The Banana is Akin to the Kalpavrusha in the Hindu Tradition

The second episode of the history of the banana in India provides rich details as to how the banana is regarded akin to the Kalpavruksha (the wish-granting tree) in the Hindu tradition
The Banana is Akin to the Kalpavrusha in the Hindu Tradition

Read the Earlier Episodes

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The Banana is Akin to the Kalpavrusha in the Hindu Tradition

ON THE PRACTICAL AND ECONOMIC PLANES, the banana lent itself to diverse uses throughout its history.  For several centuries,  Dacca was renowned for its plantain products. 

We have rich historical documentation that talks about a  specialised kind of cloth woven from the plantain fibre. A gold bordered handkerchief, made entirely from the plantain fibre, was displayed by the Dacca weavers at the Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883-84. 

The aforementioned term Mocha, a synonym for banana, eventually took on a restricted meaning in Bengali. Its flower-head was called Mocha and was lauded as an “excellent vegetable.” It is nourishing, and is said to have a salutary effect on the action of the kidneys. In former days, no feast could be complete without a hotchpotch of the plantain-flower being served after the distribution of the rice.” Even today, there is an endless supply of culinary videos on YouTube teaching the art of preparing the Mocha’r Ghonto and Kadali Bhanda Patua. The latter is predominantly a favourite in Odisha. We also notice how both Bengal and Odisha have retained intact, the original Sanskrit word, Kadali.    

In Maharashtra, the pith of the banana tree, known as the Kelicha gavha was   eaten cooked as a vegetable. The spicy raw banana curry and the sweet preparation, Kelyache Shikharan are also relished in the state.

Kerala emerges as the uncrowned monarch of banana usage. Without exaggeration, the state might disappear from the face of the earth if it’s deprived of the plantain. Its signature variety, the Nendran can be regarded as the fructuous capital of Kerala. A sub-variety of the Nendran, known as the Chengalikkodan, is offered to Sri Krishna at the renowned Guruvayoor Temple as a kazhchakkula (or Naivedyam). Chengalikkodan is rumoured to cost anywhere between ₹ 1000 - 2000 per bunch. And over the last three decades, the “Kerala banana chips” has ploughed a silent invasion across the globe akin to how you will find the ubiquitous Malayali tea vendor even on the moon. 

Individual states apart, the pan-Indian omnipresence of the banana is found in the banana Bajji and its variants — plain, spiced, dressed with onions and masala, with or without chutney…  It jostles for the top place in the universe of vegetable bajjis.       

The most glaring, also the largest visible use of the kalpavṛkṣa-esque plantain is its leaf. This is the most delectable plate that nature has gifted us. Its ubiquity is sadly restricted to South India. Even as recently as the 1970s, the plantain leaf was the plate of choice over its metallic counterparts in the homes of the average South Indian. It continues to retain its preeminence especially during auspicious occasions like festivals and weddings. This is a subconscious reminder of its unbroken Sanatana sanctity. Indeed, a plantain leaf meal is an experience notwithstanding the variety or taste of the dishes consumed on it. It is the victual synonym for both ānanda (joy, bliss) and rasānanda (where rasa = taste). Here is a mouth-watering description of this plantain-leaf ānanda, narrated in the Tachcholi ballad (Vadakkan Pattukal), extolling the heroic feats of the 17th century Malabar lionheart, Tachcholi Chandu. This is how Chandu has his meals on a large plantain leaf: 

"Tachcholi Meppayil Kunti Odenam

Took an oil bath, and rubbed over his body

A mixture of perfume, sandalwood and musk,

And sat down for dinner,

A Kadali plantain leaf was spread.

His sister Tachcholi Unchira,

Served him the dinner of

Fine lily-white rice,

A large quantity of pure ghee

And eleven kinds of vegetable curries." 

That made me ravenous even as I wrote those words.

A TWOFOLD TRAGEDY of the post industrial era is rapid dehumanisation and loss of memory. Both have contributed to social instability throughout the world in an unprecedented fashion. Until even the 1960s, only wars and natural disasters were the prime causes for instability. Technology has taken their place today. The generation born after the advent of mobile phones has zero inkling of real, human interaction and lasting relationships. And what is true of the human is truer in the hard, complex, and unforgiving natural world. 

The loss has been enormous, swift and irreversible.

Less than a century ago, the stem of the plantain tree was used in games and amusements, both by children and adults. It was a target to shoot arrows at. Like bamboo sticks, the banana stem was used to display feats of manual dexterity requiring extraordinary skill, concentration and coordination. It was used for sword practice as well. In the early 1920s in Kodagu, a definitive marker of a person’s strength and skill was to neatly slice through a banana stem with a single blow of the deadly Kodagu knife.

The banana rind was used in some regions of India as a dye to give a black colour to leather. 

The banana was also a popular and inexpensive vehicle especially in Bengal. Scores of plantain stems were joined together and made into rafts. It would easily accommodate tens of people who floated on it on the river, from town to town. R.C. Majumdar narrates his childhood experience of this mode of travel. 

In those days, there were neither buses nor trains; there were not even the roads. So learning swimming was inevitable. No need for fuel, no need to stand in the line, just jump into the water and swim to the destination! When we went to school we used to make rafts from the banana tree stumps or hollow palm logs to stay dry.

If plantain leaves were used as plates in South India, they were used as substitutes for paper in Bengal. Both Indian and British records describe how “advanced students” in the traditional village schools of Bengal used plantain leaf for writing. 

At the beginning they learn to write the alphabet on the floor, or on a wooden board, with a piece of chalk. When they have had sufficient practice in this mode of writing, they next use palm-leaves. Writing on palm-leaves , they learn the alphabet and make some progress in arithmetic. The next step is the plantain leaf, and lastly paper. 

The creativity of Bengalis vis a vis the banana was almost limitless. In villages, dry plantain leaves were burnt, and its ash was used to wash clothes: a banana detergent if you will.  

Banana leaves were also widely used in the packaging industry for centuries throughout Asia. They are making a happy resurgence even as we speak.  

Medicine was another field in which banana generously gave itself. For centuries, tender, unfolded banana leaves were applied as excellent coolants to cover blisters. Its dressing procedure was described thus: “to dress a blister, a piece of the leaf, of the required size, smeared with a bland vegetable oil, is applied to the denuded surface, and kept on the place by means of a bandage. The blistered surface is generally found to heal after four or five days." Likewise, “in ophthalmic diseases, a piece of the banana leaf forms a good shade for the eyes.”

Like in all other areas, Mother Nature’s free gifts were innovated to serve human vices. The banana was no exception. Bidis in Western India were  wrapped with dried plantain leaves and then smoked. 

To be continued

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