Papaya

Green papaya was often used in a curry when I was a child. I would always mistake it for a piece of potato, and find it shockingly soft when I bit into it. It has an interestingly different flavour. Given its wide prevalence in India (after all, India rivals Brazil as the top producer of papaya) it is interesting that there is no Sanskrit word for the plant or fruit. Our word for it comes from an unknown native American word, which was corrupted to ababai after Spaniards introduced it into Haiti and San Domingo in 1521 CE. There are records of a very early modern introduction of the fruit into the Malaya archipelago (where ababai was further corrupted into papaya), and from there to India. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten wrote in 1593 CE about finding papaya in the Philippines, Malaya, and India, and traced the route of the tree to these three places in this order. His book was apparently considered a state secret in the Netherlands for several years! This tells us a lot about the financial markets of early modern Europe.

But before that? Wide deforestation prevents complete tracing of the wild ancestors of papaya, but evidence points to its native range being somewhere in Mexico. From genomic studies of the plant it can be inferred that the hermaphroditic variety which is widely used in cultivation, and the recessive gene which gives the red colour to the ripe flesh, rose about 4000 years ago. This coincides with the rise of the Maya. So, despite the absence of archaeological remnants of the early seeds and pollen, the consensus of current opinion is that the early Maya began the domestication of papaya, New evidence can always changes opinion, so I accept this now as a working hypothesis while I get ready to carve up the fruit which you see in the featured photo.

The six seasons: coda

We were taught in school that astronomy determines climate, and the four seasons. Let’s take the astronomy first. From our earthbound view the sun seems to move north and south across the sky over the year. The extreme points are reached on the days of the solstices: the longest day and the longest night. The climate for a featureless earth follows from this, alternate heating and cooling of the atmosphere above the earth would produce two extremes. Culture determines the seaons: how would you want to divide the parts between the extremes of hot and cold? Into two, or four, or twelve? That would determine how many seasons you have. The simple geography of mid-latitude Eurasia and a large part of Northern America gave rise to the cultural artifact of the four seasons.

But there’s more to the climate than this simple and ancient model. The heating by the sun causes convection in the atmosphere. The rotation of the earth then breaks these convection cells into several northern and southern pieces. Approximately around the equator, these convection zones come together and create the monsoon. So, any continent that lies just north or south of an open equatorial ocean has monsoons. In our present geological epoch that is mainly Asia and Australia.

Unlike the rest of these two continents, India is also cut off from the polar circulation by the high east-west barrier of the Himalayas. This means that its climate is again particularly simple: the seasonal heating and cooling by the sun, and its interaction with the monsoon can be summarized into the six seasons. Essentially, the seasons of the mid-latitudes get interrupted by a season of rainfall. Summer is duplicated into grishma and sharad, and interrupted by varsha.

The rest of the world can be more, or less, complicated. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations counted two seasons. At the other end of the scale, Korean tradition counts as many as 24 seasons, Japan counts 12 in its classic poetry. The counting of seasons is a wonderful convergence of physical conditions and culture.


Photos from top to bottom: (1) Winter in the Thar desert of India (2) High summer in Greenland (3) Late spring in Germany (4) Early winter in Korea, the season of Ipdong.