Harvesting Kokum and Life Lessons with Karnataka’s Ancient Tribes

BuDa Folklore protects a vanishing way of life.  
Kokum Harvest Karnataka India
Volunteers at the BuDa Folklore forest farm learn to harvest and process kokum, with the help of indigenous Adivasi tribes in the region. Photos courtesy BuDa Folklore

“The place I grew up in was blessed with the river, the sea, and the forest,” Savita Uday told me as I soaked in the views outside the BuDa Folklore tribal museum in Honnavar. I could hear the rush of the Sharavati River on its way to the sea, and the occasional slap of paddles against water. A breeze blew in, reminding me of the lush hills that lay just beyond. I felt more at home in this setting than the city in which I grew up.

I met Uday in May 2015,at the two-day Kokum Festival that BuDa organises at their forest farm in Angadibail village. I was in the village for the kokum harvest initiative, where volunteers like me learnt to climb trees, forage for the local fruit, and learn to process all of it. We made juice from the pulp, preserve from shells that we smothered in sugar, and butter from grinding the roasted seeds. At night, we sat around a fire; some slept in machans in the fields.

BuDa, which means “the beginning” or “the base” in Kannada, runs a museum and centre for learning in Honnavar, and another space for learning in the forest in Angadibail. It was started by Uday on returning from her teaching job in Bengaluru in 2006 and is part of her parents’ NGO, Janapada Vishva Prathishtana. Both initiatives work with adivasi tribes that live in the district—the Halakkis who live by the sea, the Siddis and the Kare Okkalu from the forest, and the Gondas and the Gamokkalu who live by the rivers—introducing travellers to their way of life.

The centre has three harvest festivals structured around sugarcane, kokum, and rice in February, May and August respectively. All three involve a level of acrobatics and community engagement that may challenge someone from an urban setting. I stayed in a wooden machan overlooking the fields. I had a bath from a pipe that carried water from a stream that flowed continuously through the summer. And I learned more than I thought I would. For example, I knew of kokum as a refreshing drink, but I did not know of kokum butter and how tasty and highly prized it is in the cosmetics industry. Uday recalled the dosas her grandmother used to make with kokum—memories and wisdom that she knows are disappearing with the youngsters leaving for the city.

Kokum Harvest Karnataka

The pink, piquant kokum fruit is harvested in May and is used as a souring agent, to make cooling summer drinks, and skin butter. Photo courtesy BuDa Folklore. Photo courtesy BuDa Folklore

It was while teaching in Bengaluru, that Uday realised just how special her upbringing in Honnavar was. “Though the students were from different states, they seemed to be living a similar kind of life,” she told me, as we sat in BuDa’s museum. “For me, my story was original, the jewellery and clothes I wore were original.” Through workshops on harvesting, quilt-making, mat-weaving, and foraging, Uday hopes visitors understand the knowledge that indigenous communities like the Adivasis have to offer. But more importantly, the local communities themselves understand the value of their inherited wisdom.

Around Uday’s neck hung a handmade Mavinkurve key on a black thread, named for the island where it was made. The key used to unlock a big wooden chest where her grandmother stored special sweets bought at the village fair. Her grandmother used to hang the key around her neck, and a big treat beckoned whenever the chest was unlocked. “I still keep it, and I feel proud of it, as it has a story, emotions and my childhood memories,” said Uday. Today, the islanders of Mavinkurve, located at the mouth of the Sharavati, have largely lost their famous art of lock-making because of the availability of cheaper locks in the market.

Angadibail Karnataka india

Angadibail, at the foothills of the Western Ghats, has the idyllic beauty and rustic pleasures of a village that is off Google Maps. Photo courtesy BuDa Folklore

BuDa Folklore’s museum is a collection of such objects, which were once central to the daily lives of the locals. Its three rooms overflow with elegantly placed artefacts: grass mats, earthen pots, metal vessels, coconut husk ropes, and weapons collected from people’s homes. Uday says “They are the link between the past and present generations who want to return to their roots.” She calls the museum “culture in a capsule”.

My time volunteering at BuDa was hard work, but fun. It raised many questions in my mind—about my lifestyle choices, my relationship with food—and presented a space for conversation between two very different worlds. The locals we spent time with curious too. They wanted to know more about these mad people who offered to work in their fields for free.

I do not know whether Hanmiakka, who showed us a local art form with chalk, or Subbiakka, who taught us to weave baskets, realize the value of their knowledge. What I know for sure, is that it showed me how little I knew about the world around me, and planted in my mind, the desire to fix this.

The Guide

Honnavar is a town in Uttar Kannada district where the Sharavathi River meets the Arabian Sea. Life seems at peace with itself here; the river lazy, the beaches clean, and the fish fresh and tasty. It is connected by the Konkan Railway, and lies 50km or an hour’s drive south of Gokarna on NH17 that connects Panvel to Edapally. The nearest airport is in Goa, which lies about 187km/4hr20min to the north.

There are hotels by the beach in Honnavar. One can even stay in Gokarna which has a full-fledged tourist economy due to its temples and beaches. There are multiple food options in Honnavar. Visitors should pack in the local delicacies. Expect generous helpings of rice and dal, fresh vegetables, and fresh fish from the river or the sea, depending on the day’s catch.

Angadibail is 70km north of Honnavar and 30km east of Gokarna. It is a village that is off Google Maps, and lies at the foothills of the Western Ghats. To reach it, one can take a bus from Gokarna. In case you love riding or driving, reach Madangeri Cross 5km off Gokarna on NH17, and call Uday before turning east (if one is driving south from Goa). There is a house that visitors can stay at in Angadibail, provided they call BuDa Folklore (0-94482-23190; folkloreindia@gmail.com; budafolklore.weebly.com/) in advance.

The nearest ATM is in Gokarna. Angadibail has little phone coverage. BSNL is the best bet for coverage. Personally, I would chuck the phone and dive in to what the forest and the farm have to offer, get drenched in sweat, and have guilt-free baths in an open-air bathroom.

Food options at the farm in Angadibail involve local rice, dal made with a load of fruits and vegetables found in the forest, and whatever else you can find yourself.

  • Hormazd Mehta , aka Hungry Vagabond, is willing to go almost anywhere for food, especially local food. He is currently Evil Director of Planning at Journeys with Meaning.He dreams of living on a farm, growing and processing food, and living in a self-sustaining community.

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