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Celebrating plant diversity

Miguel Braganza

There is no better way to preserve a plant than to make it an integral part of the local cultural celebration, cuisine or medicine. The Aztecs for instance, preserved grain amaranth or the ‘royal food’ Rajgira and even concerted action by the Spanish conquistadores could not destroy this crop. The maize of the Red Indians has amazingly survived the European onslaught and, on the contrary, entered the European diet. Similarly, we are at that time of the year, when we can experience how plants are preserved by our culture, traditions and religious observances like Konnsachem Fest, Novidades or Naivaidnya, the Monti Fest or Gauri Pooja or the Mattoli at the Vinayak Chaturthi in the month of Bhadrapad.

Recently, Cassie Rodrigues, the founding Principal of Don Bosco College of Agriculture, Sulcorna and now based in Bengaluru (meaning ‘home of the beans’), shared with me that the Mangalorean community celebrate the Feast of Nativity as a harvest festival and eat a meal that has eleven different vegetables. It reminded me of two things: the Gauri Pooja that has five different vegetables, and the harvest festival that the Agriculture Officers’ Association had partnered with Clube Nacionale in September, 1984, to raise money for publication of the first AGRI DIARY, released on 19 January, 1985. This publication continues to this day and helps to highlight some ways to preserve our biodiversity.

The Mattolli at Ganesh Chaturthi brings into the spotlight the entire plant diversity of the rainforest in the Western Ghats. Since these plants are needed for the celebration, the villagers ensure that at least some plants of these species are conserved and perpetuated. The mattolli frame and the fruits are normally tied with twine made from the bark of the Kewan or Dhamanni tree (Helicteres isora) also known as the East Indian Screw Tree because of its screw-shaped pod.

The Wood Apple or Bael (Aegle marmelos) meanwhile is a tree that is required for its trifoliate leaves used in Shiva worship. Lord Ganesha is the son of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, and hence it is considered auspicious to have a Bael fruit or leaves in the mattolli. The fruit has properties of regulating body temperature and is used to prevent heat stroke as well as to reduce fevers. No wonder then that the tree is a part of the culture, tradition and observances.

Flowers of Nanno (Lagerstromia microcarpa), Lingudd or Nirgudi (Vitex negundo), fruit bunches of Fish-tail Palm or Bhillo madd (Caryota urens), the Soapnut or Rintto (Sapindus laurifolius),  find place in the mattolli along with coconut, betel nut, banana, limes, lemons, citron, nutmeg, and other cultivated fruit, nuts and spices. The Kangla vine or liana (Celestrus paniculatus) is known as the Intellect Tree.

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