Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

A different new year

When should a new year start? It’s just a conventional date. But all of us have our own delightful customs built around that date. The Bohras of India have a wonderful way of celebrating the last evening of the year; it’s called the “birthday of the plate”. This Gujarati speaking Shia community traditionally has communal meals seated around the big plate you see in the photos here.

On its birthday the plate is loaded with food: half of the dishes are savoury and half are sweet. The dinner starts with salt, and then alternates between sweet and savory, ending with a biriyani. Apart from this the order is open. If someone has a special favourite, he or she can ask for it, and it becomes the next thing to be eaten. The nicest of plates I’ve eaten at had 51 dishes. A tiny taste of each is enough to fill you.

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When you play the slideshow, you’ll see a gap between the end of the loading phase and the first shot of the eating phase. I’m afraid that’s the part where I forgot about the camera because I was too involved in the eating.