Monday, July 26, 2010

Changpas of Ladakh

Up in the Changthang plateau, Ladakh, what one can see occasionally is a caravan of people and animals along with their belongings for setting up makeshift shelters. Life for the tribe 'Changpas', the nomadic pastoralists of this region with an average altitude of 14600 above sea level is really that, an unending caravan. Here amidst the rugged mountainous terrain which has a brief season in which anything can grow, these 'northerners,' or 'Drukpa 'in Tibetan simply soldier on, along with their sheep, goat, yak and horse.

There are several 'Ladakhs'. Leh, the capital city now a tourist hotspot with all the trappings of modernity, of bustling markets, trekking companies and hotels is miles away and worlds apart from life in the upper reaches. Changthang remains remote, disconnected even inhospitable, certainly not on any tourist map. None of the opportunities for earning a living here from the tourism industry, nor is there any settled agriculture.

Survival in this high ground, snow covered for 8-9 months in the year is a challenging, nay daunting task. It is centered around livestock; Rearing of animals, consuming and selling the produce milk, hair, meat is the main and only means of livelihood. Movement is the key, over the mountainous paths in constant search of pastures for their livestock and habitats for themselves.

Unlike other nomadic pastoralists, Changpas do not move from one climatic region to another; they do not for instance 'migrate' in the winter months to warmer climes. Rather they move short distances within the same zone. Migratory routes are established over years with campsites identified at vantage points. Typically, there are constructions with stone wall boundaries for protection against the chill and the wind. Acutely conscious of limited grazing season of 4-5 months, they are simultaneously harvesting grasses for storage when the frost sets in.  ( Trekking in Harmukh Peaks )

Up in the Changthang plateau, man is pitted against nature, Changpas have evolved techniques to even out the periods of surpluses and shortages. In the summer months, when the livestock produces high levels of milk, dairy products are converted into less perishable forms like butter and cheese. Again, animals are fattened up during the summer to be slaughtered early in the winter, while the weather is conducive to storage. While the struggle against the elements to survive is a bitter one, it also comes with a blessing. Because the terrain and the climate are so difficult, there is no pressure from settled farmers, unlike what other nomadic groups in the region face. Agriculture is well-nigh impossible and thus remains very clearly a Chanpa turf!

The blessing comes with a rider though. Their constant movement is hardly conducive for any development programs of the government to be targeted towards them. Thus for most, they remain excluded from any of the welfare or protection schemes of the government. Life can get very grim, up in the icy terrain. The caravan of Changpas often encounters. mishaps. Their tents are swept off their poles by the strong winds or they see their animals die due to heavy snowfall
They have to necessarily contend with sickness, injury even death. At such moments of even tragedy, the caravan cannot stop. The movement, momentum has to be kept up, no matter what the cost, animal or human. Many times, it is the elderly who simply die. Sometimes it is children. What could be more torturous or traumatic for parents to lose their child and carry on regardless? It is not only the climate or terrain that is harsh for the Changpas.

There are other calamities that the Changpa stoically faces. Often it is the man of the house who migrates to the higher pastures, with the livestock leaving his family at a safe place with adequate food, fodder and firewood supplies. Neither has anyway of knowing immediately of any accident, sickness or even death has befallen their loved ones. It may be 3-4 days, for the information to reach. It is just the way things are. There seems no way it could be any different, not for the previous generations, not for the Changpas now.

No doubt, the absence of health care and medical services is glaring. Education too has taken a big hit. The very mode of life of this nomadic group runs contrary to the current concept of education as it is for thousands of children across the country. How can the Changpa children even conceive of a school building, teachers, classes and extra-curricular activities? They will live their lives as nomads, shepherds, never perhaps knowing the discipline of study, nor the value of an education. Never knowing that things could be different in the world beyond the Changthang plateau.  ( Pollution in River Jhelum )
All their learning comes from the path and the life pattern handed down over hundreds of years. Of course the learnings are vast, immeasurable the life-skills, best practices to sustain, conserve their meagre resources, pitted against what is easily one of the harshest climes and terrains in this Himalayan zone. Changpas inhabit a world that is unknown and unseen to much of humanity outside the Changthang plateau. There is inevitability to the pattern of life here and there is no question of 'choosing' an alternate to the nomadic way of life.

Yet the gnawing question still remains: will the children and indeed the future generations continue to live the same way, a life of pristine value and worthy of the highest respect, yet one that remains outside the purview of development? Is it fair that the robust Changpa children will continue to roam the heights in search of fodder much like their parents and grand-parents, sans the skills and knowledge that is within the reach of others in the state? To enable this generation of Changpas to make informed choices about their lives and destinies would indeed be laudable. It could chart a different course of life for the quintessential wanderers who live a life that others may not even dare to dream. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Story Of Birbal Maheshdas Bhat

Birbal, whose real name was Maheshdas Bhat, was the Chief Minister (Wazir-e Azam) of the Mughal court in the administration of the Emperor Akbar. He was one of Emperor’s most trusted members along with being a part of Akbar’s nine advisors, known as the “navaratnas”, meaning “nine jewels”. He was the only Hindu who was a “Din-i-Ilahi” believer, a new religion created by the Emperor Akbar. He was a very dear friend of the emperor, who liked Birbal most for his wit and wisdom, as a result of which they frequently had witty and humorous dialogues between them. These conversations have become stories and now are part of a rich tradition of folklore and legend.      (  Changpas of Ladakh )

Early days of Birbal’s Life: Birbal grew up in a Kayastha Brahmin household, poor but well educated. He was very shrewd and talented in using wit to his advantage in any situation.  He learnt Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian (it was state language at that time) at the age of 5 from his grandfather. As a family tradition he also learnt music and poetry. He started writing his own poems at that young age only. He was also good any tuning and singing poems and his wit mixed with humor attracted any person who had a conversation with him.

Maheshdas got a chance to show his talent in writing poems and singing ability when he was invited by Bhagwandas, the king of Jaipur, who was very fond of encouraging artists. Maheshdas used to write poems with the penname “Brahmakavi”. Then he also went to the King of Rewa and served in his court. At that time Tansen was also a member of the same court at Rewa. Later he joined the court of Akbar in 1556 A.D and worked with him for 30 years.    (  Shastri Jee )

Birbal’s family: Maheshdas Bhatt was born in the city of Trivikrampur in 1528 A.D to Gangadas and Anabhadevi.  They were Kayasth Brahmins. His grandfather Roopdhar was a great Sanskrit scholar and resided in Patrapunj. Maheshdas was the third child and at a very young age lost his father Gangadas. His mother sent him to her father Roopdhar at Patrapunj.

And he got his education by his grandfather. Because of his accomplishments Maheshdas was able to marry a girl from a well known family in Kalinjar. After marriage, he was financially settled.

Last Days of Birbal’s life: It was said that Raja Birbal met Guru Amar Das, the third guru of Sikhism on his way to the battle of Malandari Pass. He and his army had their meals in the Langar, when some individual told him that Guru Amar Das had a precious rasayana (a rejuvenating ointment that promised eternal youth according to Ayurveda’s Bhoota Vidya). Birbal demanded this rasayana from Guru Amar Das. But it is believed, Guru Amar Das saying God’s name is the true rasayana and this rasayana was only gifted to the previous Gurus.   (  Sanskrit as the language of introducing the gods )

Birbal did not believe him and instead got angry. However, he had orders to reach Malandari (Muhim) the next day. Abandoning his plans for the rasayana, he had to continue the journey.

Attempting to crush the unrest amongst Afghan or Pashtun tribes in Northwest India, Akbar sent troops for the battle. When the troops faced resilient resistance from the Afghans, Akbar sent Birbal to help Zain Khan in the battle, and the Zain Khan (who was jealous of Birbal due to his close proximity with the Emperor)  misled Birbal to enter a narrow pass at night. The Afghans were well prepared and were ready on the hills. Many men on Birbal’s side lost their way or were killed in the holes and the caverns and it was a terrible defeat, in which Birbal fought with bravery but died on 16 Feb 1583 A.D. The Birbal’s death was said to be caused by treachery, not military defeat.

Akbar was very shocked by the death of Birbal and he didn’t attend court for two full days and didn’t eat or drink anything and mourned for a long time. It is believed that Sanchit Fazal killed Birbal as he couldn’t stand the close relationship between Akbar and Birbal. Birbal’s last wish was that upon his death, his ashes be immersed in the River Ganga at Haridwar, but Akbar did not yield to this wish and instead he had a well dug, near the river and buried his ashes there (’Thanda kua’ near Harki Pauri, Haridwar).

Why was Birbal Popular? Maheshdas was a poet and author whose wit and wisdom impressed Emperor Akbar a lot and he bestowed a new name on him – Birbal (Bir means Brain, Bal means Strong) and the title of Raja.

Birbal’s participation in many important military campaigns proved he was a rare combination of a man with a pen and the sword. He accompanied Akbar on military campaigns to Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Due to his high position and influence with the emperor, he was envied by many.

When Akbar heard the death of his dear friend in the battle against Afghans, he was greatly shocked and did not eat food or water nor attended his court for two full days. It is said that this was one of the only 5 times that Akbar did not attend his royal court during his reign.

Akbar Birbal’s genuine love and friendship
Akbar’s genuine love and friendship for Birbal is attested by two incidents. Once, when Birbal fell off his horse and was knocked unconscious, Akbar personally took care of him and brought back to consciousness.

Another time, while watching the fight between two wild elephants, one of the elephants went mad and ran after Birbal. Akbar brought his own horse between the elephant and Birbal and saved Birbal’s life. The elephant stood silent and didn’t attack Akbar. Everyone was shocked as Akbar could have been hurt severely or even died if elephant was attacked. These two incidents are usually mentioned to indicate the Akbar’s love and friendship towards Birbal.

Birbal’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri: Built in 1571 A.D, the palace of Birbal at Fatehpur Sikri, is one of the marvelous buildings of imperial Harem. It is at north east from Jodha Bai’s Palace and it consists of four-square rooms, all interconnected through open doorways and two oblong entrance porches on Northwest and Southeast corners. All the four rooms have flat ceilings, and porches have triangular chhappar ceiling with pyramidal roof.      ( pride of Led Zeppelin )

The rectangular columns have lotus petals and stalactite designs. The first floor has beautiful Jharokhas overlooking the court below and a simple projecting eaves. On an octagonal drum, a dome of the upper rooms rests, which is also carved with a raised trefoil pattern. The domes are crowned by an inverted lotus and kalash finials and also have the traces of tile work. The entire construction is composed of lintels and beams, and beautifully carved brackets have been used to span the spaces between the pillars and ornamental arches. These brackets are there on both faces with lotus and the Arabian designs. Approximately triangular surface area between two adjacent arches and the horizontal plane above them of the arches also have arabesque and floral design.

Akbar Birbal Stories: Birbal Stories are very famous and popular in India among all ages of people. They are usually called by Akbar Birbal Stories. Even children are very familiar with these stories as the stories have found their way into the language class syllabus.

The dialogue exchanges between Akbar and Birbal have been recorded in many volumes. Many of these have become folk stories in Indian tradition. Due to the wit and humor they depict, the Akbar-Birbal stories are loved by one and all.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Story of Walnuts in India

Walnut (Juglans regia L) is a single natural resource that has a lot of bio-diversity and adaptability potential. It grows in foot-hill, abondonded, road side, riverside and marginal land areas. The present plantation is mostly of seedling origin that receives nil after care and yet showers its bounty upon the owners.

North Western Hill Regions of India, abound in lofty mountains and majestic slopes where, walnut germplasm thrives best in its natural temperate climate. Commercial cultivation of edible walnut at present is confined to the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand and Arunachal Pradesh with an estimated area of 97 thousand hectares and annual production of 113 metric tonnes (2005-2006). It is an important dry fruit having a long shelf life. Walnut kernels are labeled as a health food fruit rich in oil with 65 percent lipid of polyunsaturated nature safe for consumption. Walnut cultivation is directly connected to the economic prosperity of the people living in remote and far-flung areas. Use of walnut kernels in Agri. based food industry, kitchens, gift packets, ritual, recipes are well known. ( Birbal name was Maheshdas Bhat )

Barring some regular walnut plantations in governmental farms, we do not have elite walnut grooves with farmers. The life span of walnut tree extends to many decades even to a couple of centuries. In J&K felling of green walnut tree is prohibited by law. Walnut is a monopoly crop of Jammu and Kashmir state with an annual turnover of Rs. 2500 million out of which Rs.1180 million are in foreign exchange. It is exported to over 42 countries and Agri.Produce Export Dev. Agency (APEDA) GOI New Delhi has certified walnut produced in J&k as Organic. The said organization has included J&K under Agri Export Zone for walnut in 2002-03.  ( Led Zeppelin song of kashmir )

It is heartening to note that the book under review, first of its kind in country, based on the compilation of the up to date data, generated by various workers numbering over two hundred is scanned, analyzed and classified and presented in 23 chapters besides refrences,annexures and index.

Introduction of walnut as such includes historical perspective dating back to 12000 to 9500 years as an oldest tree food of mankind. The origin based on excavations, prehistoric deposits dating from Iron Age, ancient nomenclature, travel of seed material from one region to other, heritage from Indian point of view as gathered from Rajtarangni, Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri, Nuskha Dar Fanni-Falahat and other texts is quite comprehensive.

Present status of walnut at Global, National and State level explained on the basis statistical figures from authentic sources pin-pointing the productivity levels,acerage, year wise exports and revenue give an overall view of this dry fruit of commerce. Botanical description on the parameters of phenology, yield potential criteria supplemented with labeled figures make the understanding easy. Nut quality in the form of weight, percent kernel, size, shape, shell strength, seal, suture, flavour, oil composition besides genetic diversity prevalent in Juglans world over is explained. Economic importance with respect to social and religious beliefs, Doctrine of Signatures, trade and environment, handicrafts are discussed. Nutritional contents of walnut kernels as a health food based on international data are included for the benefit of common man. Walnut oil, its composition and uses in culinary and artistic work are highlighted.

Cultivation aspects of walnut are described under propagation, rootstock and cultivars. It includes establishment of nursery and management, grafting, budding techniques besides newer approaches of propagation like zero energy high humid polyhouse chamber, hot cable callusing (HCC). Review of research work done in India on walnut seed germination,propagation,study of exotic and indigenous ,germplasm, genetic variability,dehulling,nutrients and bio-regulators and named cultivars has been attempted.

Quality criteria both for export and domestic consumption fixed by concerned agencies and shelf life at different storage temperatures, utility of controlled atmospheres storage, vacuum, carbon dioxide and nitrogen on walnut kernel are discussed .Methods of prolonging the shelf life by the use of anti oxidants, irradiation fluorescence light and colored packing based on research findings are explained.

Historical background of walnut utilization by man in the form of recipes, rituals connected with religious ceremonies, both in-shell and shelled in India are put on record for the first time. In addition walnut based recipes of international importance scanned through internet sources worth trying by housewives, chefs, cooks, confectioners and consumers in general are compiled. Nature's bunties from walnut tree components along with medicinal and microbial properties, walnut liqueur and allelopathic traits are included in last chapter.   ( Tourism in Jammu Kashmir )

The book authoritatively contains almost all the information on the subject sufficient for the planners, scientists, administrators to plan their future programs. It is sure to serve a baseline document for all those interested in walnut not only in J&K but for all other walnut growing states of India. It is a reference book for researchers, scholars and students besides libraries of higher learning.

The landmark book compiled by a Professor Emeritus and an Agriculture Scientist having served the cause fruit growers of state for over forty years is a tribute to his dedicated work.