As the stormy, fiery monsoon transitions to its pleasant form, dark gloomy days steadily turn bright and sunny. The changing meteorological settings switch the month on the calendar, welcoming Shraavana that heralds the onset of the festive season.
In the Vidarbha region of Central India, as elsewhere, the onset of Shraavana triggers the devotional sentiments of Lord Shiva worshippers. With festivals scheduled for throughout-the-month celebrations, the holy Shraavana Somvars mark the beginning of the period.
On Sunday late afternoon or Monday morning, the calls of bael puda, bael puda can be heard in the neighbourhood, as young men move on their bicycles through the streets, selling bael pudas – literally packages of bael leaves.
Bael, scientifically known as aegle marmelos and commonly known as stone apple, is a medicinal herb highly valued in Indian culture. Religiously, the leaves of bael are an important offering made to Lord Shiva.
Bael acquires significance and its demand soars during Shraavana as people frequent nearby Shiva temples in large numbers to offer devotion. Capitalizing on this opportunity, a few humble souls take up the task of sourcing bael leaves to generate some income.
Obtaining the leaves of bael, however, is a no less challenging business. While a bael tree might be present, even in the neighbourhood, the quantity in which bael leaves are now required makes bael sellers explore jungles.
Plucking bael leaves is also a specialist’s job, for bael trees are full of thorns which if pierced causes serious infection. Experts will always caution you against this, if you ever venture to do it by yourself. So, the source finding coupled with the tough plucking operation, makes collection of bael leaves a challenging process.
These bael collectors cum sellers are usually poor people who leave in the vicinity of forests or have been sourcing bael and other herbs from the jungles for years. Selling bael leaves makes their seasonal occupation. However, in reality, the prospect of generating money through the entire activity is hardly lucrative.
Years of expertise in fetching herbs from the jungles helps the collectors easily track and locate sources. They leverage appropriate techniques for cautiously plucking bael leaves. Progressively, they transfer these skills to young members of their family. With time, the young members take up the responsibility on their shoulders, and the skills continue to transfer across generations. Undeniably, changing fortunes and the advent of technology have impacted lives of some, but still, for a majority of them, sourcing and selling of bael leaves forms a subset of their traditional skills and a source of seasonal income.
At home, the sourced bael leaves are packaged. Earlier they would be packaged in eco-friendly cone-shaped packages made of palash leaves. But with changing times, newspaper packages and polythene bags started replacing the traditional packaging, eliminating the use of palash packages.
Called as puda in Marathi, the package contains bael leaves. This package of bael leaves ends up becoming a “bael puda”.
In a family of collectors, the tasks are divided. On Sunday morning, the elders source the bael leaves from the jungle, following which the packaging takes place. Later, in the late afternoon, the males, especially the boys, hawk the bael pudas.
Hung on the handle of the bicycle, a cloth bag carries the bael pudas. The seller utters the loudest cry, shouting bael puda, bael puda to make the devotees know that a seller of bael leaves has arrived. This draws the attention of womenfolk, who are particularly more cautious of the fact that the next day is Shraavana Somvar – the auspicious day to worship Lord Shiva. The deal takes place, as the seller continues to move further and tries to sell his entire stock of bael pudas, before he returns home.
Whether the returns the sellers get commensurate with their sourcing and selling efforts doesn’t make any difference. The intention to earn a few rupees eclipses the efforts to justify the price.
A unique example of hawking a worship item, the act of selling bael leaves acts as a bridge that connects the devotional sentiments to practical worship.
Manifold challenges however grip the sellers. Sources are diminishing due to changing ecological conditions, posing critical sourcing challenges. While keeping intact the devotional feelings, can we think of developing a foresight to initiate bael plantation? With concrete jungles rapidly encroaching the serenity of wild habitats and changing climate hitting natural ecosystems hard, can we afford to live with our unsustainable consumption habits?
Image – Wikimedia