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Secrets of the Awal

Nature has its own sense of design, its own genre of art. When we stroll through the ancient and timeless landscape of Jawai, this art portrays itself flamboyantly. The hills which turn into islands after the monsoon, leopards who criss-cross the granite kopjes adjacent to villages, a beautiful sunrise across the Kumbhalgarh range of the Aravalli Hills are all a feast for the eyes. Even among the finer elements, the smallest details never fail to engross and amaze.

 

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The awal’s bright yellow flower. Photograph by Vedant Thite.
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The Rabari harvests the awal by cutting the trunk right at the bottom so as to collect as much as possible. Photograph by William Asquith.
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He hammers away at the bark to loosen it from the heartwood. Notice how red the heartwood becomes once is start to dry. Photograph by William Asquith.

On a regular morning walk I came across a Rabari skinning the bark of a plant. At first glance, it looked like he was collecting firewood, but further investigation revealed many things about this ordinary looking plant. Senna auriculata or Awal as it is locally known, makes its presence felt among the oldest rocks of India. It blossoms with bright yellow flowers after the monsoon season and the flowers attract honey bees who crave it’s nectar which in turn encourages pollination. The Rabaris who are predominantly herders are masters in the use of indigenous plants. Their knowledge about scientific use of the plants help them to avoid an audience with the veterinary doctors for their livestock. These practices are age-old and have been passed on from generation to generation.

 

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The dry “waste” is collected for firewood. Photograph by William Asquith.

 

The Rabari was focused on his work, as it is a process that requires patience and diligence. He used a wooden hammer and hit it hard on the bark starting from one end, and made his way down the trunk. The whole bark of the trunk is removed and the skin (cambium layer) that lies just underneath the bark of the awal is peeled off. This skin holds a muddy orange colour and gives awal a commercial importance. The Rabaris hand over the skin to local vendors who then take it to nearby factories. The skin is put in to hot boiling water and left to stew for a while. This process leads to creation of a thick viscous liquid. The final product formed is used as a red dye.  This dye, being organic and not harmful to environment, is used in the colouring of a vast number of traditional dress: Marwari footwear called Mojri, beautiful shawls and even painting are a just a few examples which derive use from the dye of the awal. The leftover materials, namely the pith and heartwood trunk and the bark, are also useful as firewood. The awal plants provide a source of income for the people of this rural hinterland.

 

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Villagers recognise the importance of the plant and carry the awal back to their homes planted in soil. Photograph by Shantharam Pai.

 

One of the interesting anecdote which recently came to light when the JAWAI Field Team conducted the annual  field exercise stayed on with me. One evening the Rangers and Trackers had all the ingredients to make tea except the tea leaf. A shepherd traversing through the area advised us to use the dry leaves of awal as tea leaves. For the next few minutes the field team combed the area and managed to get some dry awal leaves. We powered down the dry leaves and prepared the tea for ourselves. It was a refreshing drink to rejuvenate us after a toiling day of bush cutting and road clearing. The consumption of tea by brewing the leaf or flower on a regular basis helps to control sugar levels in the body, and is used as a local medicine to treat diabetes. In addition (although the Neem is the more popular tree for this) it can also be used as a hygienic toothbrush. The local villagers take up small pieces of bark and chew the bark to flay the end and use that to brush their teeth with the same. This cleanses gums along with the teeth as well as curing morning breath.

 

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The rabari shaves off the leaves and flowers to make easier access to the bark. Photograph by William Asquith.
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Awal is used in the tanning process to make traditional Mojris such as these. Photograph by William Asquith.

In the wilderness one is compelled to improvise on existing resources, Jawai is no exception to this fact. The people of this region had, for years been away from the modern resources available to Indian city-dwellers. Although modern medicine has crept its way into the main towns of rural Rajasthan, many villagers still rely on their surroundings for their source of medicine.

 

In Jawai when it rains, it pours – sometimes in flashes and starts and the Jawai Bandh is filled up with the run-off of many sand rivers and streams which flow into the Jawai Bandh. These can vary from naalas to local dirt tracks. This makes the area at risk to soil erosion. The awal helps in controlling this erosion by holding the soil together with its strong roots, thus being a readily available solution for revegetating erodible soil elsewhere in India. With rains, farming gains pace in India. Meanwhile, the moisture in the air attracts small midges. Although not harmful they can be an inconvenience. Like the neem leaves, wet awal leaves can be put into a fire in order to keep the midges away.

 

Perhaps it’s because of its so many valuable uses that senna auriculata is the state flower of Telangana. Increasing our research on plants especially like awal can be a huge benefit and learning, particularly in conservation tourism models. With the scrublands of India at risk of being ploughed and converted for farming and housing, we must realize the importance of awal and other scrubland flora and endeavour to protect them. In the coming weeks we will also look at the historical significance of the awal, to the region of Godwar in particular.

 

 

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