Friday, May 16, 2008

Happy Burp: Mistress of Spices - Asafoetida / Hing

Happy Burp: Mistress of Spices - Asafoetida / Hing

Dear Vaishali
I like your blog.
I have written about some more spices in my travel blog.
Do go through them and post your comments, it any.

And if you like, pl. add a link to my blog.
I will also do the same.
Binoy Gupta

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Kesar (Saffron)

the World’s Most Expensive Spice

If you visit tourist places in Goa and Kerala, you can visit spice gardens.
Some plantation owners have improvised their spice gardens into tourist attractions.
You can see a variety of plants where different spices come from.
The guide will answer your questions and clarify your doubts.
Your host will serve you authentic local meals in virgin surroundings and arrange a traditional dance.
We Indians use a lot of spices in their daily food.
But most of us do not know where the spices come from.
Someone suggested that I should write about the spices in my blog.
So here we go.
This one on Kesar (Saffron) is another in a series on Spices of India.
India produces the world’s best Kesar (Saffron).
What is Kesar (Saffron)
Kesar is derived from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a domesticated species of crocus in the family Iridaceae.
The three stigmas and the style (stalk connecting then to the rest of the plant) are dried and used as spice.
About 1.5 lac (1,50,000) flowers are required to get one kg of Saffron.
Where it comes from

The world’s best Kesar comes from India, from Kashmir to be precise.
This is the reason, in India, you can see the plants only in Kashmir.
Some spice gardens do plant Kesar for their visitors.
The annual global production of Kesar is about 300 tons.
Iran produces more than 81 percent of the world yield.
Other producers are Spain, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Italy.

Culinary Uses

Kesar is widely used as a spice for colouring and flavor.
It imparts a distinctive aroma and a beautiful golden colour.
It is used in a wide array of recipes all over the world.

Medicinal Uses
Kesar has several therapeutic properties.
It is used for stomach ailments and as an antispasmodic.
It helps digestion and increases appetite.
It relieves renal colic and reduces stomach aches.
It is used for flu-like infections, depression and hypatomegaly.
It regulates women’s menstruation and helps conception.
Since antiquity, Kesar is believed to be a general tonic, an excellent sexual stimulant and an aphrodisiac.

Uses as Dye
In ancient times, Kesar was a very rare and expensive substance.
It was used as a dye by the Royalty.
It was considered a sacred flower in ancient Crete.
Greek gods and goddesses wore gowns dyed with Saffron, so did Buddhist monks.
Kesar is also the colour of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Domesticated Plant

The entire Kesar comes from the domesticated plant which originated in Crete.
It is sterile and its purple flowers do not produce viable seeds.
The corms (underground bulb-like starch-storing organs) are dug up, broken apart, and replanted in June.
After a period of dormancy during the summer, five to eleven narrow and nearly vertical green leaves - up to 40 cm (16 in) in length - emerge from the ground.
Purple buds appear in autumn.
In October, the buds open into brilliant lilac flowers.

Kesar crocuses bloom within a narrow time span of one or two weeks.
After they flower at dawn, the flowers wilt quickly by the end of the day.A
nd therefore, they have to be collected fast.


Pampore - 14 km away from Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir - is the place where the world’s best Kesar grows.
If you go there , you will be greeted by a stone bearing the inscription, “World's Best Saffron Grows Here” .

Unfortunately, the yield of Kesar in Pampore has steadily and gradually decreased by more than a half in about 15 years.
Something needs to be done.
If you are a connoisseur of good and exotic food, try to take Kesar tea (preferably without milk) or Kesar milk.
Both are good and healthier substitutes of tea and coffee.

How to use Kesar

Soak filaments of Kesar for a few minutes in a little warm water (4 strands per cup of finished product).
Rub well till dark golden color develops.
Add to tea, or milk, or sweets and bring the concoction to a boil.
Simmer for 5 minutes.
Cool in fridge, if necessary.
Add a few strands of Kesar on the surface for decoration.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Point Calimere

Unique Wildlife Sanctuary

According to the Ramayana, Lord Ram himself stood at this point and carried out reconnaissance of Ravana’s kingdom in Sri Lanka just 48 kms. away.

A stone slab at Ramarpatham (meaning Rama’s feet), the highest point of Point Calimere, bears the foot prints of Ram.

Now it is a unique wildlife and bird sanctuary.


Situated at the southern end of Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, the sanctuary may be divided into three divisions:
· Point Calimere Forest;
· Great Vedaranyam Swamp, which includes the mangrove forests at Muthupet, and
· Talaignayar Reserve Forest.It is a marine - coastal wetland with a wide diversity of habitats , including dry evergreen forests, mangrove forests, and wetlands.

The coastal water is the breeding ground, or nursery, for many species of marine fishes.

Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary (PCWBS)

Point Calimere region was first identified as an area of high conservation importance by late Dr. Salim Ali, the world famous ornithologist, in 1962.

The Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, with an area of 24.17 km², was created on June 13, 1967 for conservation of Black buck (Indian antelope), an endangered and endemic species of India.
In 1988, the Sanctuary was enlarged to include the Great Vedaranyam Swamp and the Talaignayar Reserve Forest, and renamed the Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary, with a total area of 377 km².

In November 2002, the sanctuary and some adjacent areas (excluding the reserved forest) were designated a Ramsar Site - a wetland of international of importance.


Fourteen species of mammals have been reported in the Sanctuary.
The most graceful are the sleek and beautiful black buck.
When I visited the Sanctuary, the black bucks did not allow me to come close.
They kept a respectable distance.
When I advanced towards them, they retreated.

Other large animals are spotted deer, wild boar, jackal, Bonnet macaque, mongoose, monitor lizards, black naped hare, Civet cat and semi wild ponies.
There are large colonies of flying foxes in the Point Calimere forest and in the mangrove forest at Muthupet.
Dolphins and turtles often come quite close to the shore.


The sanctuary has one of the largest water bodies in South India and is rich in both resident and migratory birds.
A total of 257 species of birds have been recorded of which 119 are water birds and 138 forest birds.
Some of the major water bird species are the greater flamingo, the lesser flamingo, spot - billed pelican, grey pelican, spoonbill sandpiper, Asian dowitcher, white bellied sea eagle, brahminy kite and osprey.
The land birds include paradise flycatcher, Indian pitta, Rosy starling, Blyth reed warbler, crested serpent eagle and brown shrike.
Since 1959, the Bombay Natural History Society has been conducting regular bird migration studies in the sanctuary.
So far, over 200,000 birds have been captured, studied, ringed and released.
Bombay Natural History Society has set up a new field station in Kodaikadu in 2007.


The vegetation of the Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary is diverse, ranging from dry evergreen forests, mangrove vegetation, salt marsh to grasslands.
If you are interested in plants, you can see carnivorous or insectivorous plants, such as, Drosera burmanii and D. indica.

Places to see

You can see the footprints of Lord Rama at Ramar Padam.
You can have a beautiful view of the sanctuary and the larger mammals and birds from the watch tower located near the shrine.
The historic ruins of a 1000-year old Chola light house were wiped out by the Tsumani of 2004.
A modern lighthouse built in 1890 guides the mariners.


Point Calimere is the apex of the Cauvery River delta, and forms a right-angle turn near the coastline.
The area is littered by salt pans. They may create ecological problems, but they do attract a large number of birds.

It’s a wonderful sanctuary.
You will see the graceful black bucks, a variety of birds, plants, dolphins, etc.
The forests of Point Calimere are one of the last remnants of the dry evergreen forests that were once typical of the East Deccan dry evergreen forests eco-region.

You can visit Thanjavur, just 90 km away, the seat of the celebrated Chola kings from the 10th to the early 14th century. The entire South India is open to you beyond that….

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Second largest Mangrove forest in the world

Almost two and a half decades ago, when I was working in Chennai, I first heard of the Mangrove Forests of Pichavaram - 14 kms. from Chidambaram.
I did not really know what Mangrove forests were and what Pichavaram was like.
I requested my friends to organize a visit.
After my visit, I wrote about Pichavaram in the Swagat (inflight magazine of Indian Airlines) and a number of other magazines.
To this extent, I take credit for increasing its popularity.
Since then, I have visited Pichavaram several times.
My last visit was a few months after the Tsunami of 2004.

Pichavaram is a unique success story.

Mangrove Forest

Pichavaram Mangrove Forest has been created by the backwaters, inter connected by the Vellar and Coleroon river systems.

The Mangrove Forest is followed by an extraordinary sand bank which makes a lovely sandy beach.
The total area of Pichavaram Mangrove Forest (including 50 small islands) is about 1470 ha.

The Pichavaram Mangrove Forest, the second largest in the world, is the healthiest mangrove forest in the world.

Mangrove Trees

Mangrove trees are unique.
Try to visualize trees standing on stilts. And you have a rough likeness of what a mangrove tree looks like.

The mangrove trees grow in coastal areas of the tropics and sub-tropics, at the edge of waterways; and in estuaries, creeks and channels in the delta regions, where the water ebbs up and down twice every day.
The sea water rushes in and out, through the waterways, twice a day, changing the salinity of the water from that of sea water to fresh water.
The trees and other creatures have developed unique systems to survive and thrive in these harsh conditions.
The trees have developed unique stilt like roots.
The roots have pores through which the trees breathe oxygen when the water level is low and the roots are exposed.
The roots have specialized membranes which act like filters allowing only fresh water to enter.
If some salt passes through, it accumulates in the leaves, which later drop off to get rid of the salt.
Seeds could hardly survive in such hostile conditions.
The mangrove tree has developed a singular solution.
The seeds germinate on the tree itself and develop into cigar shaped seedlings.
When mature, the seedlings simply fall off the tree, penetrate into the soil and develop roots.
This ensures a high survival rate.

Soil and other debris accumulate between the roots, actually reclaiming land, and creating a unique eco-system.

Unique Creatures

The complex root system provides accommodation to a myriad creatures,including algae, barnacles, oysters, sponges and bryozoans.
The mudskipper fish comes out of the water on to the banks for short spells.
The archer fish can shoot out a jet of water, much like the fireman’s hose, striking down small insects.
All kinds of crabs and crustaceans live amidst the mud banks.
The habitat can also host commercially important species of fish and crustacea providing livelihood to the locals.


Pichavaram is the bird lover’s paradise.
The rich aquatic life attracts all kinds of birds.
You will find - the local residents, the immigrant residents and the genuine migratory birds that come annually to mate and breed.
Over 177 species of birds belonging to 15 orders and 41 families have been recorded in Pichavaram.
The peak season for birds is from November to January.

The Tsunami and after

The Tsunami hit the shores of India on December 26, 2004 at 08:32 in the morning.
At that time, I was having tea with a friend in Chennai.
I received a phone call from my friend in another city to enquire if I was all right.
Only then I learnt that the Tsunami had hit the eastern shores of India.

Cuddalore, where the Mangrove Forests are located, was heavily affected by the waves.
572 bodies were recovered and many were missing.
Several fishing hamlets simply disappeared.
Silver Beach and the historically important Cuddalore Port were devastated.
However, Fort St. David survived without damage.

The Income Tax Office in Cuddalore was slightly affected.
I immediately made arrangements to ensure that our staff were safe and received immediate help, if needed.
The loss of lives was too tragic.
But relief started pouring in.My office in Chennai also collected and sent relief material for the local people.
The management of relief operations in the district was handled by the local authorities and villagers themselves.
They did a remarkable job.

The Tsunami proved that mangrove trees act as buffers and prevent damage to the hinterland.


Mangrove forests are gigantic biological sinks with an unrivalled capacity to absorb and assimilate chemicals and recycle them into nutrients.
Late M.G. Ramachandran used Pichavaram for his film Idayakani.
Later, when he became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, he developed the place.

However, till the early 1980s, policy makers and planners throughout the world, considered mangrove wetlands as wasteland.
This resulted in over exploitation and conversion of mangrove wetlands for other purposes.
Only after 1980s, the importance of mangrove forests has been understood and replanting programs have been started all over the world.

Inspite of this, over half the world’s mangroves have been lost in recent times.
But Pichavaram is an exception.
There has been new mangrove forestation to the extent of almost 90%.
Who says we cannot improve our environment.
We have done it.

Several reports, including a few by some scientists, mention that Pichavaram was declared a Reserve Forest in 1897.
This cannot be correct.
I think the correct year is 1987.

See this unique place and the magnificent beach.
And you can see also Chidambaram Temple, the temple without a deity, and the Annamalai University, famous for its B.Ed. programs.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Unique Temple of the Formless Shiva

I have visited Chidambaram several times for three reasons.
· To meander through the Mangrove Forests of Pichavaram to the beach beyond.
· To visit, attend or give lectures at the Annamalai University.
· And to visit the Chidambaram Temple.

Meaning of the word Chidambaram

The word Chidambaram is derived from the two words ‘Chit’ meaning ‘consciousness’ and ‘ambaram’ meaning ‘sky’ (akaas) and signifies the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate state one should attempt to attain.According to another version, the word Chidambaram is derived from Chitrambalam which is derived from two words ‘Chit’ and ‘ambalam’ meaning Stage for performing arts.

The Deity

Chidambaram Temple is unique because the main deity which is worshipped there is the Akash Linga or the formless form of Lord Shiva. Here, Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of ether (one of the five forms of matter) which has no form.As you can see on the left side of the photograph, there is no deity at all.The wall is covered with leaves of gold foil strung on strings. (Of course, there are a lot of other deities).

The Chidambaram Temple is also dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja - the Cosmic Dancer.The beautiful image of Nataraja is extremely popular amongst artists.


We do not know much about the past of Chidambaram.But worship in this temple has continued uninterrupted since time immemorial.The Temple was definitely in existence in the 6th century A.D.Successive generations of the Chola, the Pallava and the Vijayanagar kings patronised the temple.

The Chola King Aditya 1 started guilding a portion of the roof of the temple with gold.
But the work was completed by his son.


Long ago, there used to be a Thillai Vanam around Chidambaram. (‘Vanam’ means forest and ‘thillai’ is a species of mangrove trees - botanical name Exocoeria agallocha - which now grows in the Pichavaram mangrove forests nearby.) There are 2nd century A.D. sculptures in the temple depicting the Thillai trees.It appears that the coast was much closer to Chidambaram.
A group of ‘rishis’ (saints) lived in the Thillai forests. They believed in magic and believed that even God could be controlled by rituals and ‘mantras’ or magical words.
Once, Lord Shiva was strolling through the Thillai forests in the form of ‘Pitchandanar’, a nude mendicant asking for alms.He had extraordinary beauty and radiance.He was followed by his consort. The wives of the rishis were enamoured by the handsome mendicant and his consort.
On seeing this, the rishis became angry and sent scores of serpents by performing magical rituals. Lord Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist.
The enraged rishis sent a fierce tiger. Lord Shiva skinned it and tied its skin around his waist like a piece of garment. Still more infuriated, the rishis sent a powerful demon ‘Muyalakan’. Lord Shiva stepped on the demon’s back, immobilized him and performed the Ánanda thaandava (the dance of bliss or happiness).Then he discloses his true form. Only then, the rishis realized that Lord Shiva was beyond magic and rituals and surrendered to him.Govindaraja Shrine
The Chidambaram Temple complex also has a shrine of Govindarajaperumal (form of Lord Vishnu) and his consort Pundareegavalli Thaayar (form of Laxmi). It is rare to have shrines of both Shiva and Vishnu in the same temple.
Temple car

The Chidambaram Temple car is one of the most beautiful of temple cars in Tamil Nadu. This car is used to carry the statue of Lord Nataraja around the town twice a year.

The Gopurams

The temple has 9 gateways.Four of these have towering ‘gopurams’ or pagodas each with 7 levels in the East, South, West and North. The eastern gopuram has sculptures depicting all the 108 postures (karnams) of Bharat Natyam - an Indian form of dance.

Reaching there

Chidambaram is 240 km south of Chennai and about an hour’s drive from Pondicherry.There are plenty of trains from Chennai.The road is also very good.
The coast is about 11 kms from Chidambaram.


The temple complex spreading over 40 acres is full of exquisite statues.There is the Shivganga, the traditional tank.Chidambaram is also worshipped as the temple of Nataraj – the Cosmic Dancer.There is an annual dance festival.The top most Indian dancers deem it a privilege and honour to perform here.

Nataraj, the image of the Lord Shiva in the dancing pose has been copied all over the world.

All the major temples in Tamil Nadu are administered by the Government. Chidambaram is the sole exception.The huge temple complex looks like an undefeatable fort and has been used as such.

You can visit the Annamalai University, which pioneered the concept of distance education in India. You can also visit the Pichavaram Mangrove Forests.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dwarka - the Lost Atlantis

Atlantis of India

The western most of Adi Shankaracharya's Four Dhams

Some time ago, my mother wanted me to take her to Dwarka, the last of the Four Dhams of Adi Shankaracharya (we had already visited the other three).
The fact is she loved to travel.
I also love to travel.
And there were many other places to see around Dwarka.
So we landed in Dwarka.
The story of Atlantis flashed through my mind.

The Lost Isle of Atlantis

Plato first mentioned ‘Atlantis’ in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias writtenin 360 B.C.
For unknown reasons, Plato never completed Critias.
According to Plato, “Atlantis, lying “beyond the pillars of Heracles”, was a naval power that conquered many parts of Western Europe and Africa 9,000 years before the time of Solon, or approximately 9,500 B.C.
After a failed attempt to invade Athens, Atlantis sank into the ocean “in a single day and night of misfortune”.

Scientists and researchers agree that there was no such island as Atlantis.
Atlantis was a piece of sheer imagination.

But the ancient Dwarka has far too many similarities to the imaginary Atlantis.
This cannot be pure coincidence.
Dwarka is about 4000 years old. Plato wrote about Atlantis only around 360 B.C., that is, much later.
I think the only plausible explanation for the striking similarities is that Plato heard about Dwarka and based his imaginary Atlantis on Dwarka.


The present day Dwarka is a city in Gujarat state in Western India.
The name Dwarka has come from the Sanskrit word “Dwar” meaning door.
Once upon a time, if you were coming from the West, Dwarka was the gate way to India.
Today, Hindus regard it as a gateway to Heaven.

The legendary city of Dwarka was the dwelling place of Lord Krishna.
It is believed that due to damage and destruction by the sea, Dwarka submerged under the sea six times; and the modern day Dwarka is the seventh city to be built in the area.

The Dwarkadhish Temple

Dwarkadhish (from Dwarka and Dhish) means Lord of Dwarka.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Krishna.
The city is believed to have been built by Vishwakarma, the celestial architect.
And the ancient temple was built by Sambha, the grandson of Lord Krishna.

The present temple built around the 16th century has a five storey tower.
It is made of limestone and sand.
The structure of the temple is quite complicated.

A 24 metres (84 ft.) long, multicolored flag, decorated with the symbols of the sun and moon, is hoisted on the temple tower every day.
It majestically flitters in the air welcoming the pilgrims.

The temple has two gateways:
· Swarg Dwar (Door to Heaven), through which pilgrims enter, and
· Moksha Dwar (Door to Salvation), through which the pilgrims exit. From the temple, one can see the sangam (confluence) of Gomati River and the Arabian Sea.

Bet Dwarka

The Bet Dwarka temple is built like a palace.
It is believed that Lord Krishna had ruled from here.
An idol similar to the one in Dwarka is kept in Bet Dwarka temple also.
Bet Dwarka can be reached by a short boat ride.


Dwarka is mentioned in the Mahabharata, Bhagavata Purana, Skanda Purana, Vishnu Purana and other ancient scriptures.
According to mythology, Lord Krishna killed Kansa (his maternal uncle) and made Ugrasen (his maternal grandfather) the king of Mathura.
Enraged by this, Jarasandha (King of Magadha), the father-in-law of Kansa, and his friend Kalayavan, attacked Mathura 17 times.

For the safety of his people, Lord Krishna renounced war (hence Krishna is also known by the name Ranchod - meaning one who has left the battle field).
He and the Yadavas decided to shift the capital from Mathura to Dwarka.
They reclaimed land from the sea on the banks of Gomati River and built a well planned city organized into six sectors, residential and commercial zones, wide roads, plazas, palaces and many public utilities.Dwarka also had a good and prosperous harbour.

After Krishna left for his heavenly abode, the major Yadava heads fought among themselves and killed each other.
Arjuna went to Dwarka to bring Krishna’s grandsons and the Yadava women to Hastinapur. After Arjuna left, Dwarka was submerged in the sea.

This is how Arjuna has described the event in the Mahabharata:
"The sea, which had been beating against the shores, suddenly broke the boundary that was imposed on it by nature. The sea rushed into the city. It coursed through the streets of the beautiful city. The sea covered up everything in the city. I saw the beautiful buildings becoming submerged one by one. In a matter of a few moments it was all over. The sea had now become as placid as a lake. There was no trace of the city. Dwaraka was just a name; just a memory."

The incident is described in the Vishnu Purana in much the same manner:
"On the same day that Krishna departed from the earth the powerful dark-bodied Kali Age descended. The oceans rose and submerged the whole of Dwaraka."

Atlantis was also wiped out like this!

Archeological Evidence

The search for the mythological Dwarka has been going on since the 1930’s.
The Marine Archeology Unit (MAU) of the National Institute of Oceanography, Government of India started the search for Dwarka in the coastal waters of Dwarka in 1983.
Underwater explorations between 1983 and 1990 revealed the remains of a well-fortified township.
The foundation of boulders on which the city’s walls were erected proved that the land was reclaimed from the sea.
The general layout of the submerged city discovered by Marine Archeology Unit matched the description of Dwarka in the ancient texts.
Further excavations continued till 1994.

Murli Manohar Joshi, then HRD minister claimed that the ruins were 9,500 years old and would lead to a rewriting of world history, crowning a Hindu India as the cradle of civilisation over the claims of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus valley.
The old Dwarka does not appear to be that old.
Scientists estimate the date to be around 2280 B.C.

Scientists have recently discovered a circular wooden structure under the water at a near-shore excavation site off the coast of Jamnagar.
They believe this to be a part of the remains of the lost city of ancient Dwarka.
The wooden structure is well preserved and surrounded by another structure made of stone blocks.
Wood can be more scientifically carbon dated and may help the scientists determine the exact date.

No doubt, influenced by the Tsunami of 2004, a group of ocean scientists have suggested that the ancient city of Dwarka could have been destroyed by a tsunami about 3,000 years ago.

World’s First Underwater Museum

The Marine Archeology Unit submitted an exciting proposal for setting up an underwater museum at Dwarka.
The proposal envisages an acrylic tube on the bottom of the sea through which visitors can view the ruins of the ancient Dwarka.
I have seen such tubes even in Bangkok.

The Government of Gujarat and their Travel & Tourism Department have been working (sleeping would be a better term) on the proposal for over two decades.
This is a unique opportunity to create something unique.
It will attract a lot of tourists.
The work can be outsourced to an international bidder.
This will solve the problem of funding and maintenance.
When completed, it will be the world’s first under water museum.

Reaching There

The nearest airports from Dwarka are:
Jamnagar - 121 Kms.
Rajkot - 225 Kms.
Ahmedabad - 375 Kms.
There are a number of daily flights from Mumbai and other cities.


Visit the real Atlantis, in India itself.
You can also visit lions of India in Gir Forests and the Somnath Temple.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Haldi (Turmeric)

Spices of India
The oldest spice known to us

If you visit tourist places in Goa and Kerala, you can visit spice gardens.Some plantation owners have improvised their spice gardens into tourist attractions.You can see a variety of plants where different spices come from.The guide will answer your questions and clarify your doubts.Your host will serve you authentic local meals in virgin surroundings and arrange a traditional dance.


We Indians use a lot of spices in their daily food.But most of us do not know where the spices come from.Someone suggested that I should write about the spices in my blog.So here we go.

This one on Haldi (Turmeric) is another in a series on Spices of India.Haldi is the only spice which is produced almost entirely in India.Indians consume 80% and export the remaining 20%.

Origin of the Name

The English name for Haldi is Turmeric - often misspelled Tumeric.The scientific name is Curcuma longa.It is also known as Kunyit in some Asian countries.What is Haldi The Haldi plant is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family Zingiberaceae, native to tropical South Asia.

Haldi rhizomes (root) is similar in appearance to ginger root. But when it is peeled, it is bright yellow in color. The rhizomes are boiled for several hours in fresh water and then dried in the sun or in hot ovens at about 60 degrees celsius.Then they are ground into the deep orange-yellow powder commonly used as a spice.

Cultivation and Harvesting

The Haldi plant grows in the plains of India in temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees C. with a good annual rainfall of 1500 mm or more per annum.
The plants mature between 7 and 9 months. The mature plants are gathered for their rhizomes. Some of the rhizomes are used for re-seeding in the following year.

Culinary Uses

Haldi has a bitter, peppery flavour with a mustard smell.It is extensively used in Indian cooking, in curries, in rice and vegetable preparations.
Traditionally, our grandmothers used to grind dried Haldi roots with mortar and pestle.But now, it is available and mostly used in powdered form.It is often used in place of saffron for its saffron like color.

Medicinal Uses

Haldi is antiseptic and anti inflammatory.Haldi paste is the common home remedy for cuts, bruises, burns and inflammation.
Haldi has antibacterial properties.Its active ingredient curcumin has anti-tumoral (anti-cancer) properties.It also helps cure arthritis and psoriasis.Research about its medical properties is going on in different laboratories.


Haldi is also a strong anti allergic. It is used in a large number of cosmetic creams.
Haldi paste is applied to bride and groom before marriage in several parts of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.It is believed that Haldi gives a glow to the skin and kills the harmful bacteria on the skin.


In spite of its rich colour, Haldi cannot be used as a fabric dye because its colour is not very lightfast. It fades on exposure to light. Even then, Indian women use Haldi to dye their saris. This may be because of its medicinal properties.


Haldi is also used to deter ants. We do not know how Haldi repels ants, but it works.


Haldi is probably the oldest spice known to us.Its use dates back to the Vedic period, or nearly 4000 years.Haldi is sometimes called ‘Indian saffron’ because of its brilliant yellow color. Indian Haldi is the best in the world.It may give us a cure for cancer, arthritis and psoriasis.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jagannath Puri or Puri

World Famous Ratha Yatra

Jagannath Puri, or simply Puri, is one of Adi Shankaracharya’s Char Dhams (or Four Places of Pilgrimage) located in the four corners of India.
The other three are: Badrinath in the North (Himalayas); Dwarka in the West; and Rameshwaram in the South.

Badrinath is located amidst the snowy peaks of the Himalayas.
The other three are located on the shores of the seas around India.
Jagannath Puri is world famous for its unique Ratha Yatra (Chariot Procession).
Ratha Yatras, on a smaller scale, are simultaneously organised in several parts of India and even abroad.
Fairs and melas are organised during the nine day festivities.
In Kolkata (Calcutta), the fairs attract shops selling plant and pets.
When I was small, I loved to go to these fairs and purchase a few plants and pets.
As a result, I have kept such unconventional pets as lizards, scorpions, snakes, python, deer and peacocks.
And all this was possible only because my parents never objected or protested.
I don’t remember ever being reprimanded for my pets and plants.
They heroically suffered the less than normal whimsical fancies of their little son.

Origin of the Word Jagannath
The word Jagannath comes from two Sanskrit words Jagat (meaning universe) and Nath (meaning master).
Jagannath, meaning Master of the Universe, is another name for Lord Krishna.
The most famous and oldest Jagannath temple in India is in Puri, Orissa.
Because of this temple, Puri is also known as Jagannath Puri.


There are two mythological stories relating to the deity.
Lord Krishna appeared to his great devotee, King Indradyumna and ordered him to get his deity carved out of a log he would find washed out on the sea shore.
King Indradyumna duly recovered the log and found a mysterious old Brahmin carpenter willing to carve the deity.

The carpenter insisted that under no circumstance, he should be disturbed while he was carving the deity.
The king anxiously waited outside his room.
When all sound stopped, King Indradyumna could not restrain himself any longer.
He opened the door and entered the room.
He found the deity half-finished and the carpenter gone.
King Indradyumna was very upset because the deity had no arms and legs.

Ultimately, Narada Muni appeared and explained that the carpenter was Vishvakarma, the heavenly sculptor of the Gods; and the form of Lord Krishna, the king saw, was one of the forms of Lord Krishna.
According to the second story, the gopis (maids) were talking about the pranks of Krishna, and about their love for him.
The gopis had instructed Subhadra (Krishna’s sister) to keep watch and warn them if Krishna came.
But after some time, Subhadra became completely engrossed in the conversation.She did not notice Krishna and his brother Balaram approaching.
The two brothers listened to the gopis’ talk.
Their hairs stood on end, their arms retracted, their eyes grew larger and larger, and they smiled broadly in joy.
That is why Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra look the way they do.

The Temple of Lord Jagannath

There is some disagreement amongst experts about the exact period of construction of the present temple.
Construction of the present temple was started in the 12th century A.D. by King Ananta Burman Chodaganga Deva, founder of the Ganga dynasty in Orissa.
But he could not complete it during his lifetime.
The construction was completed by his successor Ananga Bhima Deva III.

The temple is built in the Kalinga style of architecture.
It consists of a tall shikhara (dome) housing the sanctum sanctorum (garba griha) where the deity is placed.
A pillar of fossilized wood is used for placing lamps as offering.
Singhadwara (lion gate), guarded by two guardian deities, Jaya and Vijayais, is the main gate to the temple.
A memorial column, brought here by the Raja of Khurda from the Sun Temple of Konarak, known as Aruna Stambha, faces the main gate.
The three deities - Jagannath, Balabhadra (Balaram) and Subhadra are worshipped inside the temple.
Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple.
Even Indira Gandhi was not allowed to enter the temple.
More recently, a Thai princess was not allowed to enter the temple.

But once a year, during the rainy season, usually in June or July, the deities are brought out in one of the most clourful processions any where in the world.
Ratha Yatra
This festival is known as Ratha Yatra (Chariot Procession).
The three deities - Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken out on three separate richly decorated chariots, resembling temple structures, through the streets of Puri so that everyone can see them.
The largest chariot is that of Jagannath - 45 feet high and 35 feet square.
It is supported on 16 wheels with a diameter of 7 feet.
New chariots are built every year.
The Rathas (Chariots) are pulled by the millions of pilgrims who come to attend the festivities.
It is considered a privilege to pull the Ratha.
The King of Puri takes part in the procession.
He sweeps the path in front of Jagannath’s chariot.
The Ratha Yatra commemorates Lord Krishna’s return to his home in Vrindavan after killing Kansa.
Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra (Balaram) and Subhadra are taken to their aunt’s temple (Gundicha Mandir) - a distance of 2 km from the temple.
The deity remain on their chariots for the night.
In the morning, they are installed in the Gundicha Mandir.
They remain there for seven days.
On the ninth day, they are placed back on their chariots and return to their temple.
By this time, most of the pilgrims would have gone back.
Labourers have to be hired to pull the Rathas.

What to see

Puri is an important town of Orissa.
It is famous for the Jagannath temple.
Its sprawling wide beaches, fishing farms and the superb resorts make Puri a major holiday destination of Eastern India.

Visit the exotic sea beaches.
Swim in the sea.
Watch the fishermen catch their fish.
Puri belongs to the Golden Triangle Circuit of Orissa covering Bhubaneswar, Konarak and Gopalpur-on-Sea.
You can visit these places as well.
Incidentally, the English word ‘juggernaut’ owes its origin to these huge chariots.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hing (asafetida)

Spices of India

If you visit tourist places in Goa and Kerala, you can visit spice gardens.

Some plantation owners have improvised their spice gardens into tourist attractions.
You can see a variety of plants where different spices come from.
The guide will answer your questions and clarify your doubts.
Your host will serve you authentic local meals in virgin surroundings and arrange a traditional dance.


Indians use a lot of spices in their daily food.
But most do not know where the spices come from.

While writing this blog, I had a visitor.
She asked me what I was doing.
I told her I was working on an article on ‘Hing’.
She said it was used for cooking and how I could write an article on cooking.
I asked her what was Hing.
She said it was a stone.
I told her I was writing the article for misinformed persons like her.

Actually, someone suggested that I should write about the spices in my blog.
So here we go.
This is the first of a series…..on Hing or Asafoetida.

Origin of the Name

The English and scientific name for Hing is Asafoetida.
This name is derived from the Persian ‘aza’ (for resin), and the Latin ‘foetidus’ (for stinking).

Its pungent odour has earned it a lot of bad names.
It has been equated with Devil’s Dung or Shit.
It is called Teufelsdreck (literally meaning Devil’s Dung) in German.
In French, it is Merde du Diable (Devil’s Shit).
In Swedish, it is Dyvelsträck,
In Dutch, Duivelsdrek.
In Afrikaans, Duiwelsdrek.
In Finnish, Pirunpaska or Pirunpihka.
In Turkish, it is known as Şeytantersi, Şeytan bökösu or Şeytanotu (the Devil's Herb).

In North India, it is called Hing or Heeng.
The following list gives its name in different languages of India:
Hindi: Hing
Bengali: Hing
Gujarati: Hing
Kannada: Hinger
Kashmiri: Yang, Sap
Malayalam: Kaayam
Marathi: Hing
Oriya: Hengu
Punjabi: Hing
Sanskrit: Badhika, Agudagandhu
Tamil: Perungayam
Telugu: Inguva, Ingumo Urdu: Hing

What is Hing

Asafoetida is a species of Ferula plant which is native to Iran.
Hing is the resin like gum which comes from the dried sap extracted from the lower stem and roots of the plant.
The resin is grayish-white when fresh, but dries to a dark amber color. The resin is difficult to grate.

It is traditionally ground between stones or in mechanical grinders.

It is rarely used in its pure form.
What is generally used is compounded or 'bandhani' asafetida - a powder containing 30% asafetida resin, rice flour (or some other form of starch) and gum arabic.

Cultivation and Harvest

The plant is grown in Iran (the country of its origin), Afghanistan and in Kashmir in India.
It is a herbaceous perennial plant of the carrot family and grows to a height of 3.6 metres.
The plant has stout, hollow, somewhat succulent stems, 5 - 8 cms. in diameter at the base of the plant.
The leaves are 30 - 40 cms. long, tripinnate or even more finely divided, with a stout basal sheath clasping the stem.
The flowers are yellow, produced in large compound umbels.

The resin can be extracted after the plant is about four years old.
The older the plant, the more resin it produces.
The time to start harvesting the resin from the succulent stem and the root is just before flowering, in the months of March / April.

An incision is made in the upper part of the root / lower part of the stem and the exuding gum / latex is collected.
Several incisions can be made in the root / stem till there is no more oozing of gum.
This process can continue up to three months.
A single plant can yield up to 1 kilogram of resin.

Medicinal Uses

Hing helps digestion and reduces flatulence.
A pinch of Hing gulped down with buttermilk or lukewarm water gives immediate relief from gas.
It is therefore added in dals and vegetables to redce flatulence.
Taken in excess, it can cause loose motions.

It helps in asthma and bronchitis.
A concoction of Hing in alcohol applied to a child’s neck can cure colds.
The same concoction applied on a child’s stomach is believed to help digestion.
Hing taken with butter milk enhances and improves the voice.
It is also a strong preservative.

Culinary uses

The odor of Hing is so strong that it must be stored in airtight containers, otherwise its aroma will penetrate and contaminate the aroma of all other spices stored nearby.
Its odour and flavor become much milder and more pleasant on heating in oil or ghee and acquire those of sautéed onion and garlic.
For this reason, vegetarian Hindus and Jains, who do not eat onions and garlic use Hing.

Hing is added to lentil (dal) and vegetable preparations.
It is also used in food as a condiment and in pickles, relishes/chutneys and papads.


I am sure Hing must be an integral part of your food.
This article will tell you more about this spice.

Gone are the days when Kabuliwalas used to bring Hing from Afganisthan and other places.
Now Indian manufacturers import the resin, make it into the compounded form also known as ‘bandhani hing’ and export it.

The wonderful thing about Hing is that a pinch is sufficient for a food preparation for four persons.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kaziranga National Park

Home of the Indian, or Great
One horned, Rhinoceros
(Rhinoceros unicornis)

It was midsummer time.
The grass was sparse.
We were travelling in a jeep because all the elephants were already booked.
We sighted the first Rhinoceros.
It was a magnificent male.
He looked more like an armoured tank, or a fossil age left over, rather than a living mammal of the present era.
He looked up at us and smiled (but honestly speaking, I am not too sure), as we passed him and continued munching grass.
We were inside the fabulous Kaziranga National Park - a national park in Assam, India.
Kaziranga National Park has two-thirds of the world’s One horned Rhinoceros.
It’s also a World Heritage Site.
It has also been recognised as an Important Bird Area by the Birdlife International for conservation of avifaunal species.

Lady Curzon and the Rhinoceros
And then I suddenly remembered the beautiful Lady Curzon.
You may wonder how Lady Curzon can possibly be associated with Rhinoceros.

She is the fairy God Mother of the rhinoceros of Kaziranga.
In fact, she is the fairy God Mother of Kaziranga National Park itself.
In 1904, Lady Mary Victoria Curzon, wife of Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, heard about the rhinoceros in Kaziranga from her British tea planter friends in Assam.
She visited the area.
But all she could see were some foot prints of the three toed animals.
She persuaded Lord Curzon to do something to protect them.

On June 1, 1905, the Government issued a preliminary notification announcing its intention to declare certain areas of Kaziranga a reserved forest.
On January 3, 1908, the Government declared 232 sq. kms. (90 sq. miles) a reserved forest, and officially closed it for shooting.

Over the next three years, the area was extended by 152 sq. kms. (59 sq. miles) upto the banks of the Brahmaputra River.
On January 28, 1913, the area of the reserved forest was expanded by another 13,506 acres.
In 1916, it was converted into a game sanctuary - The Kaziranga Game Sanctuary.

In 1950, P.D. Stracey, senior conservator of forests, changed the term ‘Game Sanctuary’ to ‘Wildlife Sanctuary’ because the word ‘game’ connotes animals for hunting.

On February 11, 1974, the Government of India declared the 430 sq. kms. (166 sq. miles) Wildlife Sanctuary a National Park, and changed its name to Kaziranga National Park.

Kaziranga National Park celebrated its centenary in June 2005.
The Government invited some of the descendants of Curzon on the occasion.
A fitting tribute to Lady Curzon!
Different Species of Rhinos

There are five species of Rhinoceros in the world.
Two of these are native to Africa and three to southern Asia.
All the three species found in Asia - Javan, Sumatran and the Indian, or Great One horned Rhinoceros are critically endangered.
The rhinoceros family is characterised by its large size (one of the few remaining megafauna alive today).
All the species reach one ton or more in weight.
They are herbivorous.
They have protective skin, 1.5 - 5 cm thick, formed from layers of collagen positioned in a lattice structure.
The skin has been used to cover shields.
But they have relatively small brains.

Rhinoceros also have acute sense of hearing and smell, but poor eyesight.
Most live to about 60 years or more.
They appear to be slow.
But they can charge at speeds exceeding 40 miles per hour (the speed of a race horse).

The two African species and the Sumatran species have two horns, while the Indian and Javan species have a single horn.

Indian Rhinoceros
A few centuries ago, the Indian, or Great One horned, Rhinoceros were found across the north Indian plains in the wetlands of Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers.
The Mughal Emperors even hunted them.

Today, they are found only in small areas of the north eastern state of Assam and in neighbouring Nepal.
In Assam, their habitat is limited to two national parks - Kaziranga and Manas.
They are considered endangered, with less than 2500 individuals remaining in the wild.
The Horn - is it an aphrodiasac ?

The rhino’s horn is considered to be an aphrodiasac.
The price of a rhino horn in India is anything between Rs. 4 to 7 lakhs.
In the International market, the value is at least three times this amount.
This leads to poaching.
But from the medical point of view, the horns of a rhinoceros are made of keratin, the same type of protein that makes hair and fingernails, and have no medicinal or aphrodiasic value.

Other animals
Kaziranga has the highest density of tigers among protected areas in the world and was declared a Tiger Reserve in 2006.
Kaziranga also has large breeding populations of elephants, water buffalo and swamp deer.
There are plenty of other animals, like Indian bison, swamp deer, sambhar, hog deer, sloth bear, leopard, pig, leopard cat, jungle cat, hog badger, capped langur, gibbon, jackal and porcupine.

There are plenty of snakes including the python, king cobra, and a variety of lizards.
It is a bird watcher’s paradise with birds like the pelican, duck, geese, hornbill, ibis, cormorant, egret, heron, black necked stork, lesser adjutants, ring-tailed fishing eagles, etc.

There are fresh water dolphins in the rivers around.


Kaziranga has vast expanses of tall elephant grass, marshland and dense tropical forests crisscrossed by four major rivers, including the Brahmaputra, and numerous small bodies of shallow water.
Reaching there

The nearest airports are Guwahati 239 kms. and Jorhat 97 kms.
From these places, you can travel by car, taxi or public transport.

Success at Kaziranga and the dangers

Kaziranga is considered the flag bearer of all the wildlife conservation efforts across the globe.
But there are a number of dangers.
Poaching is the biggest threat.
At least 27 rhinos were killed in 2007.

Floods caused by over flowing of the Brahmaputra River during the rainy season have often proved disastrous.

The Government is trying to relocate more rhinoceros and elephants to Manas National Park.
You can visit the rhinoceros any time during the year except during the rainy season.
It’s a thrilling experience to watch from close range the armoured tank like creatures who have the strength to attack and overturn a vehicle.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Bandhavgarh National Park

Land of the White Tiger

Have you ever wondered where white tigers come from?

Almost all of them, the world over, owe their origin to the forests around Bandhavgarh.
And they are the progeny of a single male white tiger - Mohan who was captured there in 1951.

Bandhavgarh Forests and National Park

The forests around Bandhavgarh (in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in central India) were the Shikargah, or private game preserve, of the Maharajahs of Rewa.
Only the Maharajahs and their guests could hunt there.
Poachers were severely punished.

The forests contained unbelievably large number of animals.
Just to visualize the enormity - it was considered auspicious for a Maharajah to shoot at least 109 Tigers.
His Highness Maharajah Venkat Raman Singh shot 111 tigers by 1914.

After independence and abolition of the Maharaja’s rule, there was too much uncontrolled poaching in the forest.
In 1968, the Maharaja of Rewa handed over the forest to the Government of India for creation of the Bhandavgarh National Park.
In 1968, Bandhavgarh was declared a National Park.
Originally, it had an area of only 105.40 sq. kms. with 25 tigers.
In, 1986, the area was increased to 437 sq. kms.
Bandhavgarh was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1993.

White tigers

White tigers have been found in the old state of Rewa (and other parts of India) from time to time.
These white tigers are not albinos.
They are ordinary tigers (Panthera tigris) with a genetic condition that eliminates most of the pigment in the normally orange fur - although the tigers still retain the dark stripes.
Compared to the normal orange tigers, white tigers are larger in size, both at birth and when they become adults.


Mohan is the father of the progeny of white tigers of Rewa.
(Another breed of white tigers has originated in Orissa.
A few other white tigers have been born in some other places of India.)

Mohan was captured as a cub in 1951 by Maharaja Shri Martand Singh of Rewa, whose hunting party found a tigress in Bandhavgarh with four 9 month old cubs, one of which was white.
They shot all the tigers, except the white cub.
After shooting a white tiger in 1948, Maharaja Martand Singh had resolved to capture a live one, as his father had done in 1915, at the next opportunity.
The previous Maharaja had kept the white tiger, an unusually large male, in captivity from 1915 to 1920.
After its death in 1920, the Maharaja had it mounted and presented it to King George V.
The mounted white tiger is now on display in the British Museum.

Maharaja Martand Singh named the white cub Mohan (meaning enchanter), one of the many names of the Hindu God Krishna.
Successive selective breeding produced a progeny of white tigers.White tigers are considered a celebrity and Prime Ministers have often christened them.
Mohan is dead.
His stuffed body is on display in the palace of the Maharajah of Rewa.

Animals in the Sanctuary

Bandhavgarh National Park is like a bowl surrounded by the Vindhya Mountains.
A series of ridges run through it.
Its plains have a number of grass and reed covered wetlands where you can see plenty of resident and migratory birds.

The Park has 32 picturesque, wooded hills, where you can see plenty of animals.
The principal animal is the majestic tiger.
The chances of sighting one are quite good because the density of the tiger population here is the highest in India.

There are more than 25 species of other animals, including leopard, gaur, sambar, chausingha, nilgai, chinkara, spotted deer, sloth bear, wild pig, striped hyena, jackal, fox, dhole, ratel, small Indian civet, jungle cat, palm squirrel, grey mongoose, lesser bandicoot rat, langurs and rhesus macaque.

Jungle Safaris

There are two ways of travelling inside the park - in a motor vehicle or on elephant back. Although most of the animals are accustomed to both - while inside the forest, speak softly and do not make rapid, jerky, movements.

Jeep safaris should be taken either in the morning from dawn to about 10 am or from about 4 pm till dusk, because the animals are most active during these periods.
A forest Department guide will always accompany you to direct you towards wildlife.

Elephants belonging to the Forest Department take visitors every morning for tiger tracking.If a tiger is sighted, the elephant will take you directly to the tiger.

Birds and Reptiles

There are more than 250 species of birds including little grebe, egret, lesser adjutant, sarus crane, black ibis, lesser whistling teal, white-eyed buzzard, black kite, crested serpent eagle, black vulture, Egyptian vulture, common peafowl, red jungle fowl, dove, parakeet, kingfishers and Indian roller.

There are a variety of snakes - cobra, krait, viper, rat snake and python, There are also a number of species of lizards and turtles.


The vegetation consists of Sal forests and Bamboo.
Stretches of grasslands stretch to the north.
Mixed forests are found in the higher slopes of the hills.
There are patches of wet lands, too.

Places to see

Bandhavgarh Fort

The historic Bandhavgarh Fort commands a bird’s eye view of the entire National Park.
There are no authentic records to show when it was built.
There are references to it in ancient texts, like the Siva Puran.

The Fort is believed to be over 2000 years old.
Various dynasties have ruled from the fort.
For example, the Mauryans ruled from 3rd century B.C., Vakataka rulers from 3rd to 5th century, the Sengars from 5th century and the Kalachuris from the 10th century.
In the 13th century, the Baghels took over, ruling from Bandhavgarh until 1617, when Maharaja Vikramditya Singh moved his capital to Rewa. T
he last inhabitants of the Fort left it in1935.

The Caves

There are 39 caves in the Bandhavgarh Fort and in the surrounding hillocks in a radius of about 5 kms.
The oldest cave dates back to about 1st century.
Several caves carry inscriptions in Brahmi script.
Badi Gufa, the largest cave, has a broad entrance, nine small rooms and several pillars.
It has been dated back to the 10th century.
The cave appears to be primitive, lacking the usual elaborate statues and carvings seen in other Buddhist caves of the period.
Its purpose remains a mystery.

You could also visit Khajurao, Agra and Varanasi.

Fact File


The nearest airport is Jabalpur 164 kms.
Another convenient airport is Khajurao 230 kms.
From both these places, you can go by car or public transport.

Railway Stations

The nearest railway station is:
Umaria - 32 kms.
Other stations are:
Jabalpur - 164 kms.
Katni - 102 kms.
Satna - 120 kms.


Khajuraho (via Satna) 230 kms.
Varanasi (via Rewa) 340 kms.
Katni 75 kms.
Rewa 115 kms.
Umaria 30 kms.
Kanha 250 kms.

Public transport is available from all these places.


Bhandavgarh National Park park is a wildlife enthusiast’s dream.
There are excellent accommodation and internal transport facilities to suit all budgets.

Best time to Visit

The climate at Bandhavgarh varies from 0 to 20 degree centigrade in winter and hots up to 46 degrees centigrade in summer.
The monsoon (rainy) season mostly begins mid June till October.

The best time to visit Bhandavgarh National Park is between December and February.
But the months of April to June, when the vegetation is sparse, are really the best for tiger sighting.