A Peek into Toda Culture

The winding uphill path suddenly opened out to a wide grassy plateau-like feature. We had arrived at a Toda village – the chief reason why I had signed up for this 14 km hike in the first place.

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The Todas are an indigenous tribe of the Nilgiri hills in southern India. They are originally a pastoral community, even though the modern day members are steadily settling down to agriculture and small businesses. Regular contact with civilization has eroded many socio-cultural practices, like fraternal polyandry as well as much of their distinctive language. Paradoxically though certain aspects of their culture have become disproportionately popular – like their shawls brightly embroidered in red and white as well as their signature jewellery – indeed in recent times a rising awareness about the need to conserve their habitat has actually led to new construction of their typical oval, half-barrel-shaped hutments.

No such structures were in sight here, though. But as several Toda men and women milled about on the grassland and even performed a traditional rhythmic dance, my gaze travelled to a secluded grove lined with stones, in which their temple was housed.

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The Toda religion is as distinctive as their temple. In keeping with the central position of the buffalo in Toda culture, their religious head is the priest-milkman who tends the sacred buffalo and apparently, lives under numerous strictures, including leaving behind his family for the time he acts as the keeper of the sacred dairy.  Again we did not get to see either the priest or the animal – instead the organized merry-making concluded with a highly animated visit to the busy Toda handicrafts stall and then finally the customary felicitation of the village headman by the hike organizers.

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As we started back, I could not help feeling that this brief, superficial interaction was not exactly what I had in mind when I had set out for the hike. But then, I realized that a deeper engagement with their culture based on long meaningful conversations and preceded by a good deal of reading was the stuff of serious research, lifelong study and dedication – and surely this ancient people deserved no less!

Through the forest trail

A ten km hike – did you say? I pushed my brains to some extreme calculations – alright, if the morning walk with my dog amounts to roughly one and a half kilometre, then multiply that into…mmm….a little more than six times?! And yet even after such mental calisthenics, I was no nearer to gauging how the hike would turn out in reality.

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When I had first looked up the word ‘zen’, I had found that one of meanings was a state of such complete absorption in a particular experience that there was no place for doubt or anxiety. Something similar happened in the hike – both my physical and emotional faculties were so deeply immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and texture of the forests that we passed through, that nothing else mattered – not the undone laundry at home, unreplied mails, pressing work deadlines or long pending appointment with my hair stylist.

The soft forest floor which sprung ever so gently under our steps, the myriad shades of green all around us, the refreshing scent of pine and ever so many kinds of bird calls – chirps, trills, whistles and even the occasional outburst of the laughing thrush…all this engaged my senses so entirely that at the end of three hours – including a couple of ten-minute breaks – I returned to the everyday world with mixed feelings – looking forward to a hot, three-course meal but also concerned for the sanctity and the vitality of these sylvan Nilgiri slopes.

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Eye of the Crocus

Famous for warming up any dish or drink with its intense colour and delicate aroma, Saffron is undoubtedly the most attractive of spices. And the fact that it is the most expensive too, only adds to its luxury quotient.

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Saffron’s exorbitant value owes directly to the fact that it takes over two hundred thousand stigmas from around seventy thousand Crocus sativus flowers – grown in roughly the size of a football field  – to yield just a pound of saffron ! Fortunately a little of the good stuff goes a long way – you need only a few threads of this to add the rich red colour and honeyed aroma to a family meal.

While Iran today accounts more than 90% of the world’s saffron production, good quality spice also comes from other Meditteranean regions of Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Spain and Italy as well as the Kashmir valley in India.

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A parting tip before you buy saffron – check for red threads with orange tips. If the threads lack the orange tips, avoid them as they may be dyed.

While saffron has been used in cosmetics, medicines, fabric dyes and even pesticides in different cultures, today it is most coveted for its power to transform the simplest of dishes into food fit for the Gods. So dust off your recipe book and see what you can make from this most gorgeous of spices.

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A Sip of the White Peony

At a time when the world is looking for ways to de-stress, the good ol’ cuppa has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Green tea especially is known to be rich in anti-oxidants and hence to boost the natural immunity of the human body.

But which tea is the most flavoursome? The one grown on the mist-laden slopes of Indian Himalayas, many would agree – more specifically the Darjeeling variety, known as the ‘Champagne of Teas’ for its aroma and delicate body.

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Photo courtesy: makaibariteam.wordpress.com

And if that is so, some connoisseurs would point out that the equivalent of a Dom Perignon in the tea world would then probably be Makaibari. Shadowed by the third highest mountain peak of the world, the Kanchendzonga, Makaibari is a premier tea estate in North Bengal, India. Comprising over 250 hectares of Camelia Sinesis on slopes ranging between 700 m and 1500 meters of the majestic Himalayas, this plantation has several firsts to its credit – the most significant are being the wold’s first tea factory in 1859 as well as attaining the world’s first organic certification for a tea garden in 1988.

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Away from the world of statistics, I prepared for myself a cup of Makaibari Bai Mu Dan or White Peony tea. The brew had a pale green colour  – almost white – and it was subdued on the palate with a mild honeyed aftertaste. And though I failed to recognize the aroma of “soft peony and mown hay”, as mentioned on the cover, I realized that my gaze had already drifted to the straggling geranium bushes in my flower beds whose shadows in the gathering dusk appeared like slightly drunk,  swaying caterpillers on the garden wall – happily, the tea was doing its work!

One in the Other

Yesterday at a friend’s place, I spotted a set of nesting dolls – a series of dolls of decreasing size, the smaller fitting into the larger. Since she had just returned from a trip to Russia, they could only be the country’s famous Matryoshka dolls.

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While I had come across such sets in museums and living rooms before, looking up its history never occurred to me. So I turned to the internet and found a delightful blog detailing the probable origins of this form of folk art. It appears the Chinese were the first to come up with nesting boxes which eventually gave way to crafts based on the basic premise of one hollow structure encompassing another. The Japanese too have their tradition of kokeshi and daruma dolls which draw on its ancient mythology as well as tradition of Zen Buddhism.

The first nesting dolls to be made in Russia were apparently by a folk artist named Sergei Maliutin assisted by Vassily Zviozdochkin with the support of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy patron of the arts. Eventually the craft of making these dolls spread to East Europe and other parts of the continent.

Today, nesting dolls come in an attractive variety of sizes and themes – while mythology and folk culture remains the traditional models, modern artists are drawing on politics and pop culture too to give nesting dolls a contemporary edge.

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My imagination however began ranging further – what is the reason behind the timeless popularity of these nesting dolls? Is it because they are painted in bright colourful patterns, depict matronly women to appeal to the infant in us or perhaps because they symbolize one of the fundamental truths of the universe – that life can be known only by peeling off its many layers – one after another…

 

“Lake water lapping with low sounds…”

In the wake of the World Environment Day, I thought I would pen down something about the need to protect the natural beauty of the Nilgiri mountain range. Ooty, variously known as Ootacamund and Udhagamandalam, is the busiest city of the Nilgiris.  It is an extremely popular summer holiday destination for people from the plains of southern India. Unfortunately in recent years, it has been showing the ill-effects of such popularity too. Roads choke with traffic, parked vehicles and garbage while ugly hotels and unplanned construction pain the eyes.

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Thus it was with a great sigh of relief that we left the town behind and turned to the narrow path leading to the Pykara Lake. Technically a reservoir formed as a result of the dams on the Pykara River, the Lake nevertheless mesmerizes with its azure blue waters. This is exquisitely set off by the emerald green of the bordering forests. As part of the protected nature reserves, these forests have been known to shelter a variety of wildlife including herds of wild elephants, bisons and even the odd tiger.

The Pykara Lake has exciting boating options for visitors ranging from motorized speed-boats to rhythmic canoes and even comfortable paddle-boats. A short distance from the Lake are the Pykara Falls which look gorgeous with their white foaming waters after they have been replenished by the monsoons.

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With better road connectivity and more tourists coming by cars, such hidden gems of nature have become more accessible now. Unfortunately this brings with it the danger of environmental pollution – hence the challenge remains to balance tourist delights with preservation of pristine habitats.

Literature and Setting

On a day when The Hindu carried an interview with the Booker-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy, my mind turned to what really goes into writing fiction. When the interviewer Zac O Yeah asks her about how much autobiographical detail goes into her book, she responds with a question of her own – “…where does your imagination end and experience begin?”

As I began to ponder over the question, my eyes swept over the misty blue hills visible from my front veranda and my attempted intellectual exercise took an unscheduled turn. So then, could a physical setting – the colours, sounds, smells and even the mood of a place affect your writing? I began to wonder…

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There are accounts that writers look for a peaceful and evocative places to compose poetry – certainly the Nobel Laureate Tagore did that! He not only visited naturally exquisite places in India like Ranikhet and Shillong where he wrote some of his best works but travelled to far-flung places like Japan, Turkey and South America which provided the impetus for his essays and letters on a range of topics like culture, nationalism and history. Then there are the famous English Romantic poets like William Wordsworth who found inspiration in the serenity and beauty of the Lake District.

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On the other extreme are women writers – no surprises there! – like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen who barely left their immediate surroundings and yet left a mark on the history of English literature.

How about dirt, pollution, conflict, violence – can one write in a place marked by such intense negativity? Even though a writer could be writing about experiences like riots and forced migrations, but can he/she do it while all around the landscape burns and smokes?

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These are questions to which there are no simple answers and which take me to entirely different time periods and settings – far, far away from my bit of paradise in the hills where my dog sits softly curled up at my feet and nuzzles me for her breakfast.