Exploring groundwater, encountering millets

This post is my contribution to the year of millets celebration. Here, I intend to share my experiences around these millets and reflect on them. I must bring to notice here that the culinary reference to bhakri in the article is with references to different regions of Maharashtra, something that may be different in other states or regions. 

During fieldwork, while looking around for groundwater, I often encountered millets. I would have never written this small post unless it was not an international year dedicated to millets following the year for groundwater. To be frank, I do not eat millets on a regular basis, but the ‘field’ provided opportunities to engage with this much touted group of wonder grains. I wish to narrate my experiences with these during my journeys around Maharashtra over the last decade, mostly for groundwater. In doing so, I want to suggest that millets have a lot in common with groundwater. 

The nachni papad

Pimpalner is a village slash small town that is part of Sakri block of Dhule. It is like most other villages that dot the northern Deccan Traps of Maharashtra. It is quite close to Gujarat border and it was in a quaint little hotel cum dhaba that I encountered the Ragi or Nachni papadNachni bhakri is touted to be very nutritious but I have come to believe that it can only hold that title until it is served hot off the chul. Once it loses that heat it tends to become rubbery and stiff. I do not like to eat such a bhakri. But a nachni papad is a game changer. Visiting this hotel/dhaba mostly during our breaks in fieldwork in nearby villages, we came to enjoy this fantastic millet in its most supreme form- a papad. Wow, those hot and crunchy papads served along with a thecha were a welcoming thing! 

Nachni or nagli or ragi (finger millet) in this part of the state is no accident. It is a staple monsoon crop for the thousands of tribal households who, among many other cultural things, pride in their culinary exploits. They told me about ‘khadda kombdi’-chicken cooked along with spices in a earthen pot, by digging the soil (see, the subterranean, comes somewhere and somehow in my fieldwork) to ensure that it is cooked on a flame that gets poor oxidation and this is something they believe adds to its unique taste. While I am no connoisseur of chicken as such (except for kebabs etc which I find easy, picky food), I admired this wonderful way of cooking a chicken. 

Ragi or nachni is cultivated on the lateritic slopes of the region and somehow my naïve brain wants to believe that the red soil of these slopes adds the colour to this wonderful millet. The weathered basaltic rock of the region, through exposure to torrential rains year after year, undergoes oxidation and leaching and leads to this texture and colourful rock called laterite.  This nachni bhakar with khadda kombdi is a comfort food for all people in the region. I encountered this in another hotel near Dhule railway station where a combination of palak soup (with no creamy stuff but garlic sprinkled) and nachni papad is often served/ordered, that taste still lingers on my palate! 

Bajra- the pearl millet

One of the best Bajra bhakar combo I had was with a freshly prepared thecha in a village of Rajgurunagar taluka of Pune district. Meenakshi tai, a community resource person who, I knew of then, as the only woman CRP to go into the farms and fields of her village and measuring the changing water levels in the dug wells of the village. Breaks involved having lunch at her house. Having made bhakri in the morning, she prepared thecha on a stone slab (is called paata-varvanta in Marathi- is made of pashan rock- the peculiar Compact Basalt of Deccan Traps). And this time, I want my naïve brain to believe with conviction that the local geology did add to the taste of the food we were preparing. The recipe was like this- first she sautéed some green chillies in oil and crushed them on the stone. Then she added garlic and groundnuts (that were roasted) to further crush the mixture. In the end, some salt to taste and- dhadhang! One of the best thecha I ever had in my life. While all other material may easily be available in your kitchen right now, that stone called the paata varvantamay missing- a reason enough to make that trip to the Deccan traps. 

Paata-Varvanta (Wiki Commons)

During one of the fieldworks in Dhule, I came across a very different version of Bajra bhakri meal. It involved a hot bhakri made in the tandoor and crushed with hands to be served with loads of ghee and jaggery. This was a rare combination I had never come across. The dhaba is a shady little place on the Surat-Nagpur-Kolkata highway just before the town of Sakri. What I found fascinating was loads of truckdrivers gorging on this meal before joining back on the highway. Some told me that given it was winter, it made a good option. Bajra and jaggery, both known for its heat content make them sought after during these months. Groundwater wise too, this is an excellent period given that it is the Rabi season with dug-wells being pumped regularly, crops being irrigated and hydrogeologists walking around the hill side, ghat sections and farms to find those rock exposures and ‘ideal’ dug-wells for pumping tests (you may also have known it as aquifer performance test). 

Thousands of families from Marathwada migrate within and across state as cane cutters

During my PhD fieldwork last year, I encountered bajra bhakri while visiting the premises of a sugar factory in Osmanabad. In many parts of Maharashtra, bajra is grown in monsoon season. After around Diwali or the Kharif harvest, thousands of farmer households from Marathwada districts travel nearby and distant places in Western Maharashtra, Karnataka etc. for the sugarcane cutting season. With them, they carry the bajra harvest from their farms that will sustain them for the 1-2 months of work that they undertake in those farms. Later, they must rely on buying food from market- something that is not afforded by many households. Lack of PDS facility on site is highlighted by studies on conditions of sugarcane cutter community. It is while walking through this temporary habitation of sugarcane cutting farmers/labourers that I encountered bajra bhakri. That, for me was the most significant contribution of these millets. They ensure food security for many rural households- a point that must not be missed while making millets everyone’s business. 

Jowar, Jwari, Sorghum

Jwari, or Jowar, or Sorghum, unlike Bajra is relatively cooler in terms of its latent heat. It makes it perfect for summers and monsoon (which are also kind of… summers, but with the southwest monsoon winds making it all rainy and drainy). I have encountered this millet many times, often also consumed in our house on some occasions mostly with pithla (also referred to as besan in Vidarbha or Marathwada regions). It was during the monsoon of 2022, while conducting my fieldwork in Osmanabad, that I most recently encountered it in the ’field’. I was planning to interview a women farmer and she was happy to be interviewed while preparing food for the family. 

Fooking is not an easy task, and so is bhakri making

Sitting in her kitchen, with Sadhana tai making those jwarichya bhakrya (plural), I dwelled into the past and the present of groundwater on their farm and in their village. Amongst many things that were exchanged, were ovya (Marathi folklore songs) sung by her mother-in-law. That interview recording is interspersed with two specific sounds- one about ‘thapping’ and another about ‘fooking’. These two activities are associated with making of bhakar and they make these bhakri ‘not everybody’s business’.

In an era where we want to make everything everyone’s business (atleast that is what I hear about water- making water everybody’s business), I am sorry to break this news to all those millet enthusiasts out there, that bhakri making, unlike chapatis is a very tedious and effortful job. While one may easily transition from bhakris to chapatis, the journey other way round may not be that exciting. Millets seem to have less gluten so the ‘peeth’ is not so sticky and all, making it difficult task. Secondly, unlike a chapati that one must ‘laat’bhakari must be ‘thaaped’. ‘Thap’ means to tap, to beat (not in violent sense, or may be). Unlike a chapati which is on the pan that can be oiled or gheeed, that is not the case with bhakriBhakri needs water, making it nutritious and healthy option but a tedious thing to manage. Unlike a chapati that can be reheated, a bhakri is difficult. A chapati at room temperature can be eaten easily but the taste scale shifts when that comes to bhakri.  Lastly, bhakri tastes best on chool. It is not the case that you cannot make one on stove or not eat it, but a choolivarchi bhakri is a gamechanger. It is how this millet has received this cultural heritage- something that is cooked on chool and not on gas (at this point, I do acknowledge the gendered and health aspects associated here- although I do not intend to focus on that). 

Sadhana tai insisted that we take some bhakri with us for our lunch, and without giving us a chance to respond, she was quick to pack some in a muslin cloth and filled some thecha to go along. She then had to rush to the farm as they planned on sowing soyabean that day.

From rains to dug-wells, from bhakri to chapati- the green revolution story

It was difficult to find bhakri in an eatery, hotel or Dhaba in Osmanabad, the Tandoor roti or wheat chapati ruled them all

The introduction of intensive cropping paradigm with the green revolution in the 1970s also saw a massive transformation of groundwater use across India. that this shift has meant bringing more rice and wheat on our dining table and thus drifting away from bhakri based diet. In villages, I often encountered farming households making choices like wheat for selling and jowar/bajra for self-consumption. With increasing advertising of millets as low glycemic super foods, we may see an increasing demand for them in the cities. However, for some reasons mentioned above, unless you have outsourced the food making in your home on a mavshi/bai/maharaj, millets as replacements for chapati is a difficult transformation. Hence, while in Pune, I often found some snacking options like Jowar buff, bajra flakes, chivda etc. They did seem interesting. 

Making some food is tedious (mean more tedious than others), no jokes there

Some foods are tedious- let us accept that. I think Maharashtrian food is like that and hence has not found any takers to ‘scale it up’ like the Punjabi, South Indian or other cuisines. Here I refer to Maharashtrian food as the food you may encounter outside the metros of Mumbai and Pune. If you may have come across the food called thalipeeth, you may see there are no takers for it even though it has been nutritious and healthy etc. Thalipeeth also faces the same challenges that the bhakri maker does- it must be thaaped and takes relatively longer time to cook. Unless of course, you are going down the way of deep frying it, god, please do not attempt that- makes a mess of it. During my recent fieldwork in Osmanabad, I could easily get a tandoor roti in any dhaba or a hotel but when asked for a bhakri they would have to go back and check if they could serve it. Hence, on most of my ‘dhaba parties’ in Osmanabad, I often found people bringing their own bhakri from home. Even within the eateries in the villages wherein I often had my lunch, wheat chapati was the default bread option. 

Millets share the story of groundwater. They have always been there on the farmer’s fields, like various forms of subterranean water- soil moisture, water in aquifers, emerging in nearby streams etc. They are being consumed by millions of farming households- like the millions of groundwater sources owned by small farm holders, they both are touted to be resilient to droughts (by being productive and being available during hard years). And most importantly, both have managed to miss the eye of policymakers, the people in charge, alteast until till recently. 2022 was declared as the year of groundwater by the UN, it will take some time to understand how it contributed to take the groundwater agenda forward. The government of India has declared 2023 as the year for millets, let us see what it will mean for the millets going forward. 


List of hotels/dhabas referred to in the article:

  1. Pimpalner – Hotel Purnanand
  2. Sakri Highway roadside dhaba- Charbhuja hotel Dahivel
  3. Palak Soup with nagli papad – Purnima Regency

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