Jamun or njaval isn’t exactly a fruit celebrated in Kerala, unlike in other parts of this diverse country. For those who have travelled from south India to Delhi in the summer, what will instantly come to mind are the tempting leaf- wrapped, purple portions of jamun and Bengal currant, two very identical fruits, sold by women vendors on train routes.
The Jamun Fest in Vazhachal, near Thrissur, Kerala, is in its second year, and was conceived as part of an effort to give a creative twist to the dependency of indigenous communities on the forest. Just like honey, resin, nellikai and a bunch of other wild things, njaval is an important non-timber forest product (NTFP). The seeds of Njaval are sought after in the Ayurvedic industry, and the berries are considered a ‘super fruit’ with an endless list of nutritional benefits.
There is a story behind the festival. In the Chalakudy river basin, the Kadar people were granted community forest rights only a couple of years ago. Like in all aspirational societies, there is a tendency among young people to explore towns and cities for job opportunities. This might mean alienation from the healing aspects of a home in the wilderness.
So, the livelihoods team at the River Research Centre works hand-in-hand with the Forest Development Agency on product diversification and value addition of non-conventional NTFPs, and craft development based on reed bamboo. They do so in the hope that securing the incomes of local people can ensure conservation of natural resources. Without community participation, conservation has seen little success.
To cut the long story short, the scorching heat of May and the timing of wild Jamun fruiting in the Vazhachal forests just meant that the purple harvest could be shared with wide-eyed city dwellers.
The venue had taken some preparation. It had rained incessantly and young Kadar boys had to climb the slippery branches of njaval trees the previous day.
Two women, who are otherwise employed by the Vana Samrakshana Samiti, spent a few hours readying the dense, sugary concentrate of njaval pulp. Three others set up the stall and cleaned up the slim glasses (mind you, not disposable cups), and arranged the handmade bamboo straws. A bright informative poster was hungon the mango tree beside them.
The summer vacations are underway, and there is a sea of visitors at the Vazhachal waterfall. A tangy drink, with a dash of lime, left every customer with a beaming smile. It was as if the heat and languor of the day had instantly fizzled away with one glass of the magical jamun sherbet.
PS: If you are planning a drive up from Chalakudy to Valparai in the coming week, it might be worth stopping by for another entrée at the juicy celebrations at Vazhachal — an aam panna (raw mango juice) sales event on May 26 and 27.