As per the United Nations, there are over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world, accounting for 6.2% of the global population. They are the holders of a vast diversity of unique cultures, traditions, languages, and knowledge systems. On this International Day of Indigenous Peoples, Dr Deepak Acharya, an Ethnobotanist, a PhD in Plant Sciences and a herbal enthusiast, who has been working with Adivasis for many years, takes us to the jungles of Dang in Gujarat, Patalkot in Madhya Pradesh, and Bastar in Chhattisgarh to introduce us to some of the ‘superfoods’ that the Adivasis living in these regions consume; some of which can and should make a way into our kitchens! A first-person account …
I have been visiting the Patalkot Valley in Madhya Pradesh for the past 20-25 years. The breathtaking and mystical valley, situated 78 kms from the Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, has been my second home for years now. The valley, spread over an area of nearly 80 square kilometers, is known for retaining its original culture and customs and is home to the Gonds and Bharia tribes, who, experts claim, have been living there for the past 500 years.
The Patalkot Valley is the home of some of the rare medicinal plants and herbs and the Adivasis living in Patalkot make pulps and extracts of these herbs and plants to treat many illnesses and diseases, including measles, cholera, hypertension, diabetes, cough, snake bites, and many aches and pains.
Over the years, the Adivasis living in the 12-13 hamlets in Patalkot have not only become my family and friends, but they have also imparted their wealth of traditional knowledge onto me. These are their secret formulae that you will not find in any academic books. One gets to learn so much just by observing them and interacting with them.
For instance, in the initial years, when I used to visit Patalkot, it was astonishing for me to see how even the elderly, the women and the children would walk for 15-20 kms daily without getting exhausted. I would feel ashamed as even a kilometer-long hike would make me breathless, and they all would stare at me as if I had committed some crime! Then, gradually, valuable tips shared by them helped me work on my stamina and strengthen my lung capacity. I started documenting the stories narrated by them and that’s how I discovered a superfood — their secret recipe to physical fitness!
These Adivasis consume a root vegetable called agitha (known as Air Yam or Air Potato in English). Full of potassium and manganese, proteins, minerals and macro and micro- nutrients, these agithas give them the requisite strength to survive in difficult terrains by making their heart stronger. It also improves their digestive system.
Now, this is what is incredible. Adivasi women recommend agitha to treat vaginal dryness and hot flashes. It is also eaten extensively by women who have hit menopause. Initially, when I learned about agitha, I wanted to crosscheck the claims made by the Adivasis with the facts existing in scientific journals. It is well documented that agitha contains an element called Diosgenin which has diverse medicinal properties, including antioxidation and anti-inflammation. In fact, a review article mentioned that Adivasis living in Africa make pulp of agithas and use it to treat vaginal infections, irregular periods, and other inflammations. However, there is no study that elaborates on the connection between African Adivasis and Patalkot Adivasis! I have no idea whether, back in the day, the Adivasis from Africa visited Patalkot or the Adivasis from Patalkot went on an African safari! But it’s incredible how this knowledge gets passed on from one generation to the other and transcends geographical boundaries!
If you visit Patalkot or other such Adivasi-dominated regions, you will find these Air Yams carelessly hanging on to the fences of their homes. One crop fetches 10-12 kgs agithas in one season. This goes on year after year. Interestingly, one big root that produces these small agithas keeps growing beneath the surface of the ground. It’s taken out once in 2-3 years and weighs between 6 and 12 kgs. This is also boiled and consumed, however, once this root is uprooted, a new crop of agitha has to be planted.
Once, when I visited the Dang district in Gujarat, also an Adivasi-dominated region, I was ecstatic when I was served agitha with a roti made of rice flour! The agitha-roti combination was the best meal I had had in days!
Agithas taste like boiled potatoes. If these agithas find their ways into our kitchens and are given to women and children, imagine how fit and healthy the next generation is going to be! Unfortunately, we have been bitten by the consumerism bug, and most of us often end up picking up such ‘traditional superfoods’ from supermarkets and end up paying a bomb for these products in the name of healthy living. Instead of popping health capsules and multivitamins, we must create awareness among people so that they start consuming these traditional healthy superfoods; treasures that Adivasis and those living in remote corners of the country have preserved for years.
I am glad my work has taken me to places and I was able to document some of these incredible stories.
Crabs and mushrooms to beat monsoon illnesses
As soon as the monsoons arrive, the Adivasis living in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh flock to the nearby rivers, ponds and lakes to catch crabs. Seen in the picture above are the Madia crabs, which are said to be packed with healthy minerals. The Adivasis living in Bastar either make crab soup or eat a roasted delicacy. They believe the Madia variety of crabs boosts their immunity, keeps them warm during the brutal monsoon, and makes their bodies stronger. If you visit the markets in Bastar during the monsoons, you will find many Adivasis selling these crabs as they are also a source of their income. These crabs are also eaten in Dang, Gujarat and Patalkot, Madhya Pradesh.
Another common monsoon delicacy for the Adivasis are the mushrooms. Seen in the picture below are the Boda mushrooms that are predominantly found in the Bastar region. A fun fact. The Boda mushrooms are one of the most expensive vegetables sold in India! A kilo of Boda mushrooms easily fetch Rs 1,000-1,500 or more! And the reason for this is that they are packed with medicinal properties and essential nutrients and minerals. The Boda mushrooms are full of carbohydrates, fibers, zinc and, iron and are used to treat heart and blood pressure-related diseases. There are two varieties of Boda mushroom found in Bastar — Jaat Boda and Lakhri Boda, but it’s the Jaat Boda Mushroom that’s more famous and lucrative.
Interestingly, these Boda mushrooms are also very elusive. The Adivasis have to do a lot of hard work to find these Mushrooms in the dense forests of Bastar. However, they also have an eye for these mushrooms and they spot them easily.
Another variety of mushrooms that’s commonly consumed by Adivasis to keep monsoon illnesses at bay are the Futu mushrooms that are packed with antioxidants and proteins. Many varieties of Futu mushrooms grow in the jungles of Bastar. Not all are meant to be consumed, but the Adivasis can identify the varieties, like the Jaam Futu, that can be bought home and consumed.
Mahua rotis and raspberries leaves to reduce labour pain
A couple of years back, I visited Shimla to attend a conference organized by the National Biodiversity Board. After the meeting sessions, I would go hiking into the jungles. I would walk for 25-30 kms daily and meet and interact with local people. One day I saw an old lady plucking raspberry leaves. I came to know while interacting with her that these leaves are packed with medicinal properties. Expectant mothers are given these leaves. Consumption of these leaves helps in reducing labour pain. These leaves are also used to treat other stomach aches and stomach-related illnesses. Those living in the interior villages in the Himalayas have been using these remedies. One cup full of raspberries contains 56% vitamin C and 45% manganese and micro-nutrients. Do consume raspberries when you can!
Another delicacy that’s not just a hit with the Adivasis living in the Central belt of the country but is also a lucrative source of income for them is mahua. They make and sell liquor made of mahua, but they also consume chapatis made of dried mahua flowers. Also, the mahua seeds are crushed to make an oil which in local parlance is called ‘gulli ka tel’ (gulli oil). It is used to treat many skin-related infections.
There are many such food stories that Adivasis all over India are ready to share. We must start documenting them for our own good. Some of these superfoods stare at us from the shelves of supermarkets, and many of us end up buying these super-expensive products in the name of health, but in reality, some of these products are present around us. All we have to do is look around and try to make these Adivasi traditions a part of our lives.
Do you know Adivasis use the pulp of raw papaya to remove unwanted hair? Those living down South use coffee powder to exfoliate their scalp? Many Adivasis use dried pomegranate to deal with dental plaque? Deepak Acharya documents such stories regularly on Facebook. To read such interesting stories, follow Deepak Acharya on Facebook.