Raised by termites and relished by humans , the Termitomyces mushrooms are a very popular delicacy in the Western ghats region of India and specially in Goa.These fungi are the ‘secret weapon’ of the termites for digesting the lignin of wood, and so they are raised by the termite in secret gardens called ‘combs’ deep within the termite mound.
The termites eat some of these mushrooms and then crap out their spores mixed with the sawdust of the wood they have gnawed, in minute piles ; the hairlike fungi then grows on these piles of woodpulp and digests it by pumping it full of enzymes that change it into nutritous oligosaccharides that both fungi and insect consume with relish.
This ancient ‘mutualism’not only maintains both species but also maintains the health of the countryside, whose deadwood and leaf litter is meticulously removed by the termites. The secret link is revealed only when it rains and the fungi put out fruiting bodies and suddenly the termite mounds are covered with mushrooms.
Termite mounds have been worshipped since ancient times as the symbol of the Earth Mother; so when at the beginning of the rainy season, the mounds were covered by sprouting phallic shaped mushrooms it was taken to be the symbolic representation of the coupling of the Earth and the Father God, Vetal , that procreated all life. Many folk rituals still honour the occassion, and in Goa the decorated umbrellas are carried in procession in honour of this life renewing phenomenon in a festival called ‘chotri utsav’ (umbrella festival).
The mushrooms were also gathered and eaten as a seasonal delicacy all over the countryside but always a handful of mushrooms was left on the mound in honour of the God Vetal .However, nowadays there are just too many of us and with the market prices rocketting ,villagers often strip every termite mound of each morsel of mushroom, no matter how immature , effectively breaking a vital ecological link. Without some mushrooms left growing in the wild, the termites will not be able to eat some, to grow new combs, to deal with the dead wood , to feed themselves….and so the countryside will become overwhelmed by deadwood where new plants will find it difficult to grow.
Scientists and experts have been pointing to this impending disaster and they estimate that at this rate several species of termitomyces may go extinct in two decades. In the 90s laws were passes to control the exploitation of this forest resource but opposed by the villagers, for whom the seasonal bounty is also a means to make some much needed money. For now there is a ban on collecting these fungi in the reserved forests and the wildlife sanctuaries, though they are hardly enforced with thoroughness.