Forested groves in central Kerala’s Edamalayar valley have showered the Muthuvar people with bamboo rice for the first time in six decades. In a labour of love, women of the community have gathered, cleaned, and dehusked the seeds to bring them to our plates.
April 23—It was time for another monthly visit to meet the bamboo artisans in the Edamalayar valley. Forest Post had to follow up on the orders placed for bamboo craft, and check on the status of harvested bamboo. We have been working in the valley for over six years, first through a livelihood enhancement programme of River Research Centre, a grassroots NGO based in Kerala, and since 2021, with Forest Post, a social enterprise.
There is something soul-nourishing about the trek into the Edamalayar valley. The path is flanked by tall primary rainforest trees, covered in moss, and epiphytic ferns. Above, in the canopy, we hear the playful giant squirrel and the loud flapping of the occasional Malabar Pied Hornbill. In peak summer, even when the streams run dry, the forest is lush green, and teeming with life. At the end of the steep trek, the forest merges with shade-grown coffee, areca palm, and pepper vines. Then the Muthuvar hamlets emerge in the valley, some made in mud and bamboo, others more modern concrete structures.
The Muthuvar people in the upper catchment of Chalakudy river in the Western Ghats of Kerala are skilled honey harvesters and bamboo weavers. They largely live in forested valleys in the central Kerala districts of Idukki and Ernakulam. All land around their homes is prime elephant habitat.
When slash and burn agriculture was still in practice until the 1960s, this community grew paddy and millets on slopes, slightly cut off from their hamlets. Back then, the community was in tune with elephant migration patterns and knew what areas were safest during the months they raised a crop. Today, millet and rice cultivation have vanished from their farming culture, and there is dependency on the public distribution system. However, if it is coffee or pepper picking season, you can still see most women and young men in their fields, past reed bamboo thickets and rivulets.
My first stop in the village is always to meet Kanakamma, one of the master weavers, who usually sits weaving bamboo under an ancient tree. Today, she stood with a two-foot high wooden pounder in front of her. Next to her lay a pile of what looked like unhusked paddy grains on a sack. “Moongil ari,” she said, with a fleeting smile.
Moongil ari, or bamboo rice, is the seed of the bamboo.
Placing a handful of grains into the pounder, she resumed dehusking. We could barely contain our excitement. In two other villages in Malayattur Forest Division we visited less than a week ago, we were told that bamboo had flowered after five or six decades, but to fetch it from the forested slopes and dehusk it was considered laborious. So, if Kanakamma had brought it this far, it was truly special!
Having heard from a honey harvester friend of a flowering bamboo patch, Kanakamma had ventured into the forest with three others. The bamboo rice, they were told, now carpeted the earth shaded by the groves, ready to be gathered.
The edible moongil ari comes from a species of Dendrocalamus when individuals of a species collectively flower and fruit in enormous quantities (called ‘masting’) only to die back, leaving fallen seeds to germinate. Mallika, a younger weaver, and her cousin Taamara say that bamboo rice has such a long shelf life that it is known to have helped the community, once primarily agrarian, survive drought in the past. Perhaps that can be explained by the high protein, vitamins (in this case, riboflavin), carotene, phosphorus, and iron content in bamboo rice.
Rare events like bamboo flowering in the tropical forest are a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. However well scientists might explain it, semelparous flowering in bamboo remains an elemental mystery. As if there are secret whispers and signals in the forest that humans are oblivious to. To have been a small part of it alongside a community that is in such sync with the rhythms of wilderness is some privilege.
Bamboo itself is an iconic symbol of the Muthuvar landscape, both ecologically and culturally. It provides material for building homes, fences, and tools. Different kinds of bamboo have served different purposes. One of them, called puhaari moongil, was used exclusively for making the puhaari, or the golden comb, which was part of the bridal trousseau. Another bambusa species is still preferred to make the main pillars of their traditional mud and bamboo homes. Then there is the reed bamboo (Ochlandra travancorica) which is used to weave baskets, winnows, and Kannadi paaya mats.
Vijaya, also a weaver, and Mallika shared how they commit an entire day to the labour of gathering bamboo rice amidst thorny thickets traversed by elephant movement. They go into the bamboo grove with a song on their lips.
Oh, Bamboo! Here I come, I would forego the tastiest of snacks for ten barrels of your rice.
Asked if wild animals enjoy this treat from the wild, Vijaya and Mallika said elephants break entire flowering branches, but for fallen seeds, the Muthuvar people face little competition. Besides, sharing of the produce with the wildlife is deftly woven into collection practices as ceremonial offerings to the tiger and the elephant, before they take any for themselves.
So the women sweep the entire forest floor under the bamboo cluster, and sieve the seeds with two baskets or winnows to rid them of stones and debris. Once they are back in their hamlet, the pounding for dehusking begins, but no one is in a rush. Not every household has one of these traditional wooden pounders, so the women borrow these from each other, and must take turns.
At Forest Post, we know that the ecological rarity of bamboo rice is something to celebrate. The fact that these grains have been dehusked in a traditional slow process, as opposed to the ones threshed through a commercial mill, has made us go that extra mile; we offered a fair price to the Muthuvar women—perhaps a higher price than they expected. For it is always the enduring relationship between landscape, community, and its cultural history that make our effort valuable.
Dr Manju Vasudevan is an ecologist who spent the first part of her career researching forest canopies and native pollinators. More recently, her work on minor forest produce-based enterprise building demonstrates that indigenous forest-dependent communities can find creative livelihoods in their ancestral domain without jeopardising the health of the forest, and its resources. She has founded Forest Post.