Home Indian Culture Leaf Plates: Our Conventional Previous Meets the Ecological Future

Leaf Plates: Our Conventional Previous Meets the Ecological Future

Leaf Plates: Our Conventional Previous Meets the Ecological Future


By Devi Ravindraraj, Texas

 What is gorgeous, healthful, environmentally-friendly, enjoyable to eat from, and a long-established characteristic of Hindu tradition? Leaf plates! One of many joys of rising up Hindu within the diaspora is celebrating festivals from completely different areas of India, not only one. What we might not know is that every has its personal sensible, eco-conscious methods of serving festive meals. Studying about these bio-platters can open many doorways, illuminating connections between our tradition and the world round us. It could actually present a window into botany, biochemistry, soils and different sciences. It could actually open our eyes to the lives and struggles of farmers and join us to international social points resembling sustainability, Indigenous forest rights, waste administration and local weather change. Most of all, it empowers us with one thing we are able to do with our personal fingers.

A tribal lady making leaf plates within the night in rural India
Leaf plates originating from fallen areca palm leaves
Leaf plates originating from leaf of the sal tree

There are a mess of how to categorize leaf plates: recent or dried, massive or small, single or stitched. Many leaves can be utilized in numerous methods. Allow us to start with the banana, one among a number of crops honored with the Sanskrit title kalpataru (“want fulfilling”). Banana leaves are freshly picked, washed and used as a plate by themselves. Small leaves can be utilized complete; bigger ones are minimize into sections. Banana leaves are completely relished by cows and different animals, and compost simply.

Both pre-softened or used immediately with piping scorching meals, banana leaves additionally make pliable, fragrant wraps to move cooked meals. Such parcels could be tied with the dried ribbon constructed from the “trunk” of completed banana crops—the identical sturdy, versatile fiber used to tie thick garlands. Bigger strips of banana sheath could be machine-pressed into the form of small cups.

Parotta, Indian flat bread, able to go

Different plates are constructed from a number of leaves stitched collectively. Many forms of leaves are used on this method, and so they come from crops as numerous because the climates of India. Sal leaves, from the towering Shorea robusta are very fashionable. Usually discovered rising up the sal tree is the thick, woody vine Phanera vahlii. Valued for his or her measurement, form and taste, these vine leaves are often known as taur within the Himalayas, siali in Odisha and mantharai in Tamil. Extra sources of leaves embrace (however aren’t restricted to!) jackfruit, teak and a number of other timber from the Ficus genus, together with banyan, peepal and Ficus auriculata, which options notably massive leaves.

Devi Ravindraraj

Along with stitching collectively flat plates, the deft use of tiny sticks additionally shortly shapes leaves into cones, cups and bowls. In Nepal, patravali are known as a trifecta: tapari (barely curved massive plate), duna (medium-sized bowl) and bota (the smallest). All through the subcontinent, stitched leaf plates and bowls may additionally be formed with the assistance of a hydraulic press, which makes them simple to retailer and transport. The identical kind of press is used to remodel fallen areca palm sheaths into the uniform get together eating ware now fashionable for the export market.

Whereas, roughly talking, banana leaves for eating are extra well-known in South India and Sri Lanka, and stitched leaf plates extra so in North India and Nepal, there are numerous areas of overlap. Northeast India is extraordinarily wealthy not solely in cultural makes use of of banana leaves to craft pleasant plates and bowls but in addition in banana biodiversity. Arunachal Pradesh alone has 11 species of native wild bananas. In Odisha, the mahaprasadams of Lingaraja and Ananata Vasudeva temples in Bhubaneswar are served on banana leaves; in Maharashtra, a scrumptious thali has its personal guidelines for association on a recent banana leaf, oriented upwards. Within the South, dried leaf plates of sal, maloo creeper and different leaves are particularly fashionable for smaller snack objects.

Tamil Nadu’s well-known Chidambaram Temple makes use of dried-leaf donai to serve candy rice, curd rice and sundal. In Trichy, youngsters who take part in singing Tiruvembavai whereas circumabulating Uchi Malai Kovil early each morning throughout Margazhi gleefully obtain a leaf donai full of breakfast prasadam earlier than heading to highschool. In Bihar, for an incredible instance of a meal served utilizing a number of forms of conventional leaf plates, each fresh-cut and dried/stitched, watch Anubhav Sapra’s go to to Darbhanga for a Mithila feast (youtu.be/FFpaivx04R8?t=1937). One other instance of convergence, in Mauritius, happens the place the banana leaf is de rigueur for conventional feasts amongst Hindus of all regional backgrounds.

From Kerala’s Onam sadya and the vazhai ilai sappad of Tamil Nadu, to the wealthy regional dhams of Himachal Pradesh, India has no scarcity of feasts that might be incomplete if not served on their iconic leaf bases.

Banana leaf pot covers

Small bites, nevertheless, have simply as large of a job to play in environmentally pleasant consuming. A street-side samosa simply tastes higher when you already know that its leafy plate will shortly biodegrade and, in contrast to a plastic one, may even be a tasty deal with for an animal pal. Even these delicacies whose leaf is primarily identified for the flavour and construction it imparts throughout cooking (resembling with kumbilappam, turmeric-leaf patholi or leaf-basket idlis) could be eaten by hand with a minimal of waste because of their built-in wrapper.

One leaf we have now not but talked about is that of the lotus, India’s nationwide flower and Hinduism’s most sacred plant. A conventional however lesser-known various to the banana leaf, lotus leaves are additionally massive sufficient to carry a complete meal. All through the Indian subcontinent, lotus leaves are used interchangeably with different forms of leaf plates. For instance, in a delightfully detailed caption to one among her work shared on Instagram, acclaimed artist Upasana Govindarajan describes childhood picnics together with her grandmother, together with how a neighbor would fetch lotus leaves from a close-by pond if they’d not packed banana leaves.

Leaf Plates within the Diaspora

Stitched-leaf bowls show farmers’ rice varieties at a gathering of the Worldwide Treaty on Plant Genetic Sources for Meals and Agriculture

Whereas in India the usage of lotus leaves is drifting in direction of the nebulous realm of nostalgia, in Guyana vegetarian meals served in a lotus leaf is such a nationwide level of pleasure that the federal government has included a “Seven Curry Tour,” together with harvesting the lotus leaf, amongst three initiatives not too long ago launched by the Guyana Tourism Authority. And anybody who dares tag a photograph of an in any other case authentic-looking meal (however served on a polystyrene plate) as “Seven Curry” can be met with a refrain of replies asking the place the lotus leaf is.

In Trinidad, the sohari plant (Calathea lutea), indigenous to the realm, has lengthy assumed a spot of pleasure alongside banana leaves for serving scrumptious “prayers meals,” because the vegetarian meal accompanying any puja is fondly referred to as within the Caribbean. It might be that the wild-growing sohari was initially adopted by indentured laborers due to restricted entry to the leaves of the banana plant, which had been the property of the British plantation house owners. Nonetheless, this alternate leaf has now grown right into a beloved a part of Indo-Trinidadian tradition.

Will Leaf Plates Be Left Behind?

Regardless of this wealthy and various historical past, and shiny spots of adaptation and resilience, Hindu leaf plate traditions are in danger. The primary threat is the sheer measurement of affect from Western disposable merchandise. Ruchita Kumari, in her late twenties, says that pure leaf plates are nonetheless out there in cities resembling Patna in the event you ask for them however their prevalence has been drastically decreased, particularly within the final fifteen years. She is evident about the reason for this shift—intelligent advertising and marketing. Plastic merchandise, she says, have been promoted as “equally pretty much as good, and even higher high quality” than the normal Indian supplies, “however they don’t return to the earth. There are penalties to your well being. All of those negatives have been uncared for within the advertising and marketing campaigns for plastic. However as soon as they enter the market, they change all different merchandise.” Regardless of mounting hazards to our oceans, rivers, mountains and whole planet’s well being, international single-use plastic manufacturing is simply gaining velocity, not slowing down.

Recognizing the gravity of the issue and constructing upon state and citywide initiatives, India handed one of many world’s most formidable plastics bans in 2022. Such actions can probably assist the farmers, gatherers and artisans who produce conventional leaf plates. As Baldev Kumar, a leaf plate maker from Himachal Pradesh, informed the The Tribune after that state’s plastic ban in 2018: “We’ve heaved a sigh of aid as we are able to proceed with our conventional career, which was on the sting due to machine-made plastic plates.” Nonetheless, critical questions in regards to the nationwide ban stay.

Leaf bowls utilized by clergymen in a temple hearth ceremony

The second threat is assuming that irrespective of how lengthy we wait, eco-friendly traditions resembling leaf plates can be ready for us, someplace, ought to we ever want to return to them. Just like the Svalbard World Seed Vault for Earth’s crops, are there protected enclaves for biocultural range resembling our leaf-plate traditions? The reply is advanced, and worrisome. As Dr. Tara Devi Sen succinctly says of taur and tremal plates on her web site Himalayan Wild Meals Vegetation, “These conventional practices are in sharp decline on account of simple availability of plastic plates. The necessity of the hour is to advertise and revive these eco-friendly social practices.” Lotus and all different leaf traditions have been equally eroding.

Whereas banana-leaf feasts for weddings are nonetheless fashionable in lots of locations, use of the leaves in numerous and on a regular basis methods is waning. Meal parcels wrapped in a banana leaf can now not be discovered for buy on Indian rail journeys, whereas they had been available as much as the late Nineties. Meals bloggers right now attest to this timeline, prefacing particular recipes with nostalgic reward for the banana leaf packets they relished on childhood practice journeys. Studying these tales of nutritious, eco-friendly meals packed by mother and father and grandparents is nice and mouth watering till the thought strikes: who can have these reminiscences three, two—and even one—technology from now?

The identical saga of the banana leaf has performed out in Malaysia. Centrally positioned inside the unique homelands of the banana household, banana-leaf traditions survived and thrived in Malaysian Hindu communities. But, regardless of having a heat tropical local weather that’s solely getting hotter, in Malaysia banana leaves have been edged out because the default plate-plus-packaging materials in simply 30 years, largely by polystyrene. In the meantime, Australia grows all its personal bananas however lacks a banana-leaf trade, regardless of the considerable availability of leaves.

Even in these diaspora areas the place leaf plates are nonetheless fashionable, eco-friendly programs for disposing them resembling composting could also be minimally out there. This can be a concern as a result of when anyone a part of the cultural ecosystem is misplaced, it turns into simpler for different elements to turn out to be merely token, symbolic—after which changed. In India, for instance, the presses designed for leaf donai at the moment are typically used to make identically-shaped bowls utilizing plastic scrap. And when banana-leaf feasts are held in the US on particular days within the Hindu 12 months, the leaves are at all times despatched straight to a landfill, rolled up in a paper or plastic sheet. In such methods, the usefulness of the unique practices is solely misplaced, each actually and educationally.

Sohari leaves rising in Trinidad

Even in these diaspora areas the place leaf plates are nonetheless fashionable, eco-friendly programs for disposing them resembling composting could also be minimally out there. This can be a concern as a result of when anyone a part of the cultural ecosystem is misplaced, it turns into simpler for different elements to turn out to be merely token, symbolic—after which changed. In India, for instance, the presses designed for leaf donai at the moment are typically used to make identically-shaped bowls utilizing plastic scrap. And when banana-leaf feasts are held in the US on particular days within the Hindu 12 months, the leaves are at all times despatched straight to a landfill, rolled up in a paper or plastic sheet. In such methods, the usefulness of the unique practices is solely misplaced, each actually and educationally.

A 3rd threat is that Hindu youth might not even establish eco-friendly traditions resembling leaf plates as being a part of our tradition. This final threat highlights one other, completely different destiny that might simply await Hindu leaf-plate traditions across the nook: appropriated and reworked into a stylish, industrial product by and for the West, available on the market in shops however now not present in temples. Such an end result, with leaf-plate traditions bereft of their cultural and ecological moorings, could be a loss to everybody.

Having fun with Guyana’s seven-curry meal on lotus leaf

Turning Over a New Leaf

On this dire scenario, one might surprise how we are able to assist leaf-plate traditions if we live far-off from India, and even in any extremely urbanized space. Certainly, the mandatory leaves won’t be available? There are numerous methods to reply this query. The primary is just to understand that plastic merchandise resembling polystyrene aren’t “regionally out there” anyplace.

All need to be extracted from deep within the earth, refined by way of extremely polluting processes, pressed into tiny pellets (the notorious “plastic snow” that blanketed Sri Lanka’s seashores after the X-Press Pearl container ship burned and sank in 2021), shipped to manufacturing crops to take the form of varied merchandise after which lastly transported again to distribution warehouses and shops from which we buy them and additional transport them to our houses, halls and temples.

This whole course of entails a lot air pollution and as much as a number of journeys across the globe—and that’s earlier than the merchandise enter the trash stream. As soon as we notice this, we are able to get up to how these Western merchandise grew to become normalized and picture what we might want the long run to appear like as a substitute.

Chilly-tolerant banana thriving in North Carolina

Fortuitously, all the perils mentioned have options, if we begin quickly. Whereas we reside in an age of homogenization and mass extinction, many issues have certainly been saved from this destiny—languages, artwork types and organic species—when alert people have woken as much as the scenario, organized others and acted decisively. Like different elements of Hindu tradition, leaf-plate traditions exist as a part of an ecosystem—actually! To carry these traditions absolutely alive for younger Hindus around the globe, this ecosystem ought to be as vibrant and environmentally-meaningful as doable. Listed below are some ways in which we are able to do this:

Compost: Sonal Agrawal, who grew up in a Rajasthani household in a small city, fondly remembers that each one the vegetable scraps from her family’s kitchen could be collected in a bucket which she delighted in taking out to feed any of the neighborhood cows. She feels that getting concerned in composting is the perfect alternative to provide youth in extremely urbanized areas the identical feeling. Whereas there may be nothing fairly just like the enjoyable of feeding a banana leaf or a crunchy dried-leaf donai plate to an keen ruminant, composting is probably the most nature-friendly possibility that the majority of us residing in city areas have entry to for our used leaf plates.

For no matter forms of leaf plate we’re working to revive, it’s essential that we make composting out there, both by beginning our personal at dwelling or in our temple neighborhood, or by accessing composting sources already out there the place we reside.

A leaf plate returns to the soil alongside the banks of the River Ganga

Leaf plates of every kind are uniquely well-suited for composting, as a result of there isn’t a have to separate meals waste (hopefully minimal!) from the consuming floor—each go collectively into the compost. Even in reusable plate/bring-your-own programs, the usage of a leaf as a liner facilitates simple composting, minimizes the washing required and maximizes sanitation.

Involve a youth corps: Involving temple youth in a program of serving with and composting leaf plates, and even rising a few of the leaves in dwelling and temple gardens, can go a good distance in reinforcing Hinduism’s sturdy historical past of environmental values in addition to the values of seva and annadanam. Leaf plate traditions additionally combine seamlessly into current Bal Vihar packages in quite a lot of methods. The names of crops used for leaf plates may even be featured within the temple’s language courses, with leaf coloring, tracing and cut-outs for little ones and analysis posters for older college students.

Study/hear: Go to elder family or artisans in India to watch the method of constructing stitched leaf plates. Take time to hearken to their tales about demand for the plates, entry to supplies and different points. Again dwelling in our native environments, study commonalities with Indigenous communities the place we reside: what native plant supplies make good meals surfaces and robust, versatile ties? What obstacles do Indigenous individuals face in with the ability to entry supplies that their communities historically use?

Uncover new leaves: One other solution to honor the knowledge of our ancestors and observe of their footsteps is to rigorously observe the crops round us and suppose creatively about how they can be utilized. It might be a local plant or one already extensively launched. Cocoloba uvifera (seagrape), for instance, is native to the southeastern United States and the Caribbean however has been extensively planted around the globe for its salt tolerance and flexibility. Its leaves are spherical, sturdy and easy, hold nicely for a lot of days with out refrigeration and are the proper measurement for serving snacks and temple prasadam.

When utilizing banana leaves: Along with buying banana leaves from wholesalers and grocers, develop a few of the leaves regionally and organically. Yard rising reduces pesticide publicity and is extremely academic. Whereas bananas require many months of constant temperatures to provide ripe fruit, the vegetative elements of the plant are fast-growing and thrive in a a lot wider vary of climates. Bananas have greater than 75 identified species and a whole lot of types and cultivars, all with wonderful leaf properties. Some cultivars produce lush leaves whereas remaining extraordinarily compact, resisting wind harm and becoming into an easy-to-carry pot. Mountain-growing species are extremely cold-tolerant, reliably re-emerging each spring even in snowy climates. Trendy edible fruit varieties are simply the tip of the iceberg with regards to sources of banana leaves.

As well as, discover the various faceted utility of the banana leaf. Do you know, for example, {that a} banana leaf positioned over a serving dish or pot of scorching meals, secured with a banana-fiber tie, molds even higher than plastic wrap? To revive such eco-friendly traditions, we must turn out to be re-conversant within the capabilities and properties of varied leaves in order that we are able to shortly and effectively use them.

USA lake filled with plate-ready lotuses

Maybe probably the most under-utilized connection but between Hindu leaf-plate traditions and our new environments is North America’s personal lotus, Nelumbo lutea, which grows abundantly in lakes as far north as Jap Canada. The only real sister species to the sacred lotus of Asia (Nelumbo nucifera), the “American lotus” shares the identical properties of luxurious, water-repellent leaves and edible tubers and seeds. Whereas holding protected standing as a local wildflower in some elements of the US, in different areas native departments really destroy the lotus to create higher fishing entry for boats. These leaves may very well be harvested as a substitute. It’s a disgrace to let this stunning and helpful plant go to waste.

Let’s discover methods to adapt our traditions to profit our native environments wherever we reside and encourage our youthful generations again in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal with pleasure.

Bihar Feast

Study extra

Learn: Kora, A.J. “Leaves as Eating Plates, Meals Wraps and Meals Packing Materials: Significance of Renewable Sources in Indian Tradition.” Bull Natl Res Cent 43, 205 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s42269-019-0231-6
Watch: Ekta Chaudhary’s “Put together Khaad/Compost from Kitchen Waste” is a pleasant introduction to composting, in Hindi with English subtitles, particularly geared in direction of city dwellers: youtu.be/daAh_evRn0Q.
Collaborate: https://discussion board.pradakshina.org. Volunteers share reminiscences of leaf plate traditions from childhood, data and methods gleaned whereas working to reintroduce leaf plates at Hindu temples and youth packages outdoors of India, and gardening and composting experience… all in direction of the widespread aim of protecting Hinduism’s leaf plate traditions wholesome and vibrant around the globe.

In regards to the creator

Mrs. Devi Ravindraraj is the Govt Director of Pradakshina, a nonprofit group devoted to supporting India and Sri Lanka’s leaf-plate traditions via diasporan youth engagement.

Contact: om@pradakshina.org

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