They say if an elephant were to enter a harvest-ready kaatu yanam (180-day crop) rice field, no one would know. For the sea of paddy, which would stand at least eight-feet tall, would completely hide the pachyderm. S Ganapathi Tamizhselvan, who is a paddy farmer and researcher, talks about another variety that grows equally tall called the ottadam (200-day crop). He’s unsure of the reason behind this name but we’re picturing a lengthy duster that people use to clean ceilings. There’s the iluppai poo samba (135-day crop), a fragrant white rice which is harvested from black coloured paddy. The kala namak, with an inherent salty taste, is a variety that’s mostly preferred as an offering to the Buddha. When the field is filled with purple coloured paddy, then it's definitely the chinnar variety, where the grains are long like the basmati. These are some of Tamil Nadu's native rice varieties that are being conserved by Ganapathi who is part of the Thondaimandalam Foundation.
Founded by Ananthan Krishnan, Himakiran and Parthasarathy VM, all of them organic farmers, the main aim of the Foundation is to focus on sustainable rural livelihoods. In addition to native species paddy conservation, they are also involved in the conservation of water bodies and tree-planting drives.The native paddy conservation programme began in August 2019 and the team has been able to successfully conserve 156 varieties of paddy, presently being grown in three of their farms.
Rathnavel Pandian, a coordinator of the team’s Capacity Building and Research, shares, “We’ve got in-situ conservation ongoing in three different areas, one in Thiruppukuzhi in Kancheepuram district, another in Komakkambedu in Tiruvallur district and another at Chinnababu Samuthiram in Villupuram. Each of these farms have about 90 different native varieties and we’re focussed on doing character studies on each of these varieties.”
This, they say, helps maintain the genetic purity of the species. “Paddy is self-pollinating and there’s also cross-pollination. So when cross-pollination happens between species, the genetic purity is lost. We study the physical characteristics of the paddy in three different stages and there are, on the whole, 54 different characteristics. We will be able to find if there’s an inter-mix in a particular species only when we have a proper record of its characteristics,” he explains. Some of these characteristics include grain length, leaf angle, stem angle, node colour etc. While they do the character study manually at present, the team plans on developing an app for it soon. To prevent inter-mix, the fields have physical separators placed between varieties.
Ganapathi Tamizhselvan at Thiruppukuzhi, Kancheepuram
The characterisation of these paddy varieties is tantamount to maintaining genetic purity. The kaatu yaanam, for instance, is believed to be perfect for diabetics, and it supposedly helps them keep their insulin levels under control naturally. Another variety called the ratha sali, as the name indicates, is said to be good for improving the haemoglobin content in the blood. The poongar is preferred for pregnant women and legend has it that if young men wanted to participate in the ilavatta kal competition, an ancient practice among Tamils for selecting prospective grooms, they’d have to drink the water that was used to soak cooked mappilai samba rice overnight for 45 days (If the name wasn’t indicative enough). Ganapathi, who was inspired by Nammalvar, a visionary organic farmer from Tamil Nadu, says the benefits of cultivating native species are multi-fold whereas with a hybrid variety, the cost of using fertilisers, weeding etc., will only increase the load on the farmer.
Despite the growing interest in organic produce among the public, Ganapathi shares that this has not turned into a huge movement yet. “The cost is definitely a factor. But there are several benefits to growing and consuming native varieties,” he says.
Varieties of paddy seeds with their code names tagged. They are soaked in water prior to sowing
The group from Thondaimandalam Foundation was trained by Dr Debal Deb at his farm Basudha located in Odisha, before beginning the process themselves in 2018. Dr Debal is a reputed scientist and has been conserving and studying over 1,400 varieties of paddy from India and neighbouring countries. This year, the Thondaimandalam Foundation has been selected as a facilitation council (FC) under PGSOC (Participatory Guarantee System Organic Council) for organic certification and later as a facilitation agency under the Union Government’s PGS-India. They plan on encouraging more farmers to pick up character documentation of the native species of paddy in their fields.