Turmeric Season in Tiruvannamalai

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Life in Indian villages has a rhythm that is driven by the planting and harvesting seasons of the crops that they grow. In South India this is mainly rice, with two or even three crops each year. There are other crops as well, like sugar cane, peanuts (called ‘ground nuts’ here), and some others, like turmeric. 

This time of year (February and March) is when turmeric is dug up and processed. Not everybody grows turmeric, so only some families are involved in this process. Turmeric requires a lot of water, maybe that is why it is not grown by more people.

In about June of the previous year, turmeric roots – the rhizome – are cut up and planted. They are stored from the previous year’s harvest. The plant takes about 8 months to mature. When it is mature, the rhizomes are harvested, cooked and dried. Then they will be ground up into the turmeric power with which we are all familiar. 

There is a field near our house. In it was a crew hard at work. On farms in South India, the women do most of the planting and picking, working under the hot sun in their colorful sarees. Men do the plowing and soil preparation. Naturally, the crew in the photo below is all women. 

To harvest the rhizome, to dig up the roots, first they cut off the growing stem of the plant.

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They cut off the tops of the plants, and lay them in neat stacks to be carried away later.

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A man comes. He is the owner of this crop.

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He inspects something with the women.

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After this, they will dig out each rhizome, pull off the roots (usually) then pile them up to be carried away by tractors (or bullock carts, in the old fashioned way). After digging the roots up they have to process and dry the the rhizomes. Most people have not seen how this is done in India. The next series of photos shows the process.

The work has started, and there are already a number of piles in an open field.

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Women, working from one corner, are spreading out the piles, laying each rhizome on the ground.

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On the other side of the field a man fills metal buckets with turmeric rhizomes. He is working from a big pile, one of several dumped from a tractor trailer. He will pour about 7 of these buckets into one of two cooking pans.

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Another man is tending to the broad pans being cooked over a fire.

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The pans with the 7 buckets of rhizomes are steaming, and covered with some kind of heavy cloth. You can see water bubbling.

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Dried brush is pushed into the fire with a stick, keeping it burning hot.

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Two poles are slipped into slots on the sides of the pan.

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The two men pick it up …

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and carry it across the field …

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then turn it over and dump the steaming load onto the ground.

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It sits on the ground, steaming, the water from the pan soaking into the ground around the pile.

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Then, when the pan is returned to the fire, water (mixed with some brown power) is poured into the pan.

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And the pan is filled again with buckets of turmeric rhizomes.

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They are smoothed out, and the cloth cover is replaced. Enough water is in the pan the cover them.

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Meanwhile the ladies spread out the piles to dry.

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About one hour later, the men dump the next cooked turmeric on the the dirt, so it can dry.

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While this work is going on, the owner of all this sometimes stands and watches. He is the man in the white tee-shirt.

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The men bring a pan back to the fire from unloading.

The cooking process went on for four days and nights. The men tended the fire and rhizomes all through each night, cooking about two pans each hour. They have a good crop, and this is a big job!

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This is what turmeric looks like at this stage. The flesh is orange, but still not dried.

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Here is the field of drying tubers after about a week. The tubers have shrunk considerably as they dry. Arunachala is in the background.

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Here are the rhizomes after a week of sun drying. They are dry and shriveled, less than half the size from last week.

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Here is a rhizome,split in two. Compare it with the one earlier in this post. They were about the same with this started.

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Next they will be sold to a spice company who will clean and grind them into power. Somewhere along the line they turn bright yellow. I can see a little yellow now. Maybe when they are completely dry they get yellow. I don’t know.

Much of the local economy is based on farming. If you stay in the cities you never see this part of life. I bet this way of handling turmeric is two thousand years old, or more. For the Indian villagers, much of life has not changed since then. And I think that about half of India, about 600,000,000 people, about twice the population of the USA, still lives in villages.

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2 Responses to “Turmeric Season in Tiruvannamalai”

  1. Agnes Goyvaerts Says:

    Wonderful to get this insight into Tumeric growing. Enjoyed, thank you Richard.

  2. kevjkelly Says:

    Most interesting. thanks Richard.

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