Indigenous rice varieties make a comeback

Rice fields ready for harvest at Thanal Agro-Ecology Centre (TAEC) in Panavally, in Wayanad district   | Photo Credit: Saraswathy Nagarajan

Kothambari kazhama, a kind of paddy once grown extensively in Kannur and Kasaragod districts in Kerala, had become a fond memory for many.

Kothambari kazhama rescued from the brink of extinction

Kothambari kazhama rescued from the brink of extinction   | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Thanal

A nostalgic Jayakumar C, trustee of Thanal, an NGO working for the environment, and co-founder of Save Our Rice (SOR) Campaign, promised to gift Leneesh K, state coordinator of SOR, a gold ring if he could locate this variety of paddy among small farmers in Kannur. Many of them had gone against the grain and continued farming indigenous varieties instead of opting for hybrids or high-yielding varieties.

While visiting farmers to collect information about seeds as part of his work for the Seed Savers Network, Leneesh made it a point to ask elderly local residents if they knew someone who was still farming the paddy that is said to have resembled seeds of coriander and, according to Jayakumar, even had the faint fragrance of coriander seeds. Finally, Leneesh managed to get a handful of seeds from an aged farmer, who was still cultivating it in his field.

Rescue mission

“These are those grains that we rescued from the brink of extinction. But it looks like we have lost the red-grained variety of this kind of paddy,” he says, all smiles as he shows me the pretty, tiny grains growing in a small rectangular piece of land in a field in Wayanad.

Aerial shot of Thanal Agro-Ecology Centre (TAEC) in Panavally, in Wayanad district

Aerial shot of Thanal Agro-Ecology Centre (TAEC) in Panavally, in Wayanad district   | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Thanal

Ringed by jungles and the bluish-black hills of the Western Ghats, the Thanal Agro-Ecology Centre (TAEC) in Panavally, in Wayanad district, is a riot of colours. The river Kalindi is a constant murmur in the background, as we go around the fields with a treasure trove of 256 varieties of rice, some rare like the kothambari kazahama and chuvanna kunjinelu, on an area of about 1.5 acres. While 168 are indigenous to Kerala, there are varieties from all the rice-growing areas of India, such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Northeastern India, West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and some from Thailand and Vietnam as well. The volunteers of Thanal are sowing seeds of change among paddy farmers, by encouraging them to revive cultivation of indigenous species that were once widely cultivated in India.

Leneesh introduces me to myriad species of paddy grown on these fields. Part of the 13-year-old Save Our Rice Campaign and Seed Savers Network, the Rice Diversity Block (RDB) hit the headlines last year when a drone shot captured the mosaic of colours of the paddy fields — red, black, purple, green, golden and all shades in between. Since then, the RDB has been replicated in 10 other places in Kerala by farmers, all of whom are keen on saving native species of rice.

Dwindling numbers

“British gazettes document that more than 3,000 varieties of paddy were grown in Kerala itself. Of that, we have less than 200 now. Traditional knowledge and crops that were ideal for our environment were discarded during the heyday of the Green Revolution, and hybrids were introduced. It almost wiped out the indigenous varieties,” says Jayakumar.

The SOR campaign has managed to revive enthusiasm in such local variants, and today many of these varieties are the cream of the crop and command a premium in the food market for their health benefits and medicinal properties, much of which is still being documented, explains Sridhar Radhakrishnan, coordinator (Policy & Campaigns) in the national Save Our Rice Campaign.

Not only are farmers reaping better prices for these indigenous grains, but the harvest is bigger and the crop more sustainable than the fancy seeds introduced later. Leneesh points out how paddy and its cultivation have been integrated into our language, lifestyle and culture, and any attempt to tamper with it affects the entire fabric of our lives.

Species that migrate

Leneesh recalls with a smile how during their travels to document rice varieties, two of the activists of Thanal came across a rice popular among farmers in the Sunderbans. “They call it the Kerala sundari but have no clue why it is called so. Was it a kind of rice that was taken from Kerala?”

Another indication of migration of species comes to light when he shows the famous black rice that is so chic now. Although the sticky rice is an indigenous variety in Northeastern India, it is popularly known as Burma Black.

Sowing methods, harvests and period for maturity varied widely among the native kinds of paddy. Each region had species that were ideal for the geography and climate of that region. “Ramleela and govindobhog are, for instance, from the North. The names of the rice there are more linked to mythology and legends, while the names of those in the South are rooted in the soil. When we lose a variety, an entire body of knowledge associated with the rice dies with it. So it is essential to preserve as much as possible by developing such RDBs,” says Leneesh.

It takes about Rs 5,000 to cultivate each kind of rice in the RDB. Thanal welcomes donors to join the campaign to Save Our Rice.

And so did Leneesh get his gold? Yes and no. He did not get the ring, but it looks like he did find a treasure with this harvest of golden paddy.

Take a pick

With evangelical zeal, Leneesh lists some of the paddy varieties that are much in demand for their medicinal properties. “Karinjan and karimalakaran are rich in fibre, and consuming this is said to reduce the incidence of diabetes. The grains and beaten rice of mundakan are ideal for increasing stamina and so are taken by those doing physical labour,” he explains.

Vella chennellu and chuvanna chennellu

Valiyachennellu, popularly known as gynaecology rice

Valiyachennellu, popularly known as gynaecology rice   | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Thanal

Some villagers now call this ‘gynaecology rice’. Almost six feet tall, the crop takes about seven months to ripen. Feudal families and tribals in Kannur used to give this to pubescent, pregnant and menopausal women. It is believed to reduce problems associated with hormonal imbalances.

Chuvanna kunjinelu

The aromatic white rice was once used only for cooking the food of the gods, such as payasam and beaten rice. At present, it is used by mortals for making fried rice, biriyani and ghee rice. Apparently, even today, the beaten rice (aval) is boiled in water and given to people suffering from epileptic fits.

Vellanavara and rakthashali

Both are a must for preparing the medicinal karkida kanji that is now sold in ready-made packets all across India. It is believed to have several health benefits and is popularly consumed during the Malayalam month of Karkkidakam (June-July). ​​

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 6:19:19 PM |

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