Friday, June 21, 2019

That Hing Thing

Asafoetida (Hing) - resin chips and powder

If you want to make popadoms you need asafoetida, aka Hing.

This bit of trivia caught my attention while watching an edition of National Geographic's "Food Factory" featuring the famous women's cooperative - Sri Mahila Grih Udyog - makers of the iconic popadom brand, Lijjat Papad. You might say that this is nothing noteworthy. After all no Indian kitchen would be complete without a tiny plastic bottle containing what is perhaps the most pungent powder conceivable. In South India perhaps the most popular brand is LG - not the Korean conglomerate but a staid company started by Laljee Goshoo in Mumbai. You just cannot make Sambaar curry, or Rasam, or Dal, without a pinch of asafoetida.

A popular Indian brand

The interesting point is that all the asafoetida sold and consumed in India is imported! Lijjat Papad uses Hing (asafoetida) imported from Afghanistan. Other companies like LG import the product in raw form, mix it with gum arabic, and rice-powder / maida and sell it as "compounded asafoetida" which contains less than 50 percent of the actual stuff. Even in this adulterated form it is an expensive spice - 50g packet sells for INR 75 which comes to about INR 1500 (USD 22) for a kilogram.

Another curious thing is that asafoetida is not officially considered a "spice". For some reason it does not even figure on the Indian Spice Board's list of spices imported into India. The Ministry of Commerce lists it under the category "resins and gums" (ExIm HS code 1301-9013). Most of the asafoetida in the Indian market is imported from Afghanistan and Iran. There are two main varieties of asafoetida ie. Hing Kabuli Sufaid (Milky white asafoetida) and Hing Lal (Red asafoetida). Tajikistan too is now emerging as an important supplier of quality asafoetida.

The earliest know reference to asafoetida comes from an ancient Sumeran medical recipe dating back to 2100 BCE. So it hardly surprising that this resin figures prominently in the Ayurveda treatise - Charaka Samhita - compiled in circa 300 BCE.  According to this source, the Bhagavata Purana compiled in the 10the century, notes that the Hing plant grows in the abode of Shiva. Considering that the plant grows in cold mountainous regions of Iran and the Western Himalayas, it is surprising how a steady supply of this resin has been reaching all corners of India over the past three millennia..

Asafoetida is extracted from the Ferula plants (esp. Ferula asfoetida) which have large taproots, 12.5-15 cm in diameter at the crown when they are 4-5 years old. Just before the plants flower, in March-April, the upper part of the living rhizome root is laid bare and the stem cut off close to the crown. The white sap that extrudes from the exposed stem-base is then collected, dried and sold to traders. The plant grows only in arid, cold areas and efforts to cultivate them in Himachal, Ladakh and Kashmir are yet to succeed.

Farmers in these states would certainly be pleased to see the efforts succeed. After all, there are only a few plants that grow with little care and yield such high prices in the market.

Exports from Afghanistan

For some reason, the FAO-UN does not list asafoetida as a noteworthy export from Afghanistan, but independent research suggests that this is indeed a significant export item from Afghanistan. In 2014-15, the country exported red asafoetida worth USD 21,940,223 (312.281 tons) and white asafoetida worth USD 12,259,302 (218 tons).

Is USD 33 million worth of exports insignificant? Certainly not if you consider the fact that the top export item from Afghanistan is raisins (red, black, big, abjosh) and its total value is just a bit more at ~ USD 36 million. Other famous dry-fruit or spice exports - Almonds and Cumin is worth just USD 26 million and USD 1.6 million respectively!

So why is it that asafoetida fails to get mentioned in the trade charts?

I don't know. Yet.


> WIPO article -
> Lijjat Papad -
. India imports 25% of the world's asafoetida
> Plants mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana (600-1000AD) -
> Afghanistan - Commodity Exports -
- Hing does not figure in the top-5 exports by value -- the only spice that figures here is "Anise, radian, fennel, coriander" -- USD 26million (2016)
- Top export item by value was Raisins - 19T for USD 56million
> Spices Board -
> Import Policy - ExIm HS code 1301 90 13 --
> Afghanistan Exports -
> (2015) Paper - India-Afghanistan - Overview of Economic Relations -

* Oldest Medical Document - Sumeria 2100 BCE -
* Shah NC and Amir Zare (2014): Asafoetida (Heeng): The Well Known Medicinal Condiment of India & Iran -

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Chalo Khajuraho!

Travelling means different things to different people. To me, one of the most interesting things about travelling is the clash between expectations and ground realities.

Long before you arrive your destination you have a picture in your mind, an image built out of words and views of folks who have been there before. In the new world of digital media the gap between expectation and reality is bridged the moment you scan through some Google searches, a few YouTube videos and articles. In most journeys you re-live the experiences of others.

Not so for Khajuraho.

Nothing prepared me for the scope and scale of artistry, human ingenuity and effort that has gone into the Khajuraho temples. I had expected to see a small town built around a couple of temples, its walls packed with erotic sculptures, a backdrop for an annual dance festival where classical dancers perform for the tourists. What I found instead was an orderly municipality built on the site of an ancient, abandoned city packed with scores of temples of astounding beauty, set in a landscape that was just as bleak and arid, a mere shadow of what it must have been a thousand years ago.

The temples are proof that an oasis of prosperity existed amidst the badlands of Bundelkhand long before it came to be known by that name. It was a city without walls, protected by the swift waters of the Karnavati river, enriched by the precious gems extracted from the Panna Mines and ruled by a dynasty that controlled the lucrative trade routes between the northern Gangetic plains and southern India.

At Khajuraho you enter time-space warp. The Karnavati river is now called Ken - an anglicised abbreviated version of a river that is a dribble of what it used to be. You look at the scorched, barren, red soil and wonder how it could have been thickly forested once, or the rich agricultural land that fed the healthy, rugged warriors and lovers that adorn the walls of all the temples here.

The site was also significant in Hindu cosmology. Just as in the case of holy city of Varanasi, here too a major river  flows northwards, towards the sacred Himalayas before it turned again towards the seas. For some reason this was also a centre for yogic austerities, a hub for Jain monks, tantric Shaivite worshipers, as well as a range of unusual deities such as Brahma, Varaha (the boar avatar of Vishnu), and Vamana (another avatar of a pudgy, dwarf mendicant).

Folklore has it that the area around Khajuraho, which was known in ancient times as Jejahoti, was home to 85 temples and 85 lakes. Only 25 temples remain now. As for the lakes, they are now mere ponds filled with murky green water and a few buffalos. Historical records indicate that the city and its temples were abandoned after the Chandela Kingdom with its capital at Kalinjar Fort 85km away, was raided by Mahmud of Ghazni  in 1022 CE. As was the norm, the survivers may have been enslaved and taken away by other invaders , including Qutub-ud-din-Aibak who defeated the Chandelas again, two centuries later.

The abandoned temples then drifted into oblivion and got covered by forests that protected it from the zeal of later invaders until they were 'rediscovered' by an Englishman travelling from Sagar to Calcutta.

Since this 'rediscovery' almost all the temples of Khajuraho have been under government control. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) now restores and maintains most of these abandoned temples within manicured lawns and and fenced compounds. Only two sets of temples falls outside this control - the set of Eastern Jain Temples and one temple dedicated to Matangeshwara (Shiva) just outside the fenced perimeter of the Western Group of Temples.

ASI does a fine job of preserving these heritage monuments. Each temple has been assigned a care-taker, each of whom ensures that visitors do not deface or vandalise the sculptures. We were particularly impressed with three young men - Anurag Pathak at the Chaturbhuj temple, Saurav Singh Rajput at the Vamana temple and Parasuram at the Vishvanath temple - each of them took care to ensure that the temples were safe.

While inside the Vishwanath temple a large group of village women could be heard singing songs and going from one temple to the other. In their own sing-song way they walked into the sanctum of each temple and paid their respects to the gods that once occupied them. According to the caretaker, Parasuram, many of the pilgrims who throng the Mantangeshwar temple also drop by into the fenced, ticketed ASI complex to reaffirm their ancient ties to these great temples.

Researchers have tracked available records to recreate the sequence of temple building in Khajuraho. It follows an intriguing pattern. The earliest temples built in Khajuraho were the Brahma shrine next to the lake and the Chausath (64) Yogini temple. Both are bare and austere, made out of rough hewn granite. The Matangeshwar temple came up next around 900 CE. This active temple has such a large Shiva Linga that you barely have any space to move inside.

The Laxmana temple was perhaps the first 'grand' temple built in generous proportions with a large Varaha (boar) shrine facing it. On the same line, the Vishwanath temple was built next, paired with a Nandi shrine. Among the large temples here, the Kandaria Mahadev which came up next is considered the acme of Chandela temple architecture. From here on all the temple building went downhill, both in scale and exuberance.

Prudes and others who are embarrassed about the erotic sculptures here will tell you that only 10 percent of carvings here are 'gross'. Don't believe them. Fact is that uninhibited display of sex is exactly what the temple builders wanted to highlight. At all the three major temples (Laxman, Vishwanath, Kandaria Mahadev) the northern and southern walls are packed with 3+ feet high sculptures of uninhibited lovemaking. These are like large banner headlines that turn all the remaining sculptures into footnotes.

Amazingly, while all the Hindu shrines reserve lovemaking scenes for the outer walls, within the Jain shrines it seems to be the opposite. Here you have tangled couples on the doorway to the sanctum showing the great "Digambara" (sky-clad) Jaina saints in all their naked glory!

At the end of the day one simple fact stands out. We know very, very little about our own people who built these amazing temples. We see them through a prism coloured by the Abrahamic armies that conquered us and colonised our minds for a thousand years.


Looking Around

Since the main set of temples - the Western Group - was walking distance from our hotel we decided to use a taxi to visit the temples that were away from the town.  First we visited the Chausath Yogini Temple, then the Eastern Group of Temples (Jain Complex - Adinath, Parasvnath, and Shanti Nath), the Southern Group of Temples (Duladeo, Chaturbhuj and Bijamandala), then back to the eastern zone to visit the temples that our driver 'forgot' to mention - the ones around the lake - Brahma, Hanuman, Javari and Vamana. The rest of the time was dedicated to the main Western Group of Temples (Laxmana, Kandariya Mahadev, Jagadamba, Chitragupta and Vishvanath).


Travelling during the off-season has its perks. We stayed at the Lalit hotel which was so short of guests that it upgraded our booking to a suite which turned out to be as big as an apartment - two bedrooms with attached bath, a large hall with an attached kitchen, bright French windows opening into the lawns and overlooking bright bougainvillea bushes overhanging the walls!

The location is excellent - just 750m from the Western Temples, and right next to the ASI museum, the Festival Grounds, eateries and short walk from the Tribal Museum which is worth visiting.

Travel Tips
  • Travel during the off-season (April - September). Apart from being spared the crowds you get better deals at the hotels, restaurants and with the taxi-wallah.
  • Use the Indian Railways. The Sampark Kranti Express is perfectly timed for weekend getaways from Delhi.
  • Cameras: For some strange reason, ASI does not allow tripods into the temple complex. You need to have a letter granting permission from their office in New Delhi / Bhopal (!)
  • Don't expect much from the Archaeological Museum in Khajuraho. Despite having a sprawling complex ASI displays are poorly labelled, manned only by security guards who just keep intoning the rules ("no selfies with the displays"...)
  • Guide - Satendra Kumar Dwivedi (Sachin) - Mobile: +91 9753 954 343 - Email:
  • Driver - Lakhan Singh, Old village ward no.14, Near Jawari Temple - Mobile: +91 7223 053 448, 7049 844 467


* The Chandela - Chola Connection: The Chandela dynaty ruled Bundelhand from ~900 to 1100 CE while the Chola's of South India were also at their peak during the same period. Rajaraja-I (985-1016 CE) and his son Rajendra-I (1012-44 CE) stretched the boundaries of their kingdom not only across the seas to South East Asia but also northwards, all the way into the Gangetic plains. In fact Rajendra-I also earned the sobriquet "Gangaikondachola".
Rajendra-I could not have reached the Ganga river without crossing Bundelkhand. Was there a link between the massive stone temples erected by the Cholas and the ones built by the Chandela's in Khajuraho?