The South Kanara region has long produced a surplus of rice, but land was scarce. The numerous Bunts and the Jain landlords controlled most of it, while the Shivalli Brahmins, centered on an old village called Shivalli close to Udupi, remained a small and relatively insignificant caste without a tradition of migration or trade to secure a homeward flow of remittances. As South Kanara was located at the western extreme of the Madras Presidency, its inhabitants, even those residing in Mangalore, stood little chance of competing with the Tamil “Revenue Brahmins” who held a near-monopoly on government positions in the Presidency as a whole. Locally, Konkani-speaking Gauda Saraswat Brahmins, Christians, and others were able to secure most government jobs). Hence, service, however humble, did not pull the local Shivalli Brahmins out of their traditional occupations.

When poverty “flushed them out,” as noted scholar and litterateur K. S. Haridasa Bhat expressed it, they had to depend on their main cultural capital, that is, “pleasing the mass by feeding rice” (anna santarpana or samaradhana). The flexibility and management skills built up around the many small and big shrines and temples in Udupi constituted their comparative advantage when they started moving out of their district in the beginning of the twentieth century.

K. Krishna Rao became the first major South Kanara hotel owner. He was born in 1898 in the village Kadandale in the south-central part of the district. His father was a small landholder, priest, and ayurvedic practitioner. He received little formal education, and was “practically illiterate – his parents took him out of school for he was required to help with family chores”. His work in food service began when an uncle managed to get Krishna Rao a job in the Puthige mutt in Udupi. Later he worked in another mutt as an attendant of the swamier and in a small nearby restaurant. In Madras he worked first as a domestic servant, then ran off to join Sharada Vilas Brahmins Hotel in George Town as a kitchen boy. In 1925 his employer offered Krishna Rao one of his restaurants for Rs. 700, to be paid in monthly installments.

In just three years, he had gone from cleaning the kitchen to owning his own restaurant. He quickly made his new business into a success.

In 1926-’27 Krishna Rao moved out of George Town and opened two restaurants on Mount Road – an area considered “the land of the Sahibs.” There was not “a single, decent vegetarian restaurant” in this centrally located area until Krishna Rao opened Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas and Udupi Hotel.

In 1939 Rao opened the present Old Woodlands. In 1952, after the economic boom associated with the war, he opened the New Woodlands further south on Cathedral Road in the Mylapore locality, inhabited chiefly by Tamil Brahmins. Subsequently he started a drive-in restaurant and expanded his operations to such cities as Bangalore, Coimbatore, Salem, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, and Bombay, as well as London, New York, and Singapore. K. Krishna Rao died in 1990. Several of his restaurants and hotels are now owned and managed by his sons by his two marriages. When alive, Krishna Rao often “advised, lessoned and blessed” his cashiers, receptionists, and suppliers when they started on their own, and who at times borrowed the name “Woodlands.”

The second prominent chain of Udupi hotels is the Dasaprakash group. The group was founded by K. Seetharama Rao, who was born in 1899 in the village Kuthethoor. In contrast to Krishna Rao, Seetharama Rao had an education, but gave up a low-grade salaried position in Mangalore to join his brothers’ tiffin business in Mysore in 1921. Whereas K. Krishna Rao expanded into the world of the sahibs along a metropolitan axis, the Dasaprakash group expanded along the colonial axis of leisure from Madras to Mysore and the hill station Ooty. In recent years, Dasaprakash has opened several new restaurants in California.

The Dasaprakash Hotel in Madras, inaugurated in 1954, is a kind of earthly home for the gods, with Krishnas and Radhas placed in halls, on staircases, and in porticos. The hotel has a regular pooja room and an attached wedding hall, kalyan mantapam. The swamiers from Udupi have paid “voluntary visits” to the hotel. Though the idea was to transform the hotel into a sacred and auspicious space, the hotel also hosted functions unrelated to Hinduism.

From early on, Bangalore provided an alternative migratory destination. While the southern and central portions of the old South Kanara district are the provenance of most of the migrants to Madras, Kota Brahmins from Kundapur in the northern part of the district went to Bangalore. As their mother tongue is Kannada, migration to Bangalore did not isolate them linguistically to the extent that migration isolated Tulu-speaking Udupi Brahmins in Madras. Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan and the Jnanardhana Hotel in Bangalore were founded in the early 1920s by a Kota Brahmin who came via Shimoga. Mavalli Tiffin Rooms, or MTR, was started in 1924 by two Kota Brahmin brothers who earlier worked as cooks. Until the 1950s these two families were the main Udupi establishments catering to purist Brahmins and also arranging “palace parties” for the Mysore raja.

The careers of Krishna Rao and Seetharama Rao were typical in many ways of the entrepreneurs of the Gründerzeit in the 1920s to 1940s. Such pioneers often left their families – if they had any – behind in the district. Some studied on the side to join the salaried class. In Bombay, philanthropic hotel owners encouraged their workers to join Kannada Night Schools. Other workers tried to utilize their place of employment to “come up” in the business. The pattern established by Krishna Rao of acquiring restaurants and hotels on lease or in partnership, later to become the sole owner, is typical of the South Kanara entrepreneurs. The founders generally did not diversify into other lines of business, and their sons generally took over as a group or individually. These joint families often shared a feeling that “manpower is limited,” which meant that no son can be spared for other business ventures. Further, Brahmin hotel owners often marry among themselves. For example, the daughter of Seetharama Rao was married to a son of Krishna Rao, creating bonds of affinity between the two main Udupi hoteliers.

The Udupi and Kota Brahmins carried with them discriminatory traditions from the South Kanara region. One such feature was caste segregation.

In temple rituals, Brahmins have often been served separately with food made in a separate kitchen. The tradition of separate kitchens has not been transferred to the Udupi restaurants, but many Udupi hotels originally had dining areas exclusively for Brahmins. Some of these facilities have been simple small rooms with low wooden chairs. Major Udupi restaurants and hotels, including Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas and the New Woodlands Hotel, maintained separate dining sections for Brahmins till the late 1960s. Udupi Sri Krishna Vilas also had a separate section for Muslims. Other restaurants went so far as to bar Muslims until 1947. A gross form of discrimination, common to religious and commercial settings, has been the exclusion of Dalits. Many restaurants, including Udupi restaurants, have denied Dalits admittance, or demanded that they eat outside from special utensils to be cleaned or disposed of by themselves. Restaurants agreeing to admit Dalits did so at the risk of boycott.

According to M. Galanter, access to hotels and restaurants has been a central political issue since 1923 when “the Bombay Legislative Council resolved that Untouchables be allowed to use all public watering places, wells, schools, dispensaries, etc.”. Thirty years later, cases of discrimination relating to the use of shops, restaurants, hotels, and places of public entertainment constituted the majority of cases registered under the anti-disabilities legislation. In the 1950s and 1960s Madras courts were more active than courts elsewhere pursuing cases of discrimination, but nowhere did the move to abolish untouchability lead to massive litigation.

In Madras, activists staged repeated demonstrations against the extension of orthodoxy into restaurants. The Dravidian leader Ramaswami Naicker personally painted over the word Brahmin on a restaurant signboard. In 1938, he incited anti-Hindi riots during which crowds attacked “coffee stalls run by Brahmans”. Again, in 1957, a campaign was launched to “erase the word Brahmin from hotel name-boards... since such display is irrelevant in a secular state”. Slowly, commensal seclusion and the practice of untouchability have been eroded by commercialization, political activism, and legal reform. The establishments run by Udupi Brahmins played an important part in the expansion of civic space by exposing caste-centered traditions of ritual purity to the forces of change. As a result, seclusion and segregation are now much less frequent.

Excerpted with permission from Curried Cultures, edited by Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas, Aleph Book Company.