Vanishing Seeds: Value of Seeds in Himalayan Culture

Seeds are integral to human agriculture and must be preserved. Here is a Himalayan perspective about how seeds are an important part of our culture.

  • Mature and fertile orchards have been lovingly tended for generations throughout India.
    Photo by Quint Smith
  • Ritu Varuni created an indigenous seed bank at her quiet organic farm in the village of Bhuira in Himachal Pradesh, the Western Himalayas of India.
    Photo by Quint Smith
  • Because of man-made imbalance, farmers have to resort to throwing rocks at monkeys that over run their orchards. They take care not to hit the monkeys, but do their best to scare them off.
    Photo by Quint Smith

When I look at the tree, I see the seed. So that’s where it all starts—where this story begins. Do stories really have a beginning or an end? Like the seed and the tree, it is all a cycle—the cycle of life and death. The seed that feeds—that most important unit of life. One cannot imagine its creation, and so one must not interfere with its birth.

To protect life on earth, the seed must be protected. The natural or indigenous seed belongs to the land of its birth. It nurtures and is nurtured. It is a product of eras, of survival of the fittest, of natural evolution. By introducing variants or new species into an environment where they do not belong, we disturb what is a delicate natural unseen balance of which we actually know almost nothing, even if we think we do. We trigger a chain of events or unleash unseen and unknown long-term effects. This I feel deeply and as a being that is only a tiny part of this vast and mystical universe: there is a feeling that one must protect that which gives us life on earth.

My need to create an indigenous organic seed bank at my organic farm in my village Bhuira in Himachal Pradesh, the Western Himalayas of India was born from this belief. Born of need; perhaps because my village people have lost all sense of protecting what nurtured this land for centuries. They have embraced hybrid imported seeds from the west and all the associated shenanigans of pesticides and high yields that go with the package. Food habits have changed. Food is now bought. Self-sufficient sustainable lifestyles have gone. Traditional high nutrition foods like mountain rice varieties, soyabean, mustard, corn (makki), barley and millets (koda) have been replaced with wheat, tomatoes, French beans and apple and peach crops. In recent years, even the staple mountain foods of rajma (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) or kidney beans, and kulath dal or a particular kind of lentils which can break down kidney stones are now grown only by very few farmers in our area.

The rajma/baladi varieties of kidney beans are all planted when the rains begin in May-June, along with the corn and other legumes like soyabean (bhatt) and black urad dal (lentil variety). There are a mind boggling 230 varieties of rajma in the neighboring Himalayan state of Uttrakhand, and it is hugely relished in the northern states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Punjab, and Nagaland. It is harvested in September-October. The millet (koda) is planted a little earlier in April and is ready to cut in May. The barley (jau) is planted in October-November and harvested in May. Mountain rice, which is cultivated dry on sloping terraces, is planted in May and harvested in October.

Legumes are an intrinsic part of Himalayan cuisine and an easy source of high protein and minerals in a basically cereal based diet. They are a must during marriages, traditional rituals, and festivals. Some Himalayan varieties provide fuel, fodder, and form a part of traditional medicinal practices. In mountain farming, indigenous varieties of legumes complement hill cereals in terms of cropping patterns and cycle and can thrive in adverse soil conditions with very little input. However, all this knowledge remains largely undocumented and unknown to the outside world.

In Himachal Pradesh, we now also have to deal, on a daily basis, with a huge monkey menace, also man-made, which can destroy a year of work in an instant, destroying the will to cultivate. With changing climate patterns and unpredictable freak weather, we are also faced with a difficult situation as organic farmers, for growing anything naturally is now a huge challenge. It is more so when your surrounding environment is a virtually hostile one like mine, which supports a largely anti-nature system of cultivation and is not a part of your struggle. I am at present the only organic farmer in my village, as all the other farmers have hopped onto a bandwagon that they now find very difficult to get off.

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