Why native tubers are a source of sustenance and pride for Kerala tribal women

The fest was conducted to popularise native tubers of the forest that provide livelihood for the Kadar community, while being an important source of food.
Tribal women collecting tubers in Kerala
Tribal women collecting tubers in Kerala
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It takes almost an entire day for Saritha and Sumithra to trek to the forest, nearly 30 kilometres away from their homes, located in a tribal hamlet at Vazhachal near Athirappilly in Kerala’s Thrissur district. Once they set out early in the morning, they return only at dusk but the bounty they carry is worth the journey. Kanjil, noota and theyvan, all varieties of native tubers, can be found in the surrounding forests. 

“Collecting the tubers isn’t always easy. The stones or the small rocks under which the tubers are rooted need to be removed to get them. We need to look in the right spots to get the roots,” Saritha tells TNM. The 47-year old woman was the eldest of the group trekking to the forest to fetch the tubers, which were once a staple of these tribal communities.  

The tribal hamlet of the Kadar community is located just beyond the checkpost of the Forest Department at Vazhachal that marks the border of the forest region. Vazhachal is one of the most sought after tourism destinations in the state and the only habitat of the Kadar community.

Tribal Women Forest Trekking

To celebrate the tubers, these women held a festival in December at Vazhachal, where various dishes are prepared to signify the importance of this crop. Called Moolika, the festival was meant to exhibit wild produce that is harvested by tribal people. And after the success of the first festival, they hope to organise more in the coming months.  

The festival

Moolika was born out of an impromptu conversation between Manju Vasudevan, associated with Dhara Livelihood Initiative, and Divisional Forest Officer Vazhachal R Lakshmi. 

In early December last year, a tuber hunt was conducted by two students, Reshmith, a student who has received a fellowship to study the Kadar community, and Bibitha, a student of the Kadar community who won the Samvaad scholarship of Tata Steel Foundation. The tuber collection was organised by Dhara Livelihood Initiative for Key Stone Foundation, which works on issues of natural resources and rural development. 

“British anthropologists who had documented the tribes had written about their use of tubers,” said Manju, who was Reshmitha’s mentor. Manju had initially planned to do a juice fest with naruneendi or narunari roots plucked from the forest, but then the DFO suggested a tuber festival instead.  

                                                     Manju with the tribal women 

“We wanted to popularise healthy tubers to the world outside. When we sell forest produce outside, we don’t receive even half of the price we ought to get. Through the fest, we also wanted to popularise our culture,” according to Bibitha who is Saritha’s daughter.

For the first-ever tuber festival, the women set up stalls and served a variety of dishes using the wild tubers available in the region. The festival was backed by the Vana Samrakshana Samithi of the Forest Department, while it was curated by Dhara Livelihood Initiative in Thrissur. It was also co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme.

The dishes were cooked by 37-year-old Swapna of Vazhchal, along with Shylaja, a tribal woman from Sholayar, another forest region in Thrissur. It included boiled chemb (Colocasia ) with onion chutney, mixed puzhuku made with a combination of tubers including kizhang, chembu and kaachil (purple yam).

“I was so happy when everyone praised the food. The value we got for our food made us so proud,” Swapna said. While Swapna doesn’t collect the tubers herself, she relies on the women who are experienced at collecting tubers and roots like narunandi, which is used to make a sharbat.   

For the festival, the tribal community served fish and crab from the Vazhachal river to further provide a local flavour to their fare. 

The collection 

The work is challenging and requires a deep and intimate knowledge of the forest to achieve. It is only after years of developing their understanding of the region that these tribal men and women are able to find the wild-grown tubers. “The tribal people can see things as soon as they enter the forest,” said Manju.

“We grew up in the forest and our parents used to take us with them. We used to watch them do this work,” said Sumithra. “We need to collect the edible ones, whether it's tubers or narunandi. For that, we need to dig in the right spot. The tubers should then be consumed in a day or two or their colour will change,” Saritha said.

                       Sumithra Digging Out Naruneendi 

Saritha also used to trek in the wild as a young child. “Those days, when we were young, we would trek to the forest after school as our parents would spend most of the day in the forest. Our main food was the produce of the forest,” Saritha said. 26-year old Bibitha standing near her, added, “Those days, we didn’t have any major health issues.”

Popularise the tribal, health diet

Another focus of the festival is highlighting the health benefits of tubers, particularly as a rich source of fibre. 

“Tubers are a sustainable food and available in almost all seasons. But many people in Kerala don’t eat tubers, except tapioca. In countries in Africa, tubers are an important crop. We can take it with whatever we like, chicken or beef. It’s healthy if you look at the mineral content,” Manju added.

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