Tribesmen of the Wayanad district of Kerala have, for generations, practised a traditional method of preserving indigenous rice seeds, cultivated on fields free from chemical fertilizer and harmful pesticides. Text and photos: K.K. Mustafa

For many generations, the tribesmen of the Wayanad district of Kerala have employed a traditional method called “Moodakettal” to preserve nearly 35 varieties of indigenous rice seeds. These include aromatic rice seeds such as Gandhakasala, Kayama and Jeerakasala; short-term rice varieties such as Thonnuramthondy and Palthondy; medicinal varieties such as Navara and Chennellu; and drought-resisting varieties such as Chenthadi and Chenthondi. This process, which goes on for up to two months, helps in the event of a crisis. If the long-term seeds are destroyed in climatic vagaries, the short-term seed varieties are used to avoid famine.

The process of “Moodakettal” takes place seven to 15 days after harvest. For preparing each Mood, different varieties of seeds are dried separately for nearly 15 days in an open place, day and night. Later, each species of rice seeds are wrapped in a layer of dry hay or plantain sheaths with bamboo plinths. Each mooda can hold 10 to 60 kg of rice seeds. The seeds preserved in a mooda can be conserved for a longer period without fear of pest attack or moisture loss. Besides preservation, the tribesmen (including Kurichya and Kuruma) have been propagating the seeds by disbursing them to other farmers showing interest in cultivating rice.

As far as the tribesmen are concerned every stage of paddy cultivation is a divine activity as well as a ritual. Hence, the occasions such as the sowing of paddy seeds on the field and the transplanting of paddy and harvest are celebrated with religious fervour. From the sowing of seeds to the harvest, they consider the advice of Nikal (the spirit of their ancestors) or a shaman, the representative of the vegetation cults.

Cheruvayal tharavadu (homestead), near Kammana in Wayanad district, is a treasure house of indigenous rice seeds and the members of the tribal homestead have preserved a rare collection of 29 varieties. “A few generations ago, our ancestors had cultivated more than 150 varieties of rice seeds, but most of them were lost over time,” says Raman of Cheruvayal, who owns 2.5 hectares of land and is yet to get any assistance from governmental agencies.

The Edathana Kurichiya tharavadu, at Edathana near Valad, also has a rare collection of germ plasm. Every year, the members of this homestead have been cultivating different varieties of seeds on 5.6 hectares of land owned by the joint family. “I fear that the traditional practice may vanish in the near future as the number of experts in ‘Moodakettal’ is very few now,” says Achappan Vaidyar, 87, the chieftain of the homestead and traditional tribal healer. “The new generation has lost interest in ‘Moodakettal’, as they prefer to store seeds in gunny or plastic bags.”

“All the work, from sowing to harvesting, is being done by my family and we have no practice of purchasing rice from shops,” says Achappan Vaidyar. “Now, many farmers in the district are showing interest in traditional rice cultivation, thanks to the various afflictions suffered by the hybrid varieties recently. We are giving them seeds from our gene bank.”

Instead of selling seeds for cash, they follow a type of barter system: for every pothi (approximately 60 litres) of rice seeds purchased, the buyer should return 70 litres of seeds after harvest. Achappan Peruvadi, a tribal chieftain near Vellamunda in Wayanad, says, “I plan to set up a gene bank of traditional rice seeds to preserve the remaining seeds for our future generation, even though it is not a remunerative business.”