Increasingly rare Indian red rice known as navara is making a comeback in Kerala, India, thanks to the preservation efforts of organic farmers there.
When the mild winter arrives in south India around December or January, cool winds and pleasant temperatures replace the remnants of lashing rains from the northeastern monsoons. In the mountainous regions of central Kerala, the chill in the air signals the planting of medicinal Indian red rice, navara, a crop cultivated only once a year, usually between February and April. Navara, with its red bran layer is characteristic to Kerala.
Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medical system, calls it shastika rice and claims that it can restore imbalances in the human body. Navara rice is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols and has two or three times as much zinc and iron as white rice. It has the rare capability to enrich, strengthen, regenerate and energize the body. It is also used as baby food and replaces white rice on traditional days of partial fasting in many parts of India.
The red color, varying from light to dark red, is confined to the bran layer, but a touch of red remains on the grains even after milling. Navara grows fast compared to other varieties of rice; it takes around 60 to 72 days from planting to harvest, depending on the area of cultivation of and weather conditions. Navara rice is also resistant to insects and pests and can be stored for long time.
Bringing back a rare Indian red rice variety
Despite its medicinal properties, the cultivation of this rice variety is quite limited. Pure seeds have become difficult to find due to cross-pollination. Cultivating and preserving the seeds for this unusual variety is difficult.
Navara is a low-yield variety not well suited for commercial cultivation. The introduction of other, high-yielding varieties of rice in the 1960s and 1970s and the genetically modified varieties of the 1990s also adversely affected the cultivation of navara. Navara Eco Farm, a family owned farm in Chittur, Kerala, is pioneering the efforts to preserve navara rice. P. Narayanan Unny, the third-generation owner who took over the farm in 1995, has taken bold initiatives in his conservation efforts.
Unny decided to implement organic farming methods to preserve the crop’s medicinal properties. Converting to an organic methods was a challenge. After years of effort, he collected a sufficient quantity of navara seeds and gradually began cultivating only navara rice. Farm workers were taught organic farming skills, and the farm is mentoring neighboring farming communities and educating them the fundamentals of organic farming.
The cultivation of navara is a meditative process, passed down through generations. The rice fields are plowed, and farm workers sow the seeds and wait for a few days to replant the tender new shoots. Rice is traditionally farmed by hand; under cloudy or clear skies, men and women stoop in the deep mud and plant the rice, stalk by stalk. Soon the farm land is dotted with bright green bristles. Weeks later, the land is draped in vivid emerald, speckled with pools of reflective water. Slowly, the tall sheaves ripen, hanging in golden bunches.
When the leaves of the rice stalk start turning yellow, it is time for the harvest. Stalks are cut with iron sickles and tied in bundles to dry in farmyards and on roadsides. The whole farm becomes a large drying area. The languid air becomes heavy with dust and there is the constant sound of threshing as the grains are separated from the dried stacks. After threshing, the rice is ready for milling.
Historically the bran was removed from the grains by hand as people pounded them in ural (a stone or wooden trough) with ulakka (a long wooden or sometimes iron pole with a metal bottom). Two women would each pick up an ulakka, and together they would pulverize the grains. When one pole went in, other went up in the air; the two of them work in a synchronized motion. Now this laborious and time-consuming step is replaced by a special milling process that removes the hull without losing most of the bran.
Unny’s long-term plan focused on organic farming methods, biodiversity and conservation. In 2006 the farm and its products were certified organic by the National Project on Organic Production, European Union and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He formed two associations of navara and palakkadan matta farmers and applied for geographical indication certification. In 2007, these two rice varieties were the first agricultural products in India to be registered with a geographical indication. India’s agriculture ministry honored Unny with the Plant Genome Savior Community Recognition Award for his conservation efforts.
Via Giri Kumar