Roasted and ground puzhukkalari (double boiled rice) is mixed with jaggery, grated coconut and crushed pappadam. The sweet is served on banana leaves kept at four corners outside the house. It is for the ants! This is Urumboottal or feeding the ants, an age-old ritual in Kerala done on the evening of Thiruvonam, which has been documented on the social media handle, Dakshina.
While the practice may not be known to many, siblings Kannaki Sarang and Unniyarcha Sarang have been doing it every year at their home, Sarang, at Attappady in Palakkad district. They, along with their friends and siblings, Vishnujith Unnikrishnan and Indulekha Unnikrishnan, have recorded it for Dakshina.
The social media handle has many such stories from Sarang, an alternative school opened by the teacher couple, Gopalakrishnan and Vijayalekshmi, over 40 years ago. They converted barren land into a lush, green forest, and created a way of living and learning for their three children – Gautham, Kannaki and Unniyarcha, along with a group of children, who did not receive any formal school education. Vishnujith and Indulekha, who belong to Thrissur district, are alumni of Sarang.
Life at Sarang
Dakshina’s YouTube, Facebook and Instagram (@dakshinaofficial) pages have videos about life at Sarang. Besides capturing the greenery around Sarang, spread over 12 acres, and the flora and fauna on its picturesque hilly terrain, the videos celebrate food, especially those made with foraged greens, vegetables, and tubers from in and around Sarang.
“Teacher (Vijayalekshmi) has a treasure trove of recipes with her. She does not keep a record of it and we felt that they had to be documented. Since cooking videos have a good viewership on social media, we decided to feature her recipes through Dakshina,” says Vishnujith, 29, who joined Sarang when he was 12, along with his sister, Indulekha.
They grew up with Kannaki and Unniyarcha and learned everything in their company, be it art forms, life skills, or cooking. They wanted to do something together and chose social media to showcase their way of life. “That’s how Dakshina was started over three years ago. We decided that even if people don’t watch it, we will keep on posting videos. That way, we can keep a record of everything,” adds Vishnujith, a flautist.
Vijayalekshmi, 66, who was not enthused about the concept initially, gives eloquent voiceover for the videos. “I have always kept myself away from technology, gadgets and social media. But I never discouraged them from doing it. Now, I enjoy doing the videos, especially after reading the comments on the videos,” she says
In addition to familiar Malayali dishes , Dakshina features several curries such as bamboo shoot thoran (stir-fried vegetable and grated coconut) and curry, thoran made with madantha or young leaves of the taro plant, pickles made with foraged vegetables and fruits, Karkkadakanji ( gruel with medicinal value ), chutney made from puliyarila (Indian sorrel) leaves etc. among others.
“The content often depends on the ingredient available at Sarang, now known as Sarang Hills. If it is the time to harvest a particular vegetable or fruit, we shoot a video featuring that. For example, Sarang has multiple tuber varieties, including purple yam, and so we have done quite a few videos featuring those,” Vijayalekshmi says. Harvesting various crops also become content, as in the case of turmeric, tubers and ginger. Festival special delicacies, especially those related to Vishu and Onam, too have been featured.
The popularity of Dakshina has much to do with the way the videos have been shot. There is an aesthetic and seamless blend of frames in the crisp, short videos, shot by 26-year-old Unniyarcha.
The talking point of the videos has been the use of the Nada chulha, a mud stove developed in Nada village in Haryana in the 80s. In one of the videos, 73-year-old Gopalakrishnan explains the components of the two-pot stove they use at Sarang. Another stove, built outside the bathroom, is a desi version of a water heater as it ensures steady supply of hot water to the bathroom.
“Dakshina is all about who we are and how we live at Sarang. We have not shot the videos just to run the channel. This is our way of life and we are happy that people are liking it,” says Indulekha, 25.
Unniyarcha adds that one of the earlier videos that went viral was of the soapnut tree at Sarang. It showed how the extract from the nuts is used to wash clothes and vessels. The Onam series was also widely watched. The episodes showed how they made pookkalams (floral carpet) on 10 days of the festival day with flowers from the Sarang campus — around 42 varieties of them.
The youngest generation of the family — Hiranya, Parthan and Chinmayi, the three children of Gautham and his wife, Anuradha, are also featured in some of the videos. They also don’t go to any school and are being brought up the Sarang way by their parents.
Vijayalekshmi is happy to be passing on her knowledge to the next generation. “Urumboottal is what I used to do as a kid while growing up in my native place, Ranni in Pathanamthitta district. It is all about being benevolent and compassionate to others,” Vijayaleksmi says.
The school under Sarang, which started in June 1982, had to be closed down in 2016 due to financial difficulites and lack of facilities. The classes at this school were based on the aptitude and talent of a student. Language, mathematics, science subjects, computer, politics etc were among the several subjects taught to the students, but only according to a student’s grasping power. Students were also trained in kalari, music (both vocal and instrumental), dance, etc.
There are four cottages at Sarang Hills out of which two have been constructed by the Sarang family. The others have been built by labourers and volunteers. “There are a lot of pending work in all these cottages. We are finishing it as and when we can,” says Indulekha.
The nearest town from Sarang Hills is Agali, which is around eight kilometres away. But there is no proper road to Sarang Hills for the last one-and-half kilometres.
Although the school at Sarang was closed down six years ago, Dakshina has brought it back to the limelight. “Now, people are asking us whether they could visit us and experience a stay at Sarang. Right now we can’t afford that; however, we are working towards it,” says Vijayalekshmi.
Team Dakshina has already chalked out plans for the future. “We want to revive the YouTube channel, Sarang, which focussed on the history and curriculum of Sarang. We also want to feature traditional medicinal mixes that teacher knows,” says Vishnujith.
Vijayalekshmi adds, “I have been planning to write them down for the future generations. But I have realised that this is a better medium to reach out to people.”