Nolen gur, ker-sangri, Sattriya dance: Climate change is taking a toll on elements of culture - Hindustan Times
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Nolen gur, ker-sangri, Sattriya dance: Climate change is taking a toll on elements of culture

May 17, 2024 03:50 PM IST

What does a country lose — and what does our country stand to lose — as a planet moves through a new epoch? See how dance forms, dishes and fabrics are fading.

There is less baa-ing in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Less tapping in the date-palm groves of West Bengal. Dance and music are muted in the monasteries of Majuli. And vanishing gums and berries are altering ways of life in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

(Image generated via Midjourney) PREMIUM
(Image generated via Midjourney)

What does a country lose — and what does our country stand to lose — as a planet moves through a new epoch?

In previous Wknd specials, we have looked at the impact of the climate emergency on traditional architecture (in the mountains and deserts, for instance, where structures were not expected to face heavy rain); we have explored how changes in fruiting and flowering patterns are altering customs that survived millennia.

In this edition, we are looking at the impact on tangible and intangible elements of culture that are already filtering down to you. Are your rosogollas less brown, with a sharper flavour? That’s because nolen gur has become harder to harvest, from the date-palm tree, and mithai-makers are mixing sugar instead.

Is your favourite Rajasthani dish fading from thalis? Ker-sangri, an otherwise-nearly-indestructible plant, is becoming scarcer in the face of intensifying rain.

Is your pure-wool blanket or razai not as soft, or harder to find? Well, the story of Himachal Pradesh’s sheep will fascinate you.

See how elements of our culture that survived thousands of years — through invasions and war, industrialisation and colonialism, hyper-capitalism and numerous plagues — are now at risk from an unlikely foe.

“We have all been taken by surprise by the rapid changes in climate patterns, but indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable, since their way of life depends more directly on expected patterns and long-established habits,” says Udit Bhatia, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Gandhinagar. Bhatia specialises in research on resilience infrastructure, and the impacts of climatic extremes on built and natural systems.

“We use the term ‘global warming’ but some of us researching the changing climate prefer to call it ‘global weirding,’ because it’s not just about warming — it’s about the hot getting hotter, cold getting colder, dry getting drier, and so on,” he says. “With global weirding, migration patterns change, crop patterns might necessarily change, and this level of uncertainty means we can’t always predict what’s likely to come next.”

Cultures, traditions and diets tend to be endemic to a region, adds Tarun Kant, head of forest genetics and tree improvement at the Arid Forest Research Institute, Jodhpur. Many of our oldest traditions, he adds, rely on the sanctity of their ecosystems.

Tragically, Bhatia points out, the practices under threat are eco-friendly, sustainable, hyperlocal. The communities that sustained those practices have had little to no control over emissions and have done little to contribute to them through the years.

As mitigation focuses on the larger issues — flooding, wildfires, agriculture, rising sea levels, as of course it must — the hope now is that the treasured cultural elements will survive in new places, in new ways.

“We have messed up in a number of ways,” says Mridula Ramesh, founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute and author of The Climate Solution: India’s Climate Change Crisis and What We Can Do About It. “For example, I was travelling along a coast the other day, and mangroves were being replaced by shrimp farms. That is not climate change, that’s human stupidity. But it adds to the impact of climate change.”

As we head into unchartered waters, she adds, we need to look to the past for ways to cope. “Because the climate has changed multiple times in the past. If we can examine what happened then, we will have a good view of what comes next, and how we and the most treasured aspects of our culture may adapt to it.”

For now, here is how the impact is playing out.

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Himachali wool: Snow, sickness in summer take a toll on sheep

Shepherds are losing as much as 40% of their flock to predators and disease, up from about 15% in a normal year. Some are giving up on sheep-rearing as a result. (Brighu Acharya)
Shepherds are losing as much as 40% of their flock to predators and disease, up from about 15% in a normal year. Some are giving up on sheep-rearing as a result. (Brighu Acharya)

Sheep are under an odd kind of attack in Himachal Pradesh, and it’s coming from more than one direction.

As the climate shifts, there is more rainfall and snowfall in mountain plateaus in summer. Because of this, high-altitude predators such as bears and snow leopards, which typically retreated to higher ground in this season, are still prowling here.

They are attacking confused sheep, and confounding shepherds.

The snow and the rain, meanwhile, destroy the grass and pine needles that the sheep thrive on. The pine in particular is nutritious for sheep, and boosts their immunity.

Caught in the rain and snow, struggling to find their pine needles, all the while clad in coats that are not built for such humidity, the sheep are also dying from disease.

Sagar Singh, 40, of Naggar town in Kullu is among the Himachali shepherds hanging up their sheep-rearing boots as a result. “I am done. I will now focus on farming,” he says.

The last straw for him was losing 40 of his 100 head last year, to a mix of predators and disease. (In a normal year, he says he would lose 10 or 15.)

Singh has since sold 20 of his remaining 60 sheep, and may sell the rest. It makes more sense to focus on his nine acres of vegetable fields, he says.

Singh’s story is reflected in the union government’s Basic Animal Husbandry Statistics report for 2023. Himachal Pradesh, a leading wool-producing state, has seen production fall from about 251,000 kg in 2019-20 to 233,000 kg in 2022-23, it states.

As an example of what is causing the decline, Deepak Saini, deputy general manager of the state government’s Himachal Pradesh Wool Federation, points to last summer. “There were two weeks of heavy snowfall and rainfall, at a time when many shepherds had taken their flocks to the highlands. They were stuck there, with the grass either rotting or buried under snow.”

This has been the case for the past three or four years, he adds, which has meant not just a scarcity of wool, but also lower quality of produce. “This makes the wool more expensive, which means that fewer people can afford it,” he adds. “It has led to acrylic getting mixed in with the wool, to make it cheaper. But this is creating less demand for expert weavers.”

Himachal Pradesh’s trademark wool product, the sheep’s-wool blanket or razai, was typically woven so tight, of such pure and thick wool, that it was even somewhat water-repellent.

“The synthetic blankets are not as warm or as water-repellent,” Saini says. “But acrylic-free razais are already becoming harder to find.”

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Nolen gur: Rising winter temperatures drain a vital sap

Earlier, a date-palm tree would produce an average of eight litres of sap in a single overnight tapping session. This has reduced to an average of five litres. Now it takes roughly eight litres of sap to produce a litre of nolen gur. (Satwik Paul)
Earlier, a date-palm tree would produce an average of eight litres of sap in a single overnight tapping session. This has reduced to an average of five litres. Now it takes roughly eight litres of sap to produce a litre of nolen gur. (Satwik Paul)

The sweets are changing in West Bengal, as the winters get warmer. Some are getting whiter; others are gaining new colours. There is often a new sharpness to each bite.

As nolen gur or date-palm jaggery becomes scarcer and more expensive, some mithai-makers are moving on to diluted versions, regular jaggery or simply using sugar.

There was only a small window in which tappers could harvest date-palm sap to begin with. The tree only produces it when temperatures dip below 14 degrees Celsius. This typically meant a tapping season of eight to 10 weeks, usually between mid-November and mid-February.

Lately, the winters have been warmer and shorter. In 2023, Kolkata recorded a maximum temperature of 28 degrees Celsius on February 1; this year, it was 23 degrees Celsius on that date — that’s several degrees above the normal range for that time of year.

As winter temperatures rise, each tree yields less of the sap, says confectioner Rajesh Das, who runs Maa Kali Sweets in Joynagar in the South 24 Parganas district. “Earlier, a tree would produce an average of eight litres of sap in a single overnight tapping session. This has reduced to an average of five litres. And it takes roughly eight litres of sap to produce a litre of nolen gur.”

Joynagar is famous for its GI-tagged moa, balls of puffed rice held together by nolen gur.

As the brown fades from traditional sweets, in the absence of nolen gur, confectioners are adding pinks, yellows, anything to make up for the loss. (HT Archives)
As the brown fades from traditional sweets, in the absence of nolen gur, confectioners are adding pinks, yellows, anything to make up for the loss. (HT Archives)
(HT Archives)
(HT Archives)

It has become hard to manage the supply chain for this and other sweets.

Even the tappers aren’t earning what they used to, and there isn’t enough work to go around. Until 2015-16, says Das, his establishment worked with about 100 tappers or siulis, leasing date-palm trees from landowners for the winter and then having them tapped for the sap. Since 2018-19, the number of tappers has dropped to about 65.

The situation is actually better in parts of the North and South 24 Parganas, Bolpur, Birbhum and Nadia, which have typically had cooler winters, says Anirban Roy, research officer with the state government’s Biodiversity Board.

Das would agree and disagree. He can’t always find the nolen gur he needs in Joynagar, he says. “I have had to go as far as Nadia (about 180 km north) to source it.”

Meanwhile, synthetic and sugar-flavoured alternatives are becoming more prevalent.

That’s the sharpness in the white rosogollas and the payesh. And, as the pure pale brown that was once a marker of nolen gur fades, mithai-makers are adding hints of yellow, pink… anything to make up for the loss.

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A mask slips, a dance form is altered, on a vanishing island

(HT Archives)
(HT Archives)

Sattriya, the eighth and youngest form of classical Indian dance, is so intricately linked with the monks of Majuli, the vanishing river island in Assam, that it derives its name from “sattra”, the Assamese term for “monastery”.

The dance form emerged here, via the Vaishnavite poet-saint Sankaradeva, in the 15th century.

It expresses devotion through sprightly, liquid motions that seek to mimic the movements of the Brahmaputra (a rare Indian river with a male name). Vivid, colourful wooden masks (above) are traditionally used to represent different characters and express various bhavas or emotions.

The monasteries began to fall to rising water levels in the 1970s. Today, from the original set of 64 scattered across the island for about 500 years, 21 remain.

Some of the monasteries have been uprooted and moved inland, to more stable districts such as Jorhat, says Sattriya monk Bhabananda Barbayan, who spends part of the year in Majuli and runs a Sattriya training institute in Delhi.

This island has lost about 72% of its land area to a rising Brahmaputra, with its land area falling from 1,250 sq km in 1890 to 352 sq km today. It is expected to disappear by 2040.

Amid this erosion, the agriculture that has been the mainstay of the monks has suffered.

“Because of the rapid loss of agricultural land, in quantity and quality, the sattras haven’t been able to attract new bhakats (students), and due to the sharp reduction in the number of bhakats, even the grandeur of the performances is being lost,” says Arshiya Sethi, a Sattriya scholar and founder and managing trustee of the Kri foundation for the arts in New Delhi.

“We may very well see a variant of the dance in the near future in which married men perform the dance and associated rituals,” she adds. “I fear I will live to see these changes in my lifetime.”

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New glues alter the blues of Ajrakh

It’s becoming harder to find the wild onions and babool that yield the natural starch and gum used in Ajrakh. (HT Archives)
It’s becoming harder to find the wild onions and babool that yield the natural starch and gum used in Ajrakh. (HT Archives)

India is so proud of its Ajrakh — that distinctive blue block-printed fabric that we all own at least a little of.

We have followed its troubles over recent decades: the dwindling profit margins; the water scarcities, as groundwater levels dwindle in Kutchh (it takes 13 litres to produce a single metre of this block-printed cloth).

Now, there is a new challenge.

The babool plant (Acacia arabica), whose bark produces the gum that is mixed into the dye to help it adhere to the blocks, is becoming harder to find.

“Over the past two or three years, we have been forced to buy synthetic gum from the market,” says Sufiyan Ismail Khatri, a dye-maker from Ajrakhpur. A litre of natural gum now costs about 250, up from just 50 two years ago, he adds. The synthetic variant costs 70 per litre.

But it makes the dye runnier. It doesn’t look like the real thing, says Khatri.

There is more troubling news. In an effort to keep costs down, locals are growing a substitute for the Acacia arabica — the invasive alien tree species Prosopis juliflora, locally known as “gando bawal” or “mad tree” because of how it simply takes over entire landscapes. “P. juliflora is being cultivated at the risk of severely disrupting the local ecology,” says Janmay Singh Hada, a professor of textile design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Jodhpur.

The wild onion used to starch the textiles has also become harder to find. “So now we are having to use rice or wheat starch instead, which isn’t the same. It is also more expensive because it doesn’t grow locally. Earlier, we would just go to the forests, pick the onions and do it ourselves,” says Dinesh Vishram, 42, a 12th-generation Kutchh artisan.

The culprit is rain. The babool and wild onion are both hardy plants that can withstand heat, drought and predators; but they are not built for water.

As average annual rainfall over Kutchh has risen from 378 mm in 1984 to 674 mm in 2013, it has caused their leaves and roots to rot; affected their reproductive cycles; and is causing them to fade from landscapes.

A younger generation already wary of the hardships of an Indian artisan’s life is turning away from this craft entirely.

The only way the community will preserve it for the future at this point is if it is taught in schools, says Vishram. Even a few sessions would help, he adds anxiously. “That is our last hope of keeping it alive in its original form.”

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Ker-sangri goes missing from the Rajasthani thali

The traditional dish is made using the desert berry ker and the desert bean sangri, both nutrient-dense and native to the region. (HT Archives)
The traditional dish is made using the desert berry ker and the desert bean sangri, both nutrient-dense and native to the region. (HT Archives)

For the first time since 1947, when his father established their eatery Pokar Sweet Home in Jodhpur, Anand Bhati, 60, had to take the Rajasthani summer staple of ker-sangri off their menu, last year.

The traditional dish is made using the desert berry ker and the desert bean sangri, both nutrient-dense and native to the region.

Ker and sangri typically sold for about 200 or 300 a kilo, until about 2020, Bhati says. In 2023, as heavy rainfall destroyed the plants, prices shot up to 900 to 1,000 per kilo. “Now it’s only affordable to the diners eating at fancy restaurants and not at humble ones like ours,” Bhati says.

This is an emotional subject for traditional Rajasthanis.

The sangri bean is the pod of the khejri tree, a plant known as the “lifeline of the desert”. It is so hardy that it is an object of worship in the state.

Ker, on the other hand, is a wild berry that refuses to be domesticated. “It relies on a microflora ecosystem so specific that we have tried and failed miserably to cultivate it,” says Tarun Kant, head of forest genetics and tree improvement at the Arid Forest Research Institute, Jodhpur.

But, Rajasthan received its highest May rainfall in a century last year: 62.33 mm. The state’s average for that month is 13.6 mm.

“Desert ecosystems are very fragile and only thrive in very specific conditions. This excessive moisture is not good for Rajasthan, as it means more insects, pests and fungus attacking the flora here,” Kant says.

Both the ker and sangri plants are falling prey to mite and insect infestations.

“The problem is so severe now that it is driving the prices of ker and sangri to 2,000 and even 3,000 per kilo. It used to be a food of the masses but now only the rich can eat it,” Kant says.

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