How Kodungallur became home to the pottuvellari (snap melon) is the stuff of mythology. It is believed that the presiding deity of the Kodungallur Sree Kurumba Bhagavathy temple threw a handful of turmeric, paddy and pepper on the ground out of which grew pottuvellari plants, bearing fruit for famished devotees. “It belongs to us!” says Sivadasan Polaserry, a pottuvellari farmer.
He has reason to feel pride — the fruit is one among five agricultural products from Kerala that were recently awarded the Geographical Indication (GI) tag.
Sivadasan hails from a family that has been farming paddy and pottuvellari in Kodungallur for over 70 years. He has been at the forefront of the GI certification process. “The buzz around the tag has generated curiosity and we have been getting so many enquiries,” he says, adding “Now people cannot misuse the name ‘Kodungallur Pottuvelari.’ This is a source of great pride for us. “
The pottuvellari season is from December to May, ending right before the monsoon arrives, after which paddy is cultivated in these fields. Around 200 farmers in and around Kodungallur are engaged in the cultivation of this summer fruit, across 200-250 acres. Sivadasan harvests around 40-50 tonnes annually on his five-acre farm.
Among the many ways, a GI tag helps a product is by preventing unauthorised marketing, and giving access to customers to the authentic product. “GI tagging is a beautiful thing,” says Professor CR Elsy, former coordinator of the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) cell of the Kerala Agriculture University (KAU). “When IP components are given to a product it is an acknowledgement of its uniqueness as well as a community’s right over the produce. It is a source of pride for that region.”
The other four agricultural products from Kerala that were recently awarded GI tags, are Attapady Attukombu avara (dolichos beans), Attapady thuvara (red gram), Kanthalloor-Vattavada veluthulli (garlic), and Onattukara ellu (sesame). “Getting a GI tag benefits the farmer. It increases demand and marketability,” says Elsy, who is now retired, and had been at the helm of the IPR cell since its inception in 2003 until her retirement in 2021. Seventeen agricultural products were granted the GI registration during the period.
Among the various criteria that an application for GI status warrants is the history of the product in the area. While historical evidence of some products is well-documented, those of others such as pottuvellari were scanty, most of which was oral literature-based. After some work, Elsy and her research assistant found documentary proof of its presence in the area in panchayat documents of the Agriculture Department.
It was very different in the case of Vattavada garlic, documented by British planter JD Munroe, who referenced garlic cultivation on the ‘Anchunad hills’ (present day Kanthallur, Keezhanthur, Karayur, Marayur and Kottakudi) in his writings.
The two types of garlic cultivated — malapoondu (hill garlic) and sigapu poondu (red/brown garlic) — are more potent than regular garlic and have a higher oil content. These are valued for their medicinal properties. A rough estimate puts 75% of the area cultivated in Vattavada and Kanthalloor under garlic cultivation
The roadblock to getting the GI tag was getting a biochemical analysis, a requirement to prove the uniqueness of the application for GI registry. “It took three-and-a-half years of work. The analysis could not be done here as the material required for analysis of the garlic is not available in Kerala. It was done at a research centre outside Kerala,” explains Elsy.
Vattavada and Kanthalloor garlic is yet to find a market in Kerala. It is, however, in demand in Tamil Nadu, with most of it sold at the Vadukapetty Garlic Market, Theni, Tamil Nadu. Dried garlic sells at ₹250-₹300 in the market, the rates vary on a daily basis.
Likewise, Attapady thuvarahas a thriving market in Tamil Nadu, because of access to the market, which is closer. Unlike the reddish thuvara from Tamil Nadu, these are white in colour, bigger and tastier. With close to 700 hectares under cultivation, it is consumed dry and as a vegetable. It is a source of nourishment for the tribals as is Attapady avara. The flat beans are farmed mainly by the tribal people, who cultivate them for their use.
Sesame, for the first time
There are some firsts this time around like the Onattukara ellu, which is one of the first sesame seeds in the country to get a geographical indication tag, says Dr G Suja, former project director and head of Onattukara Regional Agricultural Research Station, Kayamkulam. She and her team did the work for the GI registry, which started in 2018 in full earnest. Initial meetings toward the certification were in 2013, under Elsy and her team.
Parts of three districts — Alappuzha, Kollam and Pathanamthitta, are home to the brown-coloured Ayali sesame seeds and the varieties of seeds developed from it. The demand for these sesame seeds has spiked after the GI tag. “There is no doubt about the health benefits of our sesame seeds. Oil extracted from the seeds is valued for its medicinal properties. Thanks to the recognition, now people know about it I have been getting enquiries about our Onattukara ellu,” says Chelakkattu Radhakrishnan, who farms sesame seeds as a residual crop after paddy.
He harvests a yield of around 140 kilograms from an acre. “I am sticking to what I usually cultivate, I am not increasing production to meet the new demand,” he adds. A farmer’s price is ₹250 -₹300 per kilogram of sesame seeds, and the oil is around ₹600 per litre, says Suja.
While the GI status would not have been possible without the help of the former Agriculture Minister of Kerala, Adv. VS Sunil Kumar, according to Elsy, the farmers now look towards the present government for help to sustain the momentum that the tag has given their products.
Suja and Elsy make a strong case for using the GI tag to the farmer’s advantage to generate demand, by making each product easily accessible, and thorough value addition. “Besides ellu unda (balls made of sesame and jaggery) or candy, it can be adapted to other things such as peanut butter, for instance. Our dream is to develop a processing unit or laboratory for product development,” says Suja.
Elsy uses the popularity of Marayur jaggery, Vazhakkulam pineapple and Changalikodan nendran banana - “Look what happened to Marayur jaggery and Changalikodan banana? Popularity rose, as did the demand which hiked the prices which helps farmers and locals. Recognition such as this helps preserve biodiversity and conservation of a way of life.”