Growing an ancient crop

DSCN4874

On a monsoon trek through the hills of the Western ghats , our path winded through what looked like meadows of flattened grass. It was obvious that they were patches of forest clearing ,where the low shrubs had been cut and burnt down and a few villagers still worked weeding the patches by hand.

DSCN4885

The patches of forest shrub land cleared for planting millets. The stumps are not killed by the burning and will sprout anew later

It was raining occassionally and the farmers wore polythene sheets for rain coats while one had lined the traditional cane basket (which used to be lined by waterproof leaves) with a plastic sheet. Both men and women worked in the fields ,weeding patches by hand and at the end of the trail, just outside the village, we came upon the young woman who was taking them their lunch in a waterproof basket.

DSCN4964

Entire families work in the stony fields, in home made rain gear

Then we passed the fields that had been cleared and here was a man with a handful of what looked like trimmed grass seedlings ,that he keep laying out in rows on the slope, like a card player dealing cards. Mind you, he was not sticking them into the soil , as rice planters do when they transplant rice seedlings, just laying them flat out , a few inches away from the next plant.

DSCN4882

A farmer holds the bunches of trimmed Ragi seedlings, ready for planting

DSCN4884

Dealing out the seedlings like a card sharp on the stony ground

Apparently he was planting ‘Ragi’ / finger millets ,an ancient crop, which has been grown in these hills of Karnataka since the last 4000 years. The sturdy plants found their feet on their own in the wet soil and sprang up forming bright green carpets in a day or to.

The hardy cereal grain , rich in amino acids like methionine is consumed both as a porridge and as flour cooked into chapattis, sometimes wholly by itself , at times mixed with wheat flower. Once the staple of large parts of rural India, Ragi had got bad press for the last 100 years as an ‘inferior crop’ as larger and larger areas of agriculture were pressed into mono cultures of rice and wheat.

DSCN4886

The seedlings laid out flat on the fields, until they find their feet in a day or two

Only in recent years have nutritionists woken up to the fact that the amino acid rich finger -millet is actually a boon for protein deficient diets in the poorer villages and a great dietary substitute for diabetics . Hence, the cycle turns again and as Ragi flour and grains reappear in posh retail outlets in the cities, villagers take to their rain drenched fields to plant once more this ancient crop.

DSCN4887

The fields in the cloud line ..

Tiny beauties

Tags

The 'Little striped orchid' (Acampe praemorsa)

The ‘Little striped orchid’ (Acampe praemorsa)

It is late summer now, and in the dizzying heat, few people are venturing out on nature walks, right now. If they did, the one little delightful flower they would find in profusion everywhere, would be the Little striped orchid (Acampe praemosa).

DSCN4513

Clumps of Acampe orchids flowering on the wild epiphytic plant

It grows wild throughout India and China and relatives in the same genera are found throughout Africa, far east and south-east Asia. For all that they are quite common, they go largely unnoticed, as the flowers are so tiny and tucked away among the large leafy plants, that grow attached to the shady trunks of old mango or Jack fruit trees. In fact, these ‘epiphytes’ will latch onto any tree with a mossy trunk, and can even be grown easily at home attached to a stout bamboo pole.

Tiny beauties

Tiny beauties

The tiny flowers have bold, stripped faces and a mild sweet fragrance. It is odd, that so few cultivated orchids have any fragrance to go with their sophisticated beauty , while in the wild, many orchid species have lovely , signature fragrances. For some reason, the scientists and collectors have chosen to ignore this aspect of orchids, totally.

The orchids grow naturally on the trunks of old trees and flower once a year

The orchids grow naturally on the trunks of old trees and flower once a year

The wild orchid flowers  though, attract an ardent bevy of insect admirers and they probably help with the pollination too. During the rains (in a months time ) the green seed pods are to be seen.The plants and even the seed pods have been used in traditional medicine in many parts of India but the knowledge of those traditional herbalist’s methods are limited and they are not widely collected today. In the meantime , these little beauties are too tiny to evoke the interests of commercial gardeners and the little flowers are too brittle (the name Acampe derives from the Greek word ‘akampos’ meaning  brittle) to be used in any bouquets or flower arrangements. So they are left growing in their merry little clumps, unobserved in the shade, but by no means unappreciated by the tiny summer flies and keen eyed nature lovers.

“Just so!”

clinic 023

The spiders at my home insist on tying together the tassels of the lampshade so they hang at a very odd angle. I have tried to debate the point with them, but they are adamant that this is the most interesting and useful angle that they can be stuck in. Their main objective is ofcourse to use the tassels as a frame from which they can string more webs across and swiftly catch the flies that may wander towards the light.

After sweeping off their constructions several times, I spent a long lazy evening watching them patiently rebuiding their webs. It is no mean feat, given the fact that the electric fan is on at full speed due to summer heat and normally, the tassels are blowing and waving in every direction at once. I started to feel rather guilty as i watched the little ingeneous arachnids risk life and limb to lasso the tassels together with their gossamer strings of steely strength. In two hours time they had them fixed and the 3 spiders settled down to weave their individual webs with infinite care. Dinner did not seem a likely prospect for them as they would spend most of the night building the web which had taken me seconds to destroy!

For now, they can stay. 🙂

Prickly beauties

Tags

,

sh

It is midsummer now and most of the vegetation has dried up and there are not many flowers to be seen blooming in the blazing afternoon heat. Except the Sea hollies, which are all in flower, in the salt marshes, estuaries and along the edges of the  mangrove forests.

631

Belonging to the prickly ‘Acanthaecea’ family, the Sea Holly ( Acanthus ilicifolius) gets it’s name from it’s dark green, leathery and spiny leaves, that closely resemble those of the European holly. The plant, a hardy shrub, does well in salty mud flats, where it forms an essential part of the ecosystems, holding together the soft muddy banks and providing hideouts for a variety of crabs, snails, worms and insects.

632

The flowers bloom in masses in summer , but because of their terrible spiny leaves and stalks are not collected commercially or otherwise. Some traditional herbalists do use the plants for some medicinal purposes, but such people are becoming scarcer by the day.For now, they are a delight for the casual wayfarer who has ventured out into the blazing mid day sun.

629

The Spice harvest

Tags

, ,

DSCN4508

The pepper crop is in and only the last few strings of the fruit are left drying on the creepers. Most house wives in Goa have a creeper or two of pepper  climbing up their coconut or jackfruits trees. They produce enough sprays of the fruit , which if carefully collected and dried before the monsoon rains set in, can well last the till next season.

DSCN4504The burning hot summer afternoons (temperatures touching 38degree celsius) is also good for drying and preserving the Indian Bay leaves. These are not to be confused with the European Bay leaves, being much larger and having a sweet , cinnamon like flavour. Infact the bark of the tree is used as a variety of indigeneous cinnamon. This tree (Cinnamom malbathricus/tamala) is called Tejpatta/ Pungent leafed tree in Hindi .It’s older Sanskrit name is ‘Tamala patra’ which means ‘dark leafed’ and till date it is called that in several Indian languages like Marathi. It is believed that the Greeks mispronounced ‘tamalapatra’ as ‘malabathricus’ and the Romans into ‘malabathrous’ , hence the origin of it’s Latin name.

It is a highly cherished spice and the bark is also periodicaly scraped from the tree and has a lovely cinnamon flavor. The bark is also used widely for medicinal purposes. There are many varieties of trees whose bark is used as Cinnamon, several are native to Africa while a few are native to South East Asia. Several of the trees belong to the Cinnamom family while several others belong to the Cassia family.

In the ancient and medieval ages, pepper and cinnamon were highly coveted spices and great merchant houses financed long and dangereus ocen journeys to India to buy them from the ancient port cities. This trade once fueled the search for new routes to the Orient and finally lead to the discovery of the New World.

Shutting shop

Tags

DSCN4275

The Indian red waterlily (Nelumbo rubra) closes  it’s petals as the hot day progresses. The night flowering waterlily, known as ‘Kumudini’ in Sanskrit is said to keep vigil over the water bodies, alternating it’s duty hours with that of the day blooming lotus ,the national flower of India.

Style

Tags

, , ,

DSCN4174

The elderly village woman was a few rows ahead of me in the jostling crowd. I reached over a few heads to take this shot of her earrings and hair ornaments. The man behind her is probably her husband. We were all pushing forward into the temple ,on the occassion of Holi and Shigmo, the new year by the traditional calender.

Her hairdo is the one  typically sported by local women,  traditionally. The long hair is oiled with coconut hair and combed smooth. Then it is twisted into a bun at the nape and ornamented with flowers. Richer house wives would also sport a few ornaments of gold or pearls in their hairdo. The garland of  orange “aboli’ flowers  is very popular among women in southern India and worn as an everyday adornment, as well as on special occasions. It is however without any fragrance; that is the role of the yellow leaf like petal tucked into her hair. That is a petal of Keya , the spiny  Pandanus palm , which grows in the saline soil along the Indian coast. It flowers once an year, when mature. The flowers which resemble vaguely an ear of corn, have a lovely fragrance for which they are commercially collected. An attar is extracted from the Keya flowers and the essence known as ‘Kewra’ is popularly used in traditional Indian perfumes as well as in the cuisine.

The necklace of black beads that she is wearing is the ‘mangal-sutra’, the ‘Auspicious thread’, that denotes her marital status. It is typically made of four strings of polished whetstone. Two strands each (denoting the two families, paternal and maternal) are gifted to the bride by her parents and another two strands by her future inlaws. After the wedding the four strands are joined together by a double locket, just as the union of the bride and groom unites the four families in the bond of kinship.

The bangle seller

Tags

, , , , ,

DSCN4258

I suddenly needed a set of green glass bangles. It was a religious festival the next day and as a married woman I had to be wearing the dozen green glass bangles which in this part of India indicate the married state of a woman!

My daily work as a veterinary surgeon requires that on a normal day I go about ‘bare armed’, which even a generation ago would have indicated the calamitous and ‘inauspicious’ state of widowhood. Besides which, sliding or rather wrestling, the thin glass bangles up and down my boxer’s knuckles results in a high attrition rate of the delicate accessories ,and hence I do keep the bangle sellers in business.

By the time I  realised that I did not possess two dozen green glass bangles it was quite late (around 9pm) and most shops selling such stuff had closed. However, our local vegetable vendor mentioned that a bangle seller , known to all as ‘Chudi-wali’ (bangle seller) lived in a slum nearby and sold bangles from home. I had never been inside a Mumbai slum and as my husband was with me , I immediately insisted that we had to go find her.

It was surprisingly easy to locate the block of tenement flats, inspite of the late hour children were playing in the alleys and women were cooking in their one roomed homes. The Chudiwali, Mrs Kotwale, a widow, also lived in a tiny single room and she seemed very glad to have customers walk in. While we were there several local women dropped by , to buy bangles for themselves or their children.

Her little one room home (9ft by 5ft) was all neat and orderly, with a single bed that also acted as divan for the visiting guests, built in cabinets, a curtained storage loft , and a wall mounted altar next to the framed picture of her late husband. The kitchen in the corner was all tidy , with clean stainless steel utensils and the little washing up area in another corner. I felt like an intruder , walking into her personal space but she was warm and at ease and immediately made us feel welcome.

Like bangle sellers all over India, Mrs Kotwale gets her supplies of glass bangles from the factories of Ferozabad in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She buys them from a local whole seller and then sells them at retail. For decades she had been a door to door vendor, toting her fragile merchandise in a large rexine bag, which now though much mended, still holds her stock. However, the onset of severe arthritis has forced her in recent years to give up this job and she currently works in the  day at a tailoring shop.  She has not giving up selling bangles though, as now she is quite well known in the area and people drop in at her home to pick up an odd dozen of bangles, so she still keeps a large enough stock in the locker under her bed.

DSCN4254

        You had only to see her handle her wares to know that here was an expert! She tapped the glass bangles and tinckled them against each other to detect the tiny cracks that make them ring flat and lead to summary rejection.Then she casually pushed tiny ones up my wrist as I watched awestruck. However, I reminded her that I would be removing them a day after the festivities by myself, and as it is considered bad luck to break all your bangles at once, she just as expertly pulled them off my hand and offered me a larger size.

Her audience of local housewives watched the procedure with interest , offering all kinds of inputs . It is a way of doing business that is fast changing all over the world and inspite of the oddness I could not help being entertained too . After the sale was made (she talked my husband into buying me an extra set of red bangles to go with my favourite sari) Mrs Kotwale, in the proper traditional manner pressed us to have tea . ” I am so proud of my profession”, she said,”for it brings guests to my home”.

The salt market

Tags

, , , , ,

xmas 015 The salt vendor’s  corner in  the Mapusa market has barely three makeshift stalls, made of piles of plastic bags stuffed with the coarse sea salt. At siesta time, the one vendor was dozing by his wares, as I took stock, but he did wake up and help with my querries.

My interest was of course on the multicolored chunks of salt, displayed in the split bamboo basket. The large amber colored chunks are the Himalayan sea salts, which are mined from salt mines in Punjab and Kashmir in northern India. The largest salt mines of the subcontinent lie in the Punjab province of Pakistan, at the foothills of the Aravalli range.They all derive from the salt deposits of the ancient Tethys sea that drained away as the Indian plate crashed into China and the Himalayas rose.

The orange or reddish colour is due to the presence of a large number of minerals in the sodium chloride ,which is said to make it more nutritous than common salt, the iron compounds  give it the orangish hue. Many people nowadays prefer to use the Himalayan salts for their table , while I also came across some naturopaths extolling it’s goodness in foot baths! As far as i know though, it is defficient in Iodine ions and the hill people (in Nepal and Tibet) who used it extensively often suffered from goitre until recent times.

The black salt is used exclusively in Indian cuisine or rather in that of the  Indian subcontinent including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Legally though, it is a condiment , as it is made by treating the naturally occurring rock salt. The rock salt contains sulphate salts, that when heated in a sealed porcelain container with several types of fruits and charcoals releases the toxic hydrogen sulphide gas which later combines with the trace iron to form ferrite salts that have a pungent rotten egg smell. Strange though this may sound , this odd smell makes it an interesting additive to many of the fruit juices, salads and tamarind sauces that are widely consumed in India during summer. It was the reason why I came to salt vendor’s in the first place. 🙂

The summer fall

Adding a touch of colour and a whiff of fragrance ,the flowers of the Wild Gauva and Silk cotton tree top the pile of fallen leaves, as deciduous trees shed their leaves en-masse at the approach of the hot summer days.

DSCN4220

The white flowers of Wild guava and the red ones of the Silk cotton tree colour the leaf litter