There is a hole in the heart of Elizabeth Quay.
The hole takes the shape of Annalakshmi on the Swan, a charity restaurant on Barrack Street Jetty known for its pay-as-you-wish meals. A staple of Elizabeth Quay for the past 20 years that once brimmed with life now sits empty, a shell of the place it once was.
If you walked into Annalakshmi at peak hour before the pandemic, you would be greeted by the sight of families, coworkers, and locals of all ages and ethnicities coming together for a delicious vegetarian Indian meal by the banks of Derbarl Yerrigan, the Swan River.
There is a quiet comfort that exists within the walls of this restaurant, from its warm decor to the kind smiles of volunteers to the glimmering statue of Goddess Annapoorani who represents the mother of sustenance. Step into Annalakshmi and you will be greeted with kindness, generosity, and a plate of warm food cooked with loving hands that will leave you with a full stomach.
That is Annalakshmi’s core: to give, serve, and love.
Annalakshmi is one of the oldest Indian community groups in WA, founded in 1974 by Swami Shantanand Saraswati who was inspired by the Swan River which reminded him of his days in Rishikesh and the Ganges River. Initially a prayer group, it soon gathered a following of devotees who, inspired by Swamiji’s teachings, decided to start Annalakshmi on The Esplanade in 1991.
“It first started as a cultural place with a normal restaurant, but the only difference was the restaurant was run by all volunteers, devotees,” says Arun Kumar Natarajan, Manager of Annalakshmi.
From 1991 to 2003, Annalakshmi and Saraswati Mahavidhyalaya – a fine arts and cultural learning centre also founded by Swamiji – operated in the same building on The Esplanade, teaching dance and music while serving Indian food, transporting locals to India in that space.
In 2003, Annalakshmi introduced pay-as-you-wish buffets after moving to its Barrack Jetty location.
“Swamiji inspired us with the concept of ‘eat as you like, pay as you feel,’” says Natarajan. “Somebody who has money can give, and indirectly it goes into feeding somebody who cannot afford to pay for a good meal.”
Natarajan says Annalakshmi has one of the oldest kitchens in the world, consisting of mothers and grandmothers aged 75, 80, and even 92 who found joy in serving humanity through their cooking.
“Nobody was deprived. Anybody could come up, sit down and have a beautiful meal, nobody was judged.”
Over the years, Annalakshmi has organised significant events and activities to celebrate and spread culture and the arts with the Perth community. Some of the events they have organised include Navratri and Deepavali celebrations, performances by Indian artists, Dance India Taste India – and of course, the very popular Swan Festival of Lights event that saw over 30,000 people gather on the Swan River Foreshore in 2019.
“The idea is not to make profit. The idea is to continue serving people.”– Arun Kumar Natarajan, Manager of Annalakshmi
And then COVID-19 happened, changing everything.
Like the rest of the world, Annalakshmi found themselves faced with a new life under lockdowns, restrictions, and rules. This meant Annalakshmi were unable to provide their usual pay-as-you-wish buffet anymore. As an alternative, $15 thali meals were introduced to dine-in customers upstairs while takeaway meals were given away downstairs.
“Usually we get around 600 to 800 people a day, and after COVID it became 20 people [per day]. So we couldn’t manage,” Natarajan says.
The Annalakshmi team tried their best, promoting the restaurant through social platforms and even getting help from media organisations. But the numbers still remained low.
Annalakshmi is one of the many restaurants and businesses in Perth CBD that have been hit hard by the pandemic. With restrictions and offices offering remote working, there are fewer people visiting the CBD. Google Mobility data shows that in the 6 weeks from February 16 to March 30, the City of Perth faced a 41% decrease in retail and recreation activity, compared to the pre-COVID baseline numbers.
“I tried the whole time during COVID,” says Natarajan. “But when you run a place like this, you need money flowing through all the time. If the money stops, everything stops. So with Annalakshmi what happened was the flow of money stopped – and we couldn’t do it.”
The closure of Annalakshmi was announced on social media on February 25 – the posts gained hundreds of reactions, shares, and comments across the organisation’s Instagram and Facebook pages, with many locals expressing sadness or reminiscing over fond memories.
Keerthana Manoj, like many others, learnt about Annalakshmi’s closure through their Instagram post. An Indian Australian and ex-Bharatanatyam dancer, Manoj describes Annalakshmi as a place of warmth, filled with culture and community. When her family first moved to Perth, Annalakshmi gave them a sense of home and allowed them to connect with other Indian Australians who shared similar experiences.
“There weren’t as many Indian associations back then, so it was hard for people to find other Indians – but Annalakshmi really brought that together,” Manoj said.
Annalakshmi was a place she frequented in her ten years as a Bharatanatyam dancer, as it was where her annual and semi-annual dance concerts were hosted in collaboration with Saraswati Mahavidhyalaya. As a young child, her memories of coming to Annalakshmi were especially meaningful to her as she was able to connect with other people who looked like her and bond over familiar cuisine and culture.
“Annalakshmi provided a nice chance for everyone to come together and be part of something bigger. I think that’s what Annalakshmi really aimed for – everyone feeling like a community.”
But Annalakshmi’s sense of community is not just limited to Australians of South Asian ethnicity. It has played an impactful role in the wider Perth community for over 31 years. Annalakshmi has created an inclusive space that welcomed everyone, regardless of race and culture. Their events simultaneously spreads Indian culture whilst celebrating the diverse and multicultural nature of our local community.
“I was very sad to hear about the closure of Annalakshmi, an iconic City eatery which offered the generous option for diners to pay what they could afford – the restaurant will be missed by many people,” says City of Perth Lord Mayor, Mr Basil Zempilas.
So what comes next for Annalakshmi?
Natarajan’s current priority is solving the debt faced by the restaurant – operating a charity restaurant in the middle of a pandemic for two years in an expensive location is no easy feat, after all.
Annalakshmi created an online fundraising page to help them with the debt the organisation is currently facing. Within a month, it has raised more than $32,000 through the help of over 250 donors, a testament to the restaurant’s place in the hearts of locals.
While some people mourn the loss of their favourite vegetarian Indian eatery, others wonder what this closure will mean for favourite local events such as the Swan Festival of Lights.
A spokesperson for the City of Perth says while the Swan Festival of Lights event has received City of Perth funding in the past, the City has not received a sponsorship application this financial year.
Although the restaurant has shut down, Natarajan says they will continue trying their best to carry out activities and events for the community.
“We all did this as a spiritual sadhana. Serving humanity is our purpose, and we took that and we did it, however much we could do.”