Assam, April 14: The month of April, when Rongali Bihu is just around the corner in Assam and spring paint every tree with young, delicate leaves and blooming flowers, this is Anamika Baruah’s favourite time of the year.
There are many wonderful memories of festivity associated with it—The rongali Bihu festival in Assam celebrates New Year in the Assamese calendar—but of all, it’s a particular childhood memory that stands out.
“Every year on Bihu Assam, I along with cousins and would accompany Aita (grandmother) in search of different varieties of xaak in the backyard of our house. She would tell us the name and why that particular leafy green was good for our health,” Baruah, who is now a 50-year-old lady, said.
An age-old tradition recommends the consumption of 101 varieties of xaak (pronounced haak in Assamese) on Bihu Assam, and Baruah said that she has grown up relishing the dish that is a concoction of all those varieties.
“Now, however, I struggle to find all those varieties. Many of them have become rare; at best I put together 40-44 varieties,” she said.
Guwahati-based Baruah is not alone in her dilemma. Beli Hazarika, a homemaker in Tezpur, similarly said that quite a few of the herbs and leafy greens that were once easily available and would go into the Bihu Assam dish are becoming difficult to source. “My mother would easily gather the akho-ek-bidh (101 variety) xaak from her vicinity during Bihu Assam; it’s not as easy now. Greens like Matikaduri (Alternanthera sessilis) that were commonly found growing in damp places are no longer as easily seen,” she said.
Tradition rooted in science
The idea behind the customary feasting on different greens on Bihu Assam, said locals, is to improve immunity and ward off allergies and ailments that suddenly become common during this time of the year when the season changes.
“Every herb in this 101 variety is known for its particular medicinal value,” Jayanta Deka, principal scientist at the Assam Agriculture University’s agronomy department told Mongabay-India. “So if one is good for skin allergy, another one is good for the stomach. Yet another is good for urinary tract disease.”
Bhedai-lota, or skunk vine, for example, is known to have medicinal properties to treat stomach ailments, gastric problems, even rheumatic pains.
Matikaduri, which is an aquatic weed, is known for its benefits on the urinary system, and Duroon bon or Leucas plant is known to be an effective remedy for cough and cold and also to treat intestinal worms in children.
The list, however, is not binding, and depending on the area or tribe it is, there could be certain differences, depending on the availability of the herbs.
Hazarika, for example, said that she adds one or two blades of grass to her Bihu Assam xaak special, apart from potato greens, ginger greens and the others. The beauty of this dish, she said, was that it allows one to be inspired by nature.
And there is no dearth of inspiration during this time when plants flourish with the first rains. This is another reason why eating all these greens is recommended at this time — while people may eat these at other times too, they are available in plenty during Rongali Bihu Assam.
Unplanned urbanization and its cost
Over time, however, some of these herbs — like the three mentioned — which were once found growing in the wild, beside drains, near ponds, and in people’s backyards, have become less commonly seen.
Hazarika, an avid gardener herself, thinks it’s because of urbanization that these herbs have either become rare or have been pushed deeper into the wilderness. “The image of a drain has changed over time; earlier drains were just a passage for rainwater to flow through. No one would throw garbage in them and herbs like Matikaduri and Brahmi for instance would grow wildly in the vicinity,” she said, “In fact, people would sow brinjal and chilli seeds near these damp areas. But now along with becoming concrete, drains have become filthy and these herbs wouldn’t be found in urban areas.”
Ishwar Barua, the scientist at AAU, agreed and added that “unplanned urbanization” is one of the reasons behind many herbs and local species of plants becoming rarer to find in Assam.
“Destruction of land resources, conversion of forest land for other purposes, unplanned urbanization are all reasons behind some of our local species of plants not being seen as commonly as they were once upon a time,” Barua said.
“For instance, we have more than 100 varieties of Dhekia xaak (fiddlehead fern); it’s one of the most primitive land plants. But now many of those varieties have become scarce.”
Loss of water bodies — where a number of aquatic weeds flourish — to urbanization is another reason behind this trend, said Pallab Kumar Sarma, chief scientist at the Biswanath College of Agriculture, citing the example of Guwahati, the biggest city in Assam.
According to one paper, Guwahati Metropolitan Area has seen an increasing trend of built-up land and cultivated and managed areas in the peripheral areas of the city while natural and semi-natural vegetated lands have diminished.
Loss of the ‘old way’ of doing things
Yet another reason for some of the local herbs becoming rare is a change in cultivation practices and farm mechanization.
“A number of herbs are categorized as weeds. Farmers, when they would do weed control in their paddy field and their land earlier, manually, would know which to remove and which to keep,” Jayanta Deka said, “But now, with chemical weed control, that kind of sorting is no longer there.”
Neelam Dutta, an organic farmer in Biswanath Chariali, agreed that herbicides and pesticides used in agricultural practice are one of the reasons behind some of the herb species becoming rare.
“Monocropping of tea is another reason,” Dutta told Mongabay-India. Vast landscapes in Assam, which were earlier farming fields growing paddy and other crops, are slowly turning into tea gardens. With the government’s support to Small Tea Growers, tea cultivation has increased in the state.
“If you were to travel from upper Assam towards Sonitpur and Dhemaji, across both the north and south bank of the Brahmaputra, earlier, you would see people’s backyards flourishing as vegetable gardens or baari. That baari culture is now slowly being replaced with patches of tea gardens, so culture loss along with the use of pesticides in the organized sector of farming is two important reasons behind this trend,” Dutta said.
Changing lifestyle and food preferences is a reason both scientists and locals agree on behind the decreasing availability of local produce. Not just the herbs and greens, it is increasingly becoming difficult to spot local varieties of fruits, “like Poniyal and Leteku,” Deka said.
“Cultivation of non-local produce like strawberries and apple bear has gone up and are therefore more easily available. Lack of commercial value of some of the local produce is the reason behind their decline,” Deka opined.
It is for this reason, he said, that some herbs like Brahmi which has memory-boosting power, are known and commercially available, while the lesser-known cousins, like Tengesi tenga (Indian sorrel) which also has the property of improving memory and soothe insect bites, are not acknowledged as much.
This gap feels Neelam Dutta can be bridged through academics and if children are introduced to indigenous traditional knowledge in schools.
Climatic condition plays a role too
Change in climatic patterns, “like increase in temperature and longer summers, erratic rainfall,” said Ishwar Barua, has, in addition, led to certain invasive weed species making an appearance that has been detrimental to the local species.
“Parthenium is one such example,” Barua said, and the process of chemically removing this weed results in affecting the other local herbs and weeds like Manimuni (or Asiatic pennywort), Kola kosu (colocasia or elephant ear) and even coriander.
“There is, in fact, a weed that closely resembles Matikaduri and while Matikaduri is becoming rare to spot, this weed species is invading its space,” he added.
All hope, and xaak, is not lost
There is, however, a silver lining to the cloud. While scientists and locals observe the lowering visibility of some of the local herbs, it does not necessarily mean that they have been lost forever.
Just like foreign, invasive species of weeds, found in places as far as Australia and New Zealand, are now appearing in Assam, Deka said that some of the local herbs have also migrated, deeper into the woods, to cooler places close to the hills, where conditions are more suitable for their propagation.
Fossil records and research studies have highlighted that plants have, over aeons, migrated in response to climatic changes. An article Plant Migration and Climate Change in American Scientist says: plants have moved fast enough to track climate change, and may be capable of faster migration than is seen in the paleo-record.
“While invasion by an exotic species on a native plant community may not be the same as the movement of a native species in the wake of climate change, in both cases, plant populations come to occupy new territory via dispersal and reproduction,” it further says.
Ishwar Barua agreed, although, he said, that there has been no scientific study yet correlating climate change and the disappearing local species of herbs and fruits in Assam.
“I do think that plant species are migrating to places where they are less susceptible; hence you find some herbs and weeds in villages and not in semi-urban and urban areas,” he said.
“Plus, the level of awareness about these species has also come down, hence these herbs are not as easily identified as they were earlier.”
Stating an example, he talked of the pleasant re-discovery of a local plant, Samus paat, amid paddy fields growing Bao variety of rice.
“It has been years since I had seen the plant and then suddenly after such a long time, chanced upon it again. So the plants, or at least some of them, are still there, but in hiding! And if given a chance, nature will self-heal and recuperate.”