Saturday, July 29, 2017

Snakes, scientific names and other Angadibail stories

Our intern Meena form Chennai  wrote her experience of her stay in Angadibail .

The thing about starting on a journey knowing that you are going to love it is that you just cannot be wrong.
On a grade eleven school trip, as I lugged a basket of leaf litter refusing help and inviting everyone’s ire, I knew that I would come back. And I did. This time, as an intern who was assigned the job of documenting traditional bath and cleaning products used in and around Angadibail.
With the cliched wind in my hair, I stood at the back of a pick-up truck as we (Savita Akka, her son, the cyclist and I) reached the forest centre in Angadibail. I quickly got introduced to comfortable forest living, but took longer to get to know the people that I lived with. 

At some point in the first week, Savita Akka’s son became Atmeeya, the crazy botanist who would walk through the forest and spew ridiculous scientific names of the green things that he came across. Most of our conversations would be about birds, snakes and scientific names and how he was incapable of making the truth sound true.

Somewhere between building walls out of palm leaves and learning to light lanterns, the cyclist morphed into Sailesh. Sailesh, the one I ended up writing an article about. From this architect-who-does-a-lot-of-other-things, I decided to learn as much as I could. From fitness lessons – that I am yet to start – to building a fire and navigation skills, I went to him with questions and he delighted me with answers.

Eshwar Anna, the house-keeper with a fan following, was another bundle of knowledge and skills. As he went about doing in seconds whatever I was struggling to do, I could not help but stop and marvel at this simple man. And by now, everyone in my city knows about his delicious Red-Rice Idlis.

Writing about food, Angadibail made me realize my intense love for Idli, Bella (jaggery) and Thuppa (ghee) - the Holy Trinity, the Tirumurti of forest food. Food cooked over firewood also has an irresistible smoked flavour. Jackfruit, jackfruit chips, jackfruit happalam, jackfruit idli and deliciousness aside, forest food is also about other things. I realized this as I stood over the firewood stove and kept stirring a mass of leaves, waiting for it to look edible. With coconut involved in every dish, I was also able to push myself out of my dislike for coconut, to a gratifying extent.

The other aversion that I was hoping to get rid of concerned snakes. The case was neither helped by four snake sightings on a particularly nice and sunny day nor by Atmeeya’s delighted declaration that a rat snake had been living in the house for a long time and shall continue to do so. The night of the four sightings had me waking up every few hours and checking the roof for the beloved rat snake. However, all was not in vain. I learnt a lot about the different types and ways of snakes as I braved through the well-illustrated Snake Bible. I now know more about India’s Big Four snakes and how they like to kill people than about India’s freedom struggle.

In the two weeks that I spent in Angadibail, I fed cows, planted sugarcane, irrigated the field, cooked on firewood, made forest jewellery, learnt the Kannada alphabet, played cards and managed to sit back and relax. While each was an experience, planting sugarcane was a revelation. It was after I was done that I realized how focussed I had been on the task at hand. Experiencing single-minded focus of that kind was truly refreshing. Over the next few days, I experienced it again with making forest jewellery and then with reading books. Reading in Angadibail is a combined feeling of drowning and levitating. With no electricity or network coverage, I felt myself drown in the world of the book and levitate in my imagination.

Something about the laid-back nature of the Forest Centre is extremely nourishing. As my overactive mind slowed down and the farce of multitasking broke, I began thinking, learning, doing and being in the true sense. While I can hope to put into words my interaction with the people at BuDa, I do not dare to try the same with the bond that I shared with the animals there. It was immensely rich and natural.

Amidst all this, I spent a few hours visiting villagers and documenting traditional cleaning products. With Savita Akka accompanying me for translation and local knowledge, I furiously took notes and had fun code breaking Kannada. We would be welcomed with warmth and sent back with bags and arms full of fruits, roots, saplings and relics. While learning that cow dung had been used in skin care certainly surprised me, I was more impressed by the lack of waste generation. Be it processing soap nut or kajal preparation, final product provided nourishment to the skin and the residue provided nourishment to the earth. Attempting some recipes, I enjoyed getting everyone to try out the ‘instant’ natural shampoo that I had prepared and feigned disappointment when the traditional way of preparing kajal refused to predict the gender of my future baby, as promised by local custom.

At the end of two gratifying weeks, Savita Akka declared that I needed an adventure and sent me packing to Gokarna (which is another engaging story). Thirty months ago, I had dumped a pile of leaf litter and grinned at Savita Akka. She had been amused. This time around, returning from Gokarna late at night, I grinned again at Savita Akka. And she grinned back.

Meena Chockalingam 

Anga Sanskara

Title: Anga Sanskara (Kannada)
Author: Dr. Savita Nayak
Data collected: 1990
Published: 1995
Following are parts of Dr. Savita Nayak’s doctoral dissertation - Anga-Samskara - translated into English by Meena Chockalingam  who had interned with BuDa Folklore .

Essential oil preparation
Essential oils were traditionally applied before taking a bath. While coconut oil was usually used, coconut milk, turmeric oil, tender herb oil and Suragi oil were used along with it for special occasions.

Coconut Oil
Coconut oil was prepared in every house. It was never bought. It was prepared in the following three ways.

·         Coconut butter to oil
This process was used only in the winter. Water is added to grated coconut and cooked in a big vessel. This is constantly stirred until aroma wafts, to prevent the mixture from getting burnt. This is then taken off the heat, covered and left overnight. Early next morning, the mixture is ground, adding water gradually. Once it becomes a paste, more water is added. Coconut butter floats and is gathered in a ball. This is transferred to another container and heated until the bubbles die and aroma wafts. This method is similar to the process of making ghee from butter.

·         Coconut milk to oil
Oil was prepared all through the year using this method. Grated coconut is cooked and left overnight. This is ground in the morning and coconut milk is extracted. The extracted milk is boiled in Nayyadha Bangala (a traditional flat, broad earthen vessel) for nearly an hour. Once oil starts floating, a coconut shell (with a hole at the bottom) is immersed into the boiling liquid and held with the hole underneath the oil layer. As the coconut milk fills the shell up, it is removed with a spoon as much as possible. The remaining coconut oil is boiled until the leftover coconut milk vaporizes and a clear, transparent liquid is left.

·         Preparation for oil produced in the mill
Coconut is broken in half and sun-dried for seven days. The kernel separates from the shell and is given to mills where oil is processed.
Occasionally, very thick coconut milk was extracted and applied on the body, the very same day. To use it for another day or two, the milk was placed under the sun.

Suragi/Honne Oil
The Suragi/Honne (Calophyllum inophyllum) tree is a mangrove tree that grows along the sea shore.  Honne oil was used in the past to light diyas (clay lamps). Children were usually sent to collect these berries from the sea shore. To prepare oil, the collected berries are sun-dried. The outer-shell is broken and the soft kernel is gathered. The kernel is then pound with a stone. The pound kernel is roasted (dry) on a pan until aroma wafts from it. This is then ground (with water) to paste and the paste is boiled until oil starts floating.
Earlier, there were mills in villages were the kernel would be processed to produce oil. The oil was stored in a small earthen pot (with a narrow opening) called honnenna mogge or suragi enne mogge.

Tender Herb/Chigur Oil
The tender leaves of fragrant and/or medicinal flowers like jasmine, kanakambara (Crossandra infundibuliformis) and jaathi malli (Jasminum auriculatum) are ground (with water) to a fine paste and mixed with coconut oil to produce tender herb oil.
Champa/Sampigge (Michelia champaca) Oil
Although no one remembered the preparation of this oil during the field study, it finds mention in Tribal Mahabharata - Gamakkalu Mahabharata.

Turmeric/Arashena Oil
Turmeric is grown in the backyards. Of late, there is an increasing trend of buying it from the market. To make oil, turmeric stems are broken into smaller pieces and sun-dried. It is then powdered using the traditional dry stone grinder. Alternately, fresh turmeric is ground in a traditional wet stone grinder (adding water gradually) to a fine, smooth paste. The turmeric powder or paste is added to a little coconut oil to prepare turmeric oil. While the powder could be stored (usually in a coconut shell with a small opening) to be used later, the paste was used the same day to make oil, as it cannot be stored.

  • Suragi/Honne oil and turmeric oil were used only for nursing mothers. As an exception, Honne oil was applied on babies that cry persistently or babies that had very thin and delicate skin protecting the head as it is supposed to have medicinal properties.
  • Tender herb oil was usually used for brides and grooms. It was occasionally mixed with turmeric oil and used for the same purpose.
  • Only coconut oil was used by the others. Moreover, coconut oil is the only oil used in hair care.
  • For children, coconut oil was applied at least twice a day - usually early in the morning and in the afternoon. It was also applied after a bath.
  • Women used coconut oil as cold cream. Glistening skin was considered beautiful. When they attended weddings, they applied coconut oil on their palm and rubbed it on the face, hands and feet.
  • In their literature, they talk about the use of castor oil (for cooling) and gingelly (sesame/til) oil (for fragrance) in hair care.
  • The Kare Okkalu tribe followed the ritual of applying oil on the scalp of visitors when they entered the house.
  • Oil was applied and hair was combed every day. Even men oiled regularly, never letting their hair dry.
Dental Care


Twigs of mango, cashew and jatropha were used as toothbrushes. Jatropha was used in tribes as it was easily available (it was used for making fences). The stem of Jatropha is soft and juicy and was chewed on to make bristles for brushing.

Tooth powder

Paddy husk was burnt and the powdered ash was stored and used as tooth powder. For immediate use, soft charcoal from the fireplace was chewed on and rubbed on the teeth with the index finger. The soot from blackened earthen pots was also used similarly. A mixture of ash and salt has also been used as tooth powder.

Skin Care

Ø  Herb Extracts
·         From Leaves

The leaves of Bootali, jasmine, Gamm Tulsi (Vana Tulsi), Becken, Kankambara ( Crossandra infundibuliformis ), Hibiscus, Basale (Basella alba) and Tulsi (Holy Basil) are skin-nourishing.
ü  Bootali leaf is fragrant and is of two types – Sanna (small) Bootali and Dhoda (big) Bootali.
ü  Gamma Tulsi (Vana Tulsi – Ocimum gratissimum) is also known as Kana Tulsi. The leaves have pointed ends and the flower stalks resemble that of Kama Kasturi.
ü  Becken leaves bear a strong smell.
ü  To make the extract, one or two of the above mentioned herbs are crushed (with water) by hand and poured into a coconut shell or a container. The extract was used for a bath to remove dirt and grime. This was used for the first bath of a child and is used once in a month thenceforth.
ü  Women used the leaves of Hibiscus to wash hair.
ü  In particular, the leaves of white and kathiri Hibiscus are good for hair.
·         From fruits and berries
ü  Whenever one visited the forest,a basket of shikakai , soap nuts and sea beans (Entada rheedii) was brought home. Shikakai shrubs were found deep in the forest and the forest department banned its use.
ü  Shikakai and soapnut were sun dried and pounded. The powder was sieved through a thin cotton sari and stored. The Kare Okkalu tribe stored it in a bamboo container while the Halakki tribe stored it in a (whole) coconut shell with a small opening.
ü  In Gamakola Mahabharath by Dr. N.R. Nayak (Page: 147), it is mentioned that Subhadra used a kind of fragrant powder called kammana kari ( kari = dried leaf) along with shikakai powder for her hair. The local people were unaware of what this powder could be. We speculate that it could be the powder of some fragrant leaf.
ü  Kanabe kai  or sea beans (Kanabe = lock ; the seed looks like a lock):
The creeper grows deep in the forest and has a giant pod that contains four to five seeds. In the monsoons, these pods travel to the river and are carried to the sea. The sea based Halakki tribe uses the seed. The outer shell is broken and the soft inner part is ground with water. The resulting mixture is used to wash hair.
The Kare Okkale tribe, who live deep in the forest, call the creeper Kanabe balli. They take a part of the creeper, pound it and soak it in water for more than an hour. This is used as a body wash cum scrub. The fibre is used as a scrub and is dipped in the soapy water to clean the body.
·         From grains
ü  While the grains were not used directly, the husk, the starch or the powder was used. As paddy was the staple crop, they were aware of its use for skin care.
ü  Powdered paddy husk was stored and chick-pea powder (easily available) was bought from local stores. The two were mixed with water and a paste was prepared for body wash.
ü  Fermented rice starch was used to wash hair.
Ø  Animal products
ü  The Gomakkalu tribe applied Buffalo dung mixed with eggs (from hen) on infants before a bath. Other tribes used only buffalo dun for this purpose. A bit of cow’s urine was mixed with the bathwater.
ü  As of twenty five years ago, the usage of dung had been stopped completely and the knowledge is scarce today.
Kajal/ Kadige/ Kappu/ Kohl Preparation

Locally available herbs are used to prepare kohl.  Leaves of Basale (Basella alba), Tulsi, Castor bean ( Ricinus communis), Thiruppu Dasala (Twisted Hibiscus), White Hibiscus and Marigold are used.
The Halaki tribe said that excessive use of Tulsi leaves in Kohl gives a pricking sensation in the eye. In Ankola, a broken piece of earthen pot is taken and a herb is rubbed on the inner side. Coconut oil is rubbed over this. On the outer side, buffalo dung is applied for its cooling properties. Three coconut shells are placed (to form a circle) facing the ground and the piece of earthen pot is placed on top of the shells, with the inner (concave) side facing the ground. This set-up is placed in a corner where it is not windy. A diya (clay lamp) with Surugi /Honne oil and a cotton wick is placed in the centre of the coconut shells. In three hours, soot gets collected.
This was usually prepared for special occasions and when a woman was pregnant. It was said that she would have a female child if the soot was collected evenly and a male child if it was collected like a mound in the centre (like the male organ).
In Honavar, the Halaki and Gamokalu tribes use a bronze dinner plate in place of the earthen piece and three drinking glasses instead of coconut shells. Moreover, the plate is placed with inner side facing the ceiling and is filled with a glass of water. The outer side (facing the ground) has coconut oil applied. Surugi/Honne oil is used for the diya and is left to burn out. Soot gets collected like a termite mound or a ball at the bottom of the page. It is taken out with a stick and stored.
The Halaki tribe has also used Kappina Tumbala to collect soot. This pan has three legs and is made by the potter. Red Hibiscus flower is rubbed and oil is applied. Red Hibiscus has cooling properties and the kohl made is said to cool eyes.
Gonda Tribe: They used a small container made by the goldsmith to store the powder. It had a loop and was strung through a black thread and worn around the neck. This powder was mixed with ghee for use, when required.
Halaki tribe from Honavar and Kumta: They also used a small container (called Kappana Ande) made by the goldsmith to store the powder. However, this was strung through a silk thread and worn. They have also used small bamboo containers called Bedhara Ande or Galeen Ande to store the powder more cheaply.
Gamokalu tribe from Honavar: Well-off people from this tribe had the container made in silver, by the goldsmith. This was strung through a chain or silk thread. This was water-tight and available for INR 5 seventy years ago. This was usually worn by nursing mothers for its functional value. The small container could easily get misplaced was handy to apply on the child whenever required.
Sometimes, it was also hung on the ceiling/roof (which was very low).
Gamokalu tribe: Kohl was usually applied for the child to sleep well. It was applied in the morning and evening until the child turned five or six.
Kohl was taken in the tip of the index finger and applied around the child’s eyes, without much concern for aesthetics. It was intended for eye health. Among women, only nursing mothers applied kohl regularly. Kohl was applied on brides and grooms for the sake of beauty.

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