Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mobility and Roots

Everyday we drove  from our Hospet address, via Hampi Road into the countryside. Hospet town is always a joy to escape from, since it has an ugly bustling market crammed with  leaf, flower, fruit , provisions and numerous other things, but no  really memorable place that invites a visit.  Nor do occupied pavements, testimonial to our poor urban planning skills, provide space for any kind of leisured saunter.
      This time we were back  on Hampi Road to view the main cluster  of  temple buildings, which are best described by that old cliche, poetry in stone.  After a circumambulatory stroll we reached the Virupaksha Temple, which  is still in use. It has its own elephant, a vivacious fellow in robust black who takes bananas from the hands of visitors and  pats them on the head exercising great discretion.  The temple is grand and peopled, intricately carved and pillared, with a central pavilion housing a handsome god and a ceiling  painted with intricate murals. We waited in line to enter the sanctum sanctorum  with its renovated  flooring of shiny gray granite tiles.
Eventually,  we walked out towards the right side of the temple to the river's edge, past the promenade to the wall with steps that led right down to the water. We  watched this inspiring sight, blue water with  many pavilions and cave like structures and large crags in the middle of the water, and people in regular boats and basket boats,  and beside shady trees on the embankment and  little  wayside eateries serving snacks and tea and coconut water.
The steps from where one can watch the river communicate a sense of serenity. This is routine everyday activity, the rhythms of  visitors thronging to the temple and  then to the scenic river's edge for a glimpse into a bucolic world. Having had our fill, we head back to the temple, retrieve  our footwear and head out of the main entrance  to the market that flanks both sides of the road. There are sellers of fruit and brass and prayer accessories and odds and ends, possibly recently displaced from a series of  demolished structures all along the road.
We stop at a colourful stall selling bric a brac, mostly cushions and spreads and bags and buy a few colourful embroidered and mirror embellished bags that recall the work of kutch craftswomen.  The ebullient woman who sells them tells us she is a Lambadi,  from one of India's extant gypsy tribes.  The only lambadis I have met before have been all of us dressed in special costumes and beads rehearsing for a school dance. How little we know of this woman's life  and  even less of the Dhanajars whom we see as we drive past stretches of agricultural land in parts of northern Karnataka.  Srinivas tells us when we ask him that the Dhanajars  are keepers of goat and sheep and that when the harvest is done, they help in clearing the land by bringing their flock to  feed on the fodder left in the fields. They can be found in small groups in fields where the harvest has been gathered. I saw some of them scouring out vessels beside a water source while yet another small group sat beside  a cooking cauldron  with pots and pans and blue tarpaulin tied on the backs of horses.

When one stops to think of it, this is a wonderful symbiosis of recycling and use, and one that sets the food chain in motion  as it were perpetually.  Of course, questions remain. Where do the Dhanajars go when the harvest is over?  Do they store collected hay for the cold season?  They possibly sleep under  tarpaulins and keep their flock in barred enclosures.  Fortunately Karnataka is not subject to the kind of biting cold that reigns supreme in the Northern plains. Our car slows down many times for the flock of sheep and goat to pass. One time we see mules carrying little  cloth panniers on their back and from them recently-born  baby goats peer out, making  for a delightful picture. It is the most unusual mobile nursery I have seen and with  a bunch of incredibly bright eyed (goat) kids.This is probably the safest way to move the babies in the group.

I wonder if there is  a market in India for goats' milk and cheese. Our  nation's first father consumed goat's milk. Apparently the milk is more easily digestible and  the goat itself is a compact and easier to raise animal. Now that terrible truths about dairy cholesterol are being uncovered, will the quest for health foods direct the dhanajars towards a less nomadic life? Will they be able to use this as an  effective bargaining point with  resident farmers? Would that mean a better deal for them or a better life? It is wonderful to sleep under the stars and  move to  where the harvested fields lead you but to do this forever and a day seems a trifle daunting.What does this mean for the succeeding generations  that tend to the flock?  Do they get access to schooling  and to other ways of living? Maybe all this is mere  wishful thinking, induced by the view from a car window.
We return to Hospet and I sight yet again  a young lad sitting on the pavement with some sort of gourd in front of him. This time I get out of the car to explore. The beautiful gourd like object is in fact a large root. Cut to about half its length , the outside  looks rather like a brown leather drum  with  taut white skin on top. The name of this root is Poo Shakaragandi or kandamolai. It has the texture and flavour of raw banana stem,  extendable to the taste of  raw shakkargandi or sweet potato The  young man cuts out thin slices for me that look rather  like bits of gauda cheese. He offers to sprinkle sugar over the pieces which I decline.

This is yet another of the seasonal offerings that nature so generously sends our way, fast losing its  foothold in our dusty towns and cities.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hirebenkal and History

   We visited Hirebenkal one fine morning. Hirebenkal is about thirty odd kilometres from Hospet, and is spectacular, since it suddenly springs into view almost unexpectedly. India's Valley of the Dead, so called, because of the enormous quantities of  megaliths that are spread through an entire stretch. At some point the dead were ritually buried under these huge capstones, dolmens, and hut like structures with portholes. No evidence now remains of any  human bones, nothing except these large stones all over the place,  washed clean by centuries of wind and rain. The entire hillside looks like an abandoned village.
 The men and maybe women who set up this burial site, possibly commemorative or ceremonial,  lived on another stretch of the mountains, but even less trace remains of their daily lives.  Rural  and pastoral lives, framed by thatched roofs, cannot be expected to survive a period of over two thousand years.
So these monuments to the dead are all we have, to understand these ancient people by, and we drink in the   rich, green gorgeous landscape, plentiful with  water, where they once lived. The ASI has identified the place and put up some signs and posts, but it is still rather difficult to access. Notices  warn people not to disturb the stones because no treasure lies buried underneath. Not that anyone is reading these instructions or taking them to heart. The entire stretch  is in need of   urgent attention.  It needs to be made visitor accessible and visitor friendly, and there is desperate need both for information from human sources as well as public conveniences. The ASI officials are probably busy doing good work elsewhere but surely they could consider recruiting  young people living in the area to guide people around the megaliths.   We were lucky to have people working with the ASI who could take us there, but this is not really the norm.

This picture is typical of the landscape we walked through to access this  secluded and little mentioned area.

What continues to puzzle me is that I grew up reading about Stonehenge in the English Countryside and the men and women who might have built it as a site of worship, and the  barrows in the adjoining vallleys where they were buried. How is it that years of history lessons never alerted me to the presence of such a marvellous site, in my own country? I received my schooling long years after the ASI had identified this as a protected monument!
 What is it that stops our historians and our administrators from disseminating information about such astounding sites?   Hirebenkal is definitely an important marker of an ancient civilizational cradle, but it exists outside the imagination of  our countrymen and women. Anywhere else in the world, such a site would have been treated as a national treasure trove and local adminstration would have vied to increase the footfalls.   Schools all over the country that incorporate educational trips could definitely take their students to visit this megalithic site , thereby sensitizing them to our rich heritage.
The countryside around the megalithic site, well outside a hypothetical three kilometre radius has great potential as camping and trekking grounds. Greater visibility would add to the lives of the people who continue to live in the area. It would also substantiate our claims  to  cultural and geographical diversity as  a nation and make history come alive instead of being neglected in terribly produced black and white textbooks? And perhaps  young people would  dream of   trekking in Northern Karnataka and visiting  Hirebenkal someday because it is a worthwhile thing to do?
In today's newspaper,  Justice Katju speaks of  our poets, Ghalib, Sarat Chandra and  Subramania Bharathi and the need to be honour them with the Bharat Ratna, our highest civilian award, so that we  create  a long history of  real heroes to look up to, albeit posthumously.  He accurately pinpoints our national reading deficit and the abundant poetry and prose in our national languages which  have generated  very limited interest. What we as a nation  also suffer from is a deficit of both real and imagined spaces. This is a huge pity because we have abundant sources in the vast peopled expanses  of our country and in the landscape, both natural and man made. We must make much  much more of our geography, history and literature!

Coffee, Tea and Me

 Hospet was our launchpad for expeditions into different parts of Northern  Karnataka. We stayed at an upmarket hotel cum lodge, which had a choice of air-conditioned  and  parabola edged  rooms with french windows that allowed you  to look  outside. There wasn't much to see; one large multistoreyed building  with a large tree  and stretches of concrete terraces and water tanks but the room was airy and comfortable and had colour TV.
What we struggled with were  the beverages! Of course I use the plural we here when the truth of the matter is that my friend has surmounted the challenges that the absence of beverages  can set up. So while I complained that the morning tea looked like all the kitchen cloths had been boiled in it and  shuddered whenever I broke through the ugly brown encrustation to  encounter a thick viscous over-sugared brew,  she stoically sipped  black coffee without sugar, without even so much as a murmur.
My objections of course have a long pre-history. Despite growing up in New Delhi in a fresh-filter-coffee-preparing- family  and  subsequently marrying into yet another coffee filter entrenched family, I had unashamedly succumbed to the delicate flavours of Darjeeling leaf tea and was completely besotted by Runglee Rungliot, Razia Begum, Orange Pekoe and  for want of an alternative, Lipton's Green Label, which if fresh can make for a pretty decent brew.
Each morning at Hospet brought on the attendant trauma of terrible tea and I had not  brought along with me any tea in instant teabags since it is my unswerving belief  that bagged leaf teas never rise to any occasion.
 So there was nothing much to do except gulp down the ghastly liquid that postured as tea and comfort oneself  with the knowledge that the morning breakfast was more than suited to the requirements of   a royal delegation. We partook of  fresh iddlis and hot vadais and chutney and sambaar and pongal or special fried rice with a pineapple kesari to boot; all this around 7.30 am in the morning, before we embarked on our day's journey.
We got back on the beverage route when we drank thin highly sugared tea, atop a hill temple at Jatinga Rameshwaram   which, the officiating hosts told us to treat  as prasadam. Tea is psychologically required at moments like this, especially if you have ascended 708 not so easy  steps to view an Ashokan edict,  so we sipped the  brown, warm liquid that could  have easily doubled up as charnamrit.  We dealt with the problem of not having good tea in the evenings eventually by not drinking the beverage after disappointing experiments at roadside tea stalls.
By which time  a wonderful idea took possession of me. This was after all coffee country! You couldnt blame anyone for bad chai. The Western Ghats did not grow leaf tea and possibly the coffee bushes had subdued every bit of  the fragrance in all extant  teacrops. So, I decided to quit complaining about the tea and  ambitiously embarked upon drinking filter coffee, because there is something very compelling about the aroma of   roasting Arabica  and Robusta seeds, especially if you are at your wits end.  I ventured gingerly into coffee territory hoping to savour  filter coffee. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you could not get filter coffee for love or money in most places.
Our hotel served instant coffee, so did the swankiest hotel in town. Local restaurants which swore by vegetarianism and filter coffee  provided  small tumbler davaras of thick chicory based brew that  had little to do with coffee grounds through which hot water had filtered.  At Lingsur, I ventured out at teatime to a nearby restaurant and ordered a coffee. What I got was ghastly frothy espresso, the kind that auditoriums in New Delhi have been serving since the 1970s, ( made with instant coffee powder) in the interval between two act plays.
 The young man at the counter told me that no filter coffee was available anywhere in Lingsur. When  I shared this insight with our guide Srinivas, who was subject to my daily  beverage anxieties, he averred that I could not hope to drink filter coffee anywhere in North Karnataka. This was a body blow! Now I knew who bought all the Bru coffee that was advertised on television channels! As an attempt to  reconcile myself to bad beverage days, I philosophically reminded myself of my grandmother who had her first cup of coffee at the age of thirty five because the only beverages she drank  until then were milk, buttermilk and   rice gruel or kanji.
 Expecting very little by way of beverage salvation, we travelled to Hirebenkal to view its spectacular megaliths.
At the end of a long day spent traipsing the  Hirebenkal valley, fortified with coconut water and bananas, we headed back along a circular route to our vehicle, marveling at the giant cacti bushes in bloom. One variety, often called the cowblinder cactus or the pear cactus was resplendent with yellow flowers and  pink lotus bud shaped fruit. One ASI official accompanying us, told us that the fruit were edible.  He broke off some fruit from  the cactus  with a stick and proceeded to beat all the thorns out of it, with his stick. I tried holding the fruit in  my bare hands and a shower of fine thorns  immediately attached themselves to my fingers. While I disengaged the almost invisible thorns, Khan sahib had divested the fruit of all its thorns and it was now ready for consumption. He lopped off the tip of the fruit and poured a crimson red liquid onto my outstretched palm. The liquid was sweet and had tart overtones, and  its rich colour was remniscent of the sweetened  syrup of the kokum fruit. Khan Sahib then squeezed out  an extremely delicious  deep crimson jelly  like substance with seeds that tasted rather like the passion fruit. The fruit of the cactus  was apparently a popularly consumed delicacy in the district.  The local name for this fruit was "Dabbagole Hannu" and  sweeter versions grew all over the place and  were a known  source of enriching  blood haemoglobin. We descended the hill accompanied by the lingering taste of the fruit.
As we moved past flat ground  our attention was drawn to a yellow flowering shrub that grew everywhere and  we are told  that its flowers were collected to make a drink  that was drunk in lieu of tea in the area. Khan sahibe didn't know its name and there was no means of finding out, so all I have is some pictures and much reduced tea and coffee cravings.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

No Shoka with Ashoka

                                            Sunshiny sunflower fields 
We visited parts of Northern Karnataka. Over the trip we replenished an old friendship with  long conversations. Our time together was punctuated with  field work,  periods of rest and quiet and the sharing of meals thrice daily.  My friend as Chef de Mission was revisiting Ashokan edicts and I was an attendant lord, if we eschew gender in this instance.Through these stone etched edicts, Ashoka  shared and  disseminated    personally experienced understanding and hard learnt truths  in the aftermath of the horrific Kalinga war.

The edicts were  at a considerable distance from one another. They are not particularly accessible to the modern tourist, used  to arriving at  destinations, accessing the site  and  heading to the cafeteria for re-hdyration. Srinivas and his Ambassador took us to most of the sites, but there was a lot of walking through field and rock to be done, occasionally bits of strenuous climbing through  both man made and naturally formed steps in the castellated hills that are part of the backdrop of Northern Karnataka.  The  hill contours  along the skyline are not smooth and undulating but are embellished with large rocks and crags , so much so, that these natural formations look rather like fortifications.
 The hills enclosed agricultural country and  the  abundant Tungabhadra and the Bhim  rivers ensured that  the land was rich in bananas and  lush green  paddy. We were at the beginning of the harvest season. Large mounds of rice were  spread out to dry by the wayside as were cobs of corn and  red chillies.  Walking for a few hours through the fields and rocks can build up quite an appetite.
For instant sustenance, we unpeeled pods of moong dal and tuvar in peak growth season and ate them with gusto. We saw the prosaic flatbean in flower  and  sunflower fields in full bloom We were  introduced to the joys of eating raw groundnuts, freshly  uprooted from the ground. We chewed upon juicy dark purple sugarcane stems beside the grove where Vaali, the Kishkinda monarch battled brother Sugreeva in ancient lore. One memorable moment in our food forays was when we encountered a double row of  magnificent tamarind trees..The bagful of green tamarind fruit  we gathered from the stately green trees lasted  over the next few days.Living in the city and dealing with produce that comes in plastic bags  off  supermarket shelves, it was a  unexpected reconnect with the source root and a continued visual treat.

corn cobs and red chillies drying in a field and  
areca nut  spread out to dry in the picture below.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fruit Of The Palm

Yet another wonderful thing I want to remember is savouring mangosteen after many years on the  way to  Calicut Airport the day we were to return to Delhi.. Under large shady trees, there are any number of vendors doing  brisk business.  Other than the brine fruit carts and  and piles of clam shellls, small waysisde stalls selling sundry snacks dot the journey.  The most welcome is the coconut seller who sits beside a small built up territory of green coconut and deftly swings his scythe,  lops off the head of the coconut and hands out  an instant packaged thirst quencher with a  long plastic straw tucked in for convenient sipping. If a coconut  that falls to your lot also has flesh,  he deftly fashions a spoon from the side of the  green shell which he splits  into two, handing over  two half cups of  really delicious still unformed coconut.This is an old  familiar ritual readily recalled.
Mangosteen, however, was always brought home and eaten, so eating it on the street was a novel experience.
The mangosteen is also a fruit of another palm, and is a little smaller  than the green coconut, rounder in shape and deep purple brown in colour.  It is slit open, again with a scythe and reveals six or eight little sacs filled with a juicy white fruit, resembling perhaps the litchi. There is a thin white outer skin that needs to be peeled off, to get at the soft interior, which is seldom sweet, but approximates to  a more delicate variation of the water chestnut. The mangosteen is called nongu in Tamil Nadu and my nephew assures me that this palm is not cultivated anywhere in  Calicut. It is probably true for I have only seen abundant  coconut palms and betel nut palms.
 I struck up a conversation with the young lad who  efficiently cracked enough  nongu to feed all of us. He had boarded the  bus from Pollachi in nearby Tamil  Nadu to station himself off the highway to Calicut airport in order to sell his produce. Nongu is abundantly available in the summer months  all over South India.
To find it in  November is a bit of luck and I admired this enterprising  lad, who had  carted a sackful of nongus and leaves and a large container with nongu juice, having prepared a sugared drink with the fruit for those who wanted it.  When an order was placed, he picked up one set of palmyra leaves and quickly knotted the slatted ends to make a very pretty bowl. Into this green boat-like container, he slid in the scythed fruit and extended the bowl to the mangosteen muncher.  The  green bowl   not only held mangosteen fruitbut also proved to be an extremely handy receptacle for partaking of  mangosteen juice.

 I carried my leaf fashioned bowl back home to Delhi because it was so hardy and an important reminder that  the best designs were creative and grew out  of functional requirements.  This was a very holistic and eco friendly use of  natural resources, aesthetically presented. How I hope that the nongu will not be subject to the  tetrapack suffering that has befallen the coconut. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Nuts About Fruit

I reached Calicut a day before  Eid and  stayed on a day after The Revathi Pattathanam festival at the nearby Thali temple where the descendant of the  Zamorins continues to  honour scholars and philosophers. Calicut or Kozhikode as it is now christened has hosted a multiplicity of cultures for exceedingly long centuries. It continues to be home to several communities and boasts of a multiplicity of religions and cuisines. When the plane touches down at Kozhikode airport , the landscape is predominantly green, with cottages discreetly tucked away beneath trees. It is only when you drive into the heart of the city and its commercial centre that you see the ascending buildings and the newly positioned malls, conspiring together in recently conquered space.

This time, there was no sadyam feast to partake of, so we sampled local fare in different parts of the city. One mall I visited served traditional Kerala cuisine, ranging from idiappam( rice noodles) to chilli katta (steamed, chopped and garnished tapioca served with  hot green chilli and tamarind chutney) and a range of pradhamans(kheers made of cereal, lentil and fruit). All these foods were  reasonably priced and unbelievably inexpensive by Delhi Mall standards, so we ate without wincing and flinching at prices after a very long time.

My favourite  moment in Calicut was the discovery of an amazing  fruit snack selling in different parts of the city. We first noticed the carts along the road adjoining Calicut beach. Large jars were arranged all along the cart. These were filled with cut and whole fruit that  were immersed in what looked like brine. At  first glance these recalled  decorative salad jars with chunks of fake carrots soaked in fluid that form part of most Italian Eatery decorations. These however  were meant to be eaten. Sliced pineapples, mangoes, carrots, beetroot, cucumber and whole guavas, large bers and gooseberries(amla) were  the  standard offerings on display. In a country where potable water remains an everyday luxury, anxieties regarding  the liquid immersed fruit immediately surfaced.

 We dispelled anxiety  with the aid of our new scientific learning. The jars sparkled and the brine water was not clouded over. The fruit immersed in it looked fresh and  inviting and a great number of people eating it seemed happy and healthy, even by our  exacting standards of finickitude.   The vendor used a pair of stainless steel tongs and fished out a piece of fruit which he handed over to the buyer, deftly opening and closing the lid in the course of the transaction.  We began our exploration with sliced cucumber and  whole ber. Each piece cost us the princely sum of one rupee and tasted delicious. The brine water also had vinegar and chopped green chilles which lent a piquant flavour to the cucumber and the ber. When we asked for  gooseberries, the vendor told us that they weren't ready yet.

 Over three days, we sampled the fare from several carts and discovered the delights of this delicious, inexpensive and fast-moving snack.. The nature of fruit is such that if left alone in brine and vinegar it begins to putrefy. Most vendors we spoke to said that they were sold out at the end of the day and that they renewed their fruit stocks every other day.Slices of pineapple, raw mango and whole guavas cost three rupees apiece, and  the pineapple slices won the palate vote, closely followed by the guava. Conversations with vendors at locations such as Bathord, Bangladeshi Colony, Mannanchira Maidan and  Pulimode  have led me to conclude that this fresh pickled  fruit'n'vegetable combo is the special preserve of  communities that consume meat and fish, who have evolved this cottage-industry technique of ensuring adequate  fruit and vegetable volumes in their daily diet.
Traditional food options no longer form part of the everyday food currency of the big city. Invaded by the global endemic of  uniformly prepackaged, processed and sanitized foods, such fare is a poignant reminder of patterns of eating and consumption that we have shrugged off nonchalantly.  Assuredly,  it will take  Walmart and Carrefour  a very very long time to  sustain or carry forward such practices and customs,  let alone replicate them. We seem to be doing pretty well without them!


This is  from a street vendor's cart on the way to the Airport.