Colonial enterprises altered ‘cuisine scape’ of Nilgiris

Come Saturday, a Nilgiri Traditional Food Fair will be held at Coonoor under the aegis of the Nilgiri Natural History Society.

While generating interest among food lovers, it has triggered nostalgia among many others who have over the years witnessed the gradual decline in the consumption of such items and their consequent disappearance from the markets and houses particularly those of the Badagas – the largest indigenous social group in the Nilgiris.

Studies and interactions with long time residents of the Nilgiris have revealed that the Nilgiris was a place of high agriculture diversity prior to the Green Revolution in the 1960s.

The indigenous communities cultivated a variety of crops like Korali, Samai, Ragi, and Amaranthus but technologies and the miracle seeds of the green revolution have done what they were expected to do. Even the traditional containers are now hard to come by.

The introduction of commercial crops by the British has changed the cropping pattern on the Blue Mountains from a diverse food crop system to a mono culture cash crops scenario. In its wake, dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides has increased.

The cascading effect is the lack of food security and nutrition, especially among the small and marginal communities, and reduced the water retention capacity of the soil among other things. Expressing the opinion that the conservation of agriculture biodiversity is impossible without the participation of the indigenous communities, whose knowledge of native seeds surpasses all the emerging expertise on the subject, Pratim Roy, the Director of the Kotagiri-based Key Stone Foundation which has promoted the history society, told The Hindu here on Thursday that between 1966 and 2006, 44 per cent of the millet-cultivated areas were brought under other crops.

The changes in the agriculture practices in the Nilgiris have led to the near extinction of several native varieties of crops. Stating that these crops are of great significance, he said.

According to Paul Hockings, noted scholar and an authority on the Nilgiris, Badagas made use of close to 400 species of plants for food, for traditional rituals and medicines.

It is time to reflect over the neglect and subsequent disappearance of the vast base of ethno-botanical knowledge of the traditional Nilgiri Society, Mr. Roy said that it will not be an exaggeration to say that the role of the British colonial enterprises in the introducing and commercialising their vegetables and farming practices historically altered the ‘cuisine scape’ of the Nilgiri hills.

More than half a dozen varieties of soup quality mushrooms are not known anymore. Only about ten varieties of beans can now be identified with great difficulty whereas there were three times that number during the days of yore. A hoary blend of instant delicacy like wild berries, roasted amaranthus, grains, and curd cannot be concocted anymore. The objective of the proposed festival is to recreate the hospitality and revive millet farming.