In India and Nepal, Chhath Puja is an important festival that helps to safeguard several native fruit species, especially the pomelo, which is part of the offerings made by women to the Sun God.
Culture and tradition often plays an important role in the conservation of biodiversity. Ingredients that make part of a festival or celebration are naturally protected because they serve a purpose and have ritual significance.
In northern India and Nepal, Chhath Puja is a widely celebrated Hindu festival to worship the Sun God. Rituals during the festival are believed to help cure skin ailments such as leprosy, and bring health benefits to family members.
Like many other festivals, the performance of Chhath Puja involves a ritual made complete by prayers and specific dishes made with specific ingredients. In the state of Bihar, the ritual is largely observed by women, who over 3 days, clean and purify their homes, fast for 36 hours with family members, and prepare a special dish with rice and jaggery (cane sugar) using dried twigs of mango as fuelwood. On the 4th day, a puja (prayer ritual) is performed near a river or water body. The puja includes offerings made of a diverse variety of fruits, flowers, spices and root vegetables. Women arrange these offerings carefully and recite traditional songs to reiterate the importance of conserving water and the environment.
Of all the ingredients used, pomelo, is the essential fruit that makes this ritual complete. A large citrus fruit native to South Asia, the festival is a strong motivation for families in Bihar to plant a pomelo tree in their homegarden. In fact, many of the fruits, herbs and spices used in the festival such as guava, banana, sugarcane, turmeric and ginger, are all sourced from homegardens. In Bihar, the average homegarden boasts an average of 6-8 fruit trees, up to 16 in some cases.
It is not uncommon for homegardens to host special, even sacred plants used for different rituals and customary observances. Sometimes homegardens are the only remaining habitat of unique and lesser known species. For most rural households, homegardens provide their families with supplementary food, fodder, fuelwood, medicine and other socio-cultural needs that might arise throughout the year. They act as a saftey net, ensuring year-round income in case of crop failure. From a researcher’s point of view, these gardens double as in situ conservation sites for many unique genetic resources for food and agriculture.
The plants grown in homegardens are not static, but rather provide opportunities for experimentation and creativity. Homegarden owners often attempt new experiments such as introducting new varieties, planting in different seasons and growing different companion mixtures to see how that might affect productivity.
So while homegardens are important for the conservation of agricultural biodiversity, so are the cultural traditions that influence what is grown in them. These fruits, roots and spices not only benefit the household directly and improve their living space, but contribute to a wider pool of available genetic resources for the community and future generations. Every year during Chhatt Puja, these future generations will carry on the duties left to them to perform offerings of this diversity as the sun rises over the riverbanks.
We leave you with some of the species found in homegardens in Pusa, Bihar
|Monkey Jack (Jackfruit)
This story is part of a series to celebrate traditional knowledge, contributed by our national partner from the UNEP/GEF supported project 'Conservation and Sustainable Use of Cultivated and Wild Tropical Fruit Diversity: Promoting Sustainable Livelihoods, Food Security and Ecosystem Services', implemented in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. In India, the project is coordinated regionally by Bioversity International in collaboration with Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), New Delhi.