Food Katha: A for Agriculture, A for Ann

Annam, or food grain, Indian scriptures say, is akin to God (Brahma). It is the basic component which holds the human body together

Food Katha: A for Agriculture, A for Ann

Mrinal Pande

Foodgrains were being cultivated in India as early as 2500 years before Christ. On the sands of the Ghaggar river at Kalibangan, historians have located evidence of food grains being grown systematically using a plow pulled by bullocks. Some miniature clay toy plows, no doubt playthings for farmers’ grand children, have also been found. The fabled ruler of Pataliputra, Chandragupta Maurya recognized the central importance of not just Ann but all those who grew it. So, he exempted them from military service.

In the land of wandering monks and nuns, food was given by householders (Grihasthas) as a mark of respect for these spiritual beings uninvolved in worldly activities. Buddha declared that begging for food from householders was part of the Buddhist discipline of humility for monks.

The monks were sworn to be non-violent, but they ate everything given by way of alms, even meat or fish. Buddhists forbade killing any living being, but condoned eating all kinds of food in deference to varied eating habits of Indian tribes and communities. Thus, Buddha desegregated strong taboos over all kinds of food: vegetarian or non- vegetarian.

We have regressed today to the extent that many of our states disallow badly malnourished school children from getting an egg in their midday meal.

The first holy ceremony around Ann for a child, is known as Annaprashan at which a child around 6-9 months old is first fed food grains, usually a small portion of Kheer made of rice milk and honey, jaggery or sugar.

In Sutra literature there is also mention of the child being fed bits of meat during this ceremony. Grahya Sutra said the kind of non-vegetarian food fed to the child determined his/her temperament. Thus, ram’s meat, it was believed, would make the child physically strong, partridge meat bestowed saintliness, fish was fed for ensuring a gentle disposition rice and Ghee to ensure prosperity and glory.

Barley has been the oldest known staple among grains. Rig Veda refers to it as Yava. It was eaten roasted and ground as pounded gram or Sattu, as it is still done in north eastern India. It is eaten in the fried form as cakes (Apoopa, the grand daddy of Pua and the luscious Maal Pua), fried and dipped in sugar syrup or honey for those with a sweet tooth.

In Ayurveda barley is supposed to have medicinal properties for the sick and the weak. Sushrutprescribed it for those always feeling weak or thirsty, also as cure for lack of appetite. By the time of Mohenjodaro, wheat and Chana (gram) were also added to grains.On those later.

With the growth of agriculture in the fertile plains, storage of grains became very important both for farmers and householders. Large structures for storing grains sold to the State were maintained by the State. One such central granary in Harappa was a large mud platform with two granary blocks on it. Each block had 6 chambers. The granary faced the river through which perhaps the grain arrived on boats. Fragments of burnt grains were found in crevices in the ruins. The storage was presumably meant to tide out famines, which were not unknown.

During the medieval ages, this continued. The State stored and distributed grains among the starving people during acute conditions. In the 14th century Ibn Batuta writes that Mohammad Bin Tughlak faced one such food emergency and made food grains available to the poor. Amir Khusro the poet who was both an aesthete and recorder of his times, also corroborates this.

The word for the pit used to store food,Khattee, is still in use. This was prepared well, lined much like rural Khattees today, with a mix of straw. The mouth of the pit was sealed tight with clay, straw and cowdung, after filling it with grain. It was so air-tight that Ibn Batutaclaimed that rice stored for 90 years had been brought out during a famine. The grains were black in colour but tasted good and remained fragrant, he informs.

Oats or Jai, so popular among weightwatchers today, arrived in India from the Mediterranean. They were first grown as fodder for royal horses. Oil seeds like mustard, sesame and linseed were known early in the Indus valley. Coconut was already familiar to the South Indians. By 500 BC, crushing devices for squeezing oil were being used.

Ann has also added to our vocabulary. The king or the landlord were called Ann Daata during the feudal age. Today the cultivators (as vote bank) are deferentially addressed by wily politicians as Ann Daata.

Eating some one’s gift of Ann ensured lifelong loyalty. Aapka Ann khaya hai Sarkar, I have eaten your grains, is a common form of acknowledgment of one’s deep gratitude to an Ann Daata. The present government is also treating free ‘gift’of Ann as “ration’ to the poor through ration shops and the government has plastered our towns with bill boards congratulating The Leader for free ration, free vaccines, free medicines. Free vaccines? Free medicines? Whether or not Ann is reaching the poor, remains to be researched.

(Mrinal Pande, author, translator and editor is Group Editorial Advisor to National Herald)

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