It’s been around two years that I am staying in Landour, Mussoorie. Every year we celebrate Diwali with enthusiasm and zeal. But, this year we celebrated our Diwali in the wilderness, foraging in the wild to collect 14 shaak/saag (leafy greens/foliage) to commemorate a traditional Bengali ritual.
Diwali or festival of lights is one of the ancient traditional festival celebrated in India and different parts of the world. The essence of the festival is same throughout the country, but the culture, customs and traditional practices vary from state to state. In West Bengal and some parts in Northeast India, Bhoot Chaturdashi and Kali Puja are celebrated during this time of the year. Bengalis light 14 earthen lamps at the doorway of their house to guide the spirits of 14 forefathers to heaven and ward off evil spirits. They also eat a delicacy made of 14 types of green saags (foliage/leafy part of the plant).
Traditionally in Bengal these 14 shaak /saag are used for the preparation of the dish. They comprise of Olkopi shaak (Amarphophallus campanulatus); Kasunda shaak (Cassia sophera); Sorshe shaak (Brassica campestris); Neem (Azadirachta Indica); Jainti pata (Sesbania sesban); Salinch shaak (Alternanthera sessilis); Gulancha (Tinospora cardifolia); Sheluka (Cordia Dichotoma); Hinche (Enhydra fluctuans); Ghetu (Clerodendrum infortunatum); Shushani (Marsilea qudrifolia); Beto (Chenopodium album); Potol pata/ leaf (Trichosanthes dioica); Kemuk/Keu Pata/leaf (Cheilocostus speciosus).
With local changes in habitat, ecology and environment, the diversity of plant species also varies. This effects the availability of plant species in a particular area. I experienced impact of ecological change on plant diversity and food habit during my stay in Assam. I observed that the above mentioned traditional 14 saags got substituted with the following saags (‘xaak’ in Assamese) in Assam, ie Ronga Laur xaak (Cucurbita pepo); Khutura xaak (Amaranthus viridis); Tita Mora xaak (Corchorus capsularis ); Pui xaak (Basella alba); Dhekia xaak (Diplazium esculentum); Kolmi xaak (Ipomoea aquatica); Bhedai lota (Paederia foetida); Kochu xaak (Colocasia esculenta); Methi xaak (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.); Mula shaak (Raphanus sativus); Sojne paat (Moringa oleifera); Paleng xaak (Spinacia oleracea) Brahmi saak (Bacopa monnieri); Bor maanimuni (Centella asiatica) and many more.
In Landour, Mussoorie again I found locational ecological variance of phytodiversity due to altitudinal variation. Landour, Mussoorie is located in lesser Himalayas with altogether different geographical topography as compared to West Bengal and Assam. So, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t find the traditional Bengali 14 shaak/foliage in this terrain. But where there is will there is a way, I made my mind to collect locally available edible green leaves/ herbs to prepare authentic 14 shaak recipe and traversed through various woodlots, thickets in and around Landour to explore wild edible leaves/foliage. During the course I came across Common nettle also locally known as Kandali (Urtica dioca L.); Black nightshade also locally known as Khalarkoi (Solanum nigrum L.); Timru (Zanthoxylum alatum Roxb.); Bathua saag (Chenopodim album); Khatti-mithi (Oxalis corniculata L.); Bhangjeera (Perilla frutescens (L.) Britton); Almoda (Rumex hastatus D.Don); Kanalya (Fagopyron esculentum Moench.); Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale Weber) and many more. The edible leaves of these plants are used in the preparation of some local dishes and have immense medicinal value. I sufficed the ingredients with locally available Methi saag/Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum); Sarson saag (Brassica campestris); Palak saag (Spinacia oleracea); Muli bhaji (Raphanus sativus); and some locally available Coriander leaves (Coriandrum sativum). So, altogether I was able to collect 14 different leafy greens for the preparation of 14 shaak recipe and I was ready to cook the dish.
Care must be taken while collecting and cooking nettles as they prickly in nature. I used very minor quantity of the leaves from the plants I foraged from the wild. I thoroughly cleaned, blanched, partially boil the leaves and drained excess moisture. Care should be taken not to over cook the leaves. Later, I sauteed the par boiled greens in mustard oil spluttering with Nigella seeds and salt to taste. Voila!!! and the dish was ready.
There are many aspects associated with the traditional practice of eating 14 saag delicacy on this particular day, be it religious, spiritual or scientific. According to Charaka Samhita, the ayurvedic compendium of second century BC, eating different leafy vegetables in the Kartika (October-November) month builds immunity for fighting infectious disease outbreaks which occur after monsoon and in winter season. The plant species used in chodhdho (14) shaak recipe have medicinal properties and are also used in medicine to cure allergic rhinitis, seasonal cough and cold, allergic bronchitis, asthma and fever, gastrointestinal problems, dermatological issues.These plants are have bioactive compounds which can cure malaria, chronic fever, pain and insect bites.
Bioactive compounds are present in the leafy part of the plant i.e. foliage has therapeutic potential with influence on energy intake, while reducing pro-inflammatory state, oxidative stress, and metabolic disorders. Studies indicate that high consumption of foods rich in bioactive compounds with antioxidant activity, including vitamins, phytochemicals, and mainly phenolic compounds, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, has a positive effect on human health and could diminish the risk of numerous diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cataracts, and age-related functional decadence (Hassimotto, Genovese, & Lajolo, 2009; Siriwardhana et al., 2013).
Historical research shows that Diwali celebration dates back over 2500 years. This festival is celebrated not only by Hindus but is also observed by Indians of many faiths, including Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.These traditional rituals and customs not only connects souls but also creates a feeling of belongingness with families and friends, uplifts moral ethical values ,mutual respect and oneness with nature. With the passage of time traditional Diwali celebrations has slowly evolved with modern adaptation but lighting diyas, rangoli making and decoration with fresh flower are still intact. This year Diwali celebrations has suffered due to global Corona virus pandemic. Moreover, the high pollution levels due to burning of Parali/ stubble and overuse of crackers in some parts of India is badly affecting lives. This scenario has again questioned the basic responsibility of citizens towards environment and climate. An eco-friendly Diwali is the best practice to commemorate the same by lightning earthenware Diyas, using natural colors and dyes like rice flour, turmeric power, kumkum, lime, flower petals, coal and leaves for making Rangoli (Bengalis use rice powder to make beautiful Alpana). Its our basic responsibility and conscience to adopt climate resilient measures and recognise the essence of the traditional Diwali celebration.
©All images and content are subjected to copyright