As we approached the Navara Eco Farm (NEF) located on the banks of the picturesque Chittur River at Karukamani in Palakkad district, we saw vast vistas of green paddy fields straddling the Navara crop.
Peacocks strutting around with their feathers spread out herald a welcome to the ancestral home of Narayanan Unny, an enterprising agriculturist who specializes in the cultivation of Navara rice.
A peacock perched on a roof in the farmhouse.
Strolling around the farm and the paddy fields, we got a whiff of the countryside, learnt about traditional techniques of farming and watched workers toiling hard in the fields to transplant the rice. We also stumbled upon a resting place which was used as a surveillance post in olden days to keep vigil against pilferage of grain.
A surveillance post in the paddy fields.
The ambling pathways in the sprawling 18-acre farm offers excellent exercise coupled with scenic views. The farm teems with medicinal herbs, coconuts and lovingly tended fruit trees droop with the weight of mangoes, jackfruit, lemons, papayas and pomegranates.
The dense foliage in the farm shelters a bewildering variety of birds and butterflies. An organic vegetable garden has several varieties of vegetables which keep the kitchen well supplied.
We saw workers winnowing, thrashing paddy after the harvest and having a siesta under an enormous mango tree overlooking the ancestral home. The old tree has been a silent witness to the sweat, toil and success of three generations of traditional agriculturists.
After the harvest.
NEF flaunts many claims to fame –it is not only the world’s largest Navara farm but also the only certified organic medicinal farm.
The prime focus here is the cultivation of Navara, the wonder rice. What makes it distinct are its medicinal properties and therapeutic qualities.
Tracing the origin of this indigenous plant of Kerala, Unny said, "The rice finds mention in ancient Ayurvedic text like 'Ashtanga Hridaya' and 'Susruta Samhita' which refers to it as a 'pious grain' used on auspicious occasions."
Drying paddy after the harvest.
Grown from time immemorial, Navara is known as 'Shashtika rice' as it takes a short span of 60 days to grow and mature. It has been used in Ayurvedic treatment from the ancient times and prescribed as a health food for people of all ages.
Navara is cited as a special cereal with properties to remedy the basic ill affecting the circulatory, respiratory and digestive system. But the yield and quality of Navara varies from location to location.
As the cultivation of Navara was restricted to a limited area and did not multiply substantially, it is considered an endemic crop. It is hailed as the 'gold with fragrance' because if a farmer has a stock of seeds with him he can earn a good price in any season.
Narayanan Unny in his farm.
Grown mainly in Palakkad, the rice belt of Kerala, Navara is Kerala's indigenous medicinal cereal plant. Herbal healers have endorsed its rich medicinal properties. The paddy is used for Ayurvedic treatments since time immemorial.
Traditionally 'Navarakhi' and 'Navaratheppu' are two major treatments in Ayurveda for arthritis, paralysis and neurological disorders. Navara Kizhi is also used in Ayurveda for treatment of polio, psoriasus, rheumatism, diabetes, snake bite, peptic ulcer, emaciation of limbs, lifestyle maladies while the porridge of Navara grains in milk is prescribed as special food for invalids and infants. It has also anti-cancer properties.
Navara, the native genetic resource of Kerala, famed for its extensive use especially in Panchakarma treatment (traditional rejuvenation therapy), is popular among foreign tourists and stressed out executives.
Navara, 'the wonder rice'.
Scientists at the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) have identified an anti-cancer gene in the rice and say it is effective against breast cancer. According to a scientist of KAU research wing, once clinically developed it will be a great boon to cancer patients. It is a unique cereal having high content of free amino acids.
Describing his experience of cultivating this singular strand of rice, Unny, the third generation owner who took over the farm in 1995 said, "The cultivation of this medicinal rice variety was almost extinct when I took it up as a mission to rescue this fragile heritage rice. Non-availability of pure seeds, low yield and high cost of production leading to commercial non-viability and conversion to organic farming posed great challenges." Tireless in spirit, Unny relentlessly pursued his venture.
Unny's strenuous efforts have not gone unnoticed. He bagged the maiden organic certification for Navara cultivation in 2006. He formed rice clusters for Navara and Palakkadan Matta varieties of rice and applied for Geographical Indication (GI) certification.
Vast vistas of paddy fields and swaying coconut trees.
In 2007, these two varieties were the first agricultural products in India to earn the GI tag. Navara Eco Farm epitomizes environment friendly farming, preservation of ecology, and bio-diversity. He was honoured with the Plant Genome Savoir Community Recognitive Award for his conservation efforts.
To cater to the increasing number of visitors and growing breed of researchers and scientists to his farm, Unny has joined the bandwagon of agro-tourism promoters, synergizing both agriculture and tourism. He has ambitious plans to start the first rice museum in India showcasing different varieties of rice and traditional farming implements.
All photographs by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is a Food, Travel, Lifestyle Writer and Photographer contributing content, articles and pictures on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment, and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals & guide books, brochures and coffee table books.