India for centuries has been home to some of the most exotic spices in the world. For the same reason, it has long attracted explorers and traders – indeed the country was a prominent stop on the famous Spice Route that at one time extended from the west coast of Japan to the Mediterranean.
And it is here, in the Nilgiris, that many of these coveted spices are still grown. A moist climate throughout the year together with moderate temperatures and rich soil works wonders to sprout these jewels of exquisite flavours.
Fresh peppercorns look like garlands of plump, green berries. Depending on the kind of processing, they turn either black or white – while the former is hot and pungent, the latter is milder and smoother. When soaked in brine, the white peppercorns acquire a luscious pink hue. Black pepper in traditional medicine is believed to be a digestive, diuretic and stimulant.
Cardamoms again can be of two types – the green is smaller but more fragrant while the larger brown variety has a bolder taste. Besides refreshing the breath, cardamom is believed to aid the digestion and act as a heart stimulant too. A small shopping tip – buy cardamom that is still encased in its pods so that its flavours remain intact. After using the cardamom seeds, you can put the pods in jars of sugar or rice to impart a sweet aroma.
Cloves are actually dried flower buds that have a sharp astringent taste. Apart from flavouring food, clove is used for dental hygiene and its oil applied to treat toothache. However use clove sparingly – a little of this intense spice goes a long way.
With its warm, sweet flavour, Cinnamon is a must-have for any self-respecting gourmet. And believe it or not, it is actually the inner bark of trees of the Cinnamomum genus. Apart from jazzing up cakes and curries, cinnamon is again thought to alleviate symptoms of acidic peptic diseases.
Isn’t it wonderful how our very own corner of the Western Ghats is home to such flamboyant flavours? No wonder then the masala chai brewed from all these spices turns out to be the perfect accompaniement to cold, misty Nilgiri evenings.
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.
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.
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.
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!
On the day of The Hunt, the sun dawned on a regal scene. Red flags fluttered in the gentle breeze as the lush valley glowed a pale emerald in the heart of the Wellington Gymkhana Club – today the site where the dashing riders of the Ooty Hunt Club would converge on their steeds after a three hour ride. Even as elegantly dressed ladies twittered in the pavilion and their bundles of energy darted through chairs, there was a palpable sense of expectation – any moment now, the riders might come into view…
The Hunt in this context is actually a formalized horse-riding exercise, often through uneven terrain. Though real hunting of game no longer takes place, the hounds faithfully carry on before the riders – in a throwback to the British tradition whereby the erstwhile colonial rulers brought the Hunt into this corner of the Nilgiris in 1835. It has remained active ever since, thus making the Ooty Hunt Club the only functional one outside England and Ireland. The Club is primarily patronized by the riders of Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, whose Commandant is its Honorary President as well. Every year there are around ten Hunts conducted, with each getting progressively difficult.
Low sighs of wonder rustled through the audience as the riders galloped into view – the Masters of Fox Hounds resplendent in their red blazers and other riders – including a lady and two kids as well – smart in their navy ones. After the new riders were ceremonially given their lapel pins, it was photograph time…
All around were bright, happy faces – riders and spouses posing proudly with the mounts, kids petting the now-sleepy hounds, the grooms beaming proudly upon being complimented on their excellent work – I wondered at the shrill ugly voices of hyper-nationalism, always dangerously near. Always up in arms to defend “tradition”, would they ever understand this scene before me? These values of fairplay, respect for rules, regard for the sport and sheer love for these grand animals – values that represented tradition in the best sense of the word.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I settle down with my family in this shady corner of the Nilgiri Hills – having moved house yet another time – I wonder what is it that transforms a physical shelter into a ‘home’.
when you start cooking meals at a place for yourself and your family
when your dog finds its corner and curls up comfortably
when you hang up paintings and family photos on its walls
when you plant flowers and sow seeds on the adjoining patch of earth
So many ways to fashion, mould and remake a dwelling into one’s own.
Ah…another difficult word! Do I actually ‘own’ all this – the brick, wood, earth – with which I put together a home. It is a predicament familiar to those living in rented places, staff quarters, company bungalows and so on.
What then makes up my home, why then should I care, how then can I put down roots..!!
As I ponder over these questions, I find a vague comfort in a section of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:
“…Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.
It shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye.
…For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky,
Whose door is the morning mist,
and whose windows are the songs and the silences of the night”.
Tucked away in a corner of the Nilgiris, one gets to appreciate the true bliss of a misty Sunday morning. With arrangements for brunch safely out of the way, I slid back into my snug bed with the Sunday papers and my second mug of coffee that morning. After lazing about for more than hour, I decided to get up. Reheating the said mug of coffee for the fourth time, I strangely felt comfortable in my warm kitchen even as I could see a grey mist just hanging out from the windows. I left the clothes in the adjoining verandah to their damp fate on the line and allowed the aroma of the coffee to swirl through my veins. My eyes fell on two golden yellow mangoes in the fruit basket and I remembered how I had blogged about the divine fruit a few days ago. A thought started taking shape through the wispy coffee vapours…
What extra-ordinary experiences are possible when technology and nature come together! Thanks to broadband connectivity, within 5 minutes I had found a recipe which listed most of the ingredients that were lying around in my pantry. To get me going, I chose to play Tagore’s Megher Pore Megh jomecche in Suchitra Mitra’s powerful voice…
“Clouds gather on the horizon,
darkness descends on my sky.
I stand at the doorstep, My Beloved
You make me wait – Oh why ?”
Perhaps the comforting aroma of baking somehow clashed with the melancholy lyrics but by the time I was tidying up the counters, my senses were awake in a curious way – alive and saturated, as though, in all that was beautiful and evocative…
Oh – in case you were wondering about the recipe:
Pre-heat the oven at 200 degree C and line an 8 inch round tin. Cream together 2/3 cup of unflavoured butter and 1 cup of white sugar till light and fluffy. Beat well 2 eggs into this mixture. Sieve together 1 ½ cups plain flour with 1 tsp baking soda into the mixture and give everything a gentle swirl. Now fold in ½ cup buttermilk (can be substituted with sour milk – for that add a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar in half a cup of milk and rest it for 10 minutes) very gently. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for around 40 minutes. When it has cooled, glaze the cake with warm mango jelly and finish with a mango rosette on top!