5. When done, the rice will be firm but tender, and no longer crunchy.

Oat Water (Serves 2)


8 cups of water
1 cup of rolled oats
1 teaspoon ghee (butter, or ghee impurities)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Raisins & fresh ginger – to taste

(Approximate cooking time: 30 minutes)

1. Bring the water and salt to boil in a sauce pan.
2. When the water boils, stir in the oats, fresh ginger and ghee (if using) and bring it to a gentle simmer.
3. Stir occasionally and cook for approximately 30 minutes at a simmer.
4. The oat water is ready when the oats lose their form and become creamy.
5. Towards the end, add a few raisins so they get cooked enough to soften and plump up.

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