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A Disappearing Craft

A Traveller's Tale. Words and photos by Carol Buxton

Above: Making Jaggery

It is late spring and the mercury is rising. A fierce sun shines through the bus window in anticipation of the approaching summer. I glance through, catching glimpses of parched land, scattered villages, shacks with a precious cow tethered and piles of dried dung-pats for fuel. The road ahead shimmers. Here in rural Rajasthan, the largest state in India, the traffic is less alarming than in towns, where cars, bikes, buses, tuk-tuks and lorries appear to give way according to the rule of size and the loudest blaring of horns, avoiding, at all costs, the sauntering cows. Harpreet, our eagle-eyed guide, spots a plume of black smoke in the middle of a field ahead and asks the driver to stop. We descend into the blistering heat and tramp through the stubbly field behind what appears to be Macbeth’s Birnam Wood on the move, but is, in fact, two bare-legged men carrying huge bundles of sugarcane on their heads. They lead us towards a spluttering engine and the plume of smoke, where we find a group of men engaged in the age-old process of making jaggery.

Jaggery is unrefined sugar made from sugarcane juice or palm tree sap and much prized both in Indian cooking and in Ayurvedic medicine. About seventy per cent of the world’s jaggery is produced in India, and here in the north it is sugarcane that is used in its production. The harvested cane is crushed, historically in an oxen-powered crusher, but nowadays machinery has taken over. A young man is feeding it through and I am surprised at the amount of juice that comes from what look like dry, woody reeds.

Above: Crushing the sugarcane

I can hardly hear what Harpreet is saying over the noise of the engine, but I can see that it is rather like jam making on a large scale. The juice is boiled for several hours in flat-bottomed pans, over fire pits fed by what’s left of the sugarcane after extraction, a truly organic product.

An older man crouches beside the pan, stirring the contents and skimming off any residue. I wonder if this is a family business, as the age differences between the men suggests it may be. They shout to each other and gesticulate, but although I strain hopelessly to pick up any word that my basic knowledge of Hindi may recognise, Harpreet says they are speaking the local language.

The remaining sugarcane residue is being scooped into large baskets by a young girl with ebony eyes, a sister perhaps, who carries it on her head to stack it on the other side of the field, the bangles on her forearms jingling as she works. The men wear western dress, but she dazzles in a peacock blue sari that seems to defy the strenuous and dusty nature of her work. I greet her -‘Namaste’ - but she is too shy to speak and doesn’t communicate with the men during our Western presence.

Above: Boiling and clarifying the juice

The clarified juice is strained to produce a clear liquid and boiled again. Once reduced to about a third of its original volume, it is poured into another flat-bottomed pan to cool and solidify.

The colour may vary from light to dark brown, depending on the quality of the sugarcane and the juice it produced. When cool, the pan is taken to a half-built structure with a corrugated-iron roof that screens the sun. Here the jaggery is moulded into the desired shape.

Jaggery is rich in many vitamins and minerals, including zinc and selenium, not found in refined sugar. All kinds of health benefits are claimed for it, from curing constipation to reducing blood pressure and everything in between. In Ayurvedic medicine it’s used to treat respiratory conditions. It is often eaten at the end of a meal as a digestive. It has a flavour somewhere between molasses and caramel and is wonderful grated over ice cream. Date palm jaggery is used to make sweetmeats, such as Bengali Rasgulla, soft, melt in mouth chana (cottage cheese) balls in silky smooth brown jaggery syrup. The syrup is wonderful drizzled over ice cream, too!

Left: Semisolid sugarcane juice drying in a pan for the preparation of jaggery. Image: Bhaskaranaidu, CC BY-SA 3.0 Right: A block of Jaggery. Image: Sanjay ach, CC BY-SA 3.0

We reboard our bus. Harpreet shrugs: ‘next year this may be gone’. Modern India is seducing people away from traditional practices that have long been part of rural identity. I am especially glad that the plume of smoke opened up a window onto something that may be disappearing fast.


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