Basmati rice invokes aroma, taste and lovely long grains of white rice in all our minds. We wait for an opportunity to cook a special meal with this rice and are proud of this wonderful variety. In the West, Basmati rice is associated with India, Indian food, Indian shops and restaurants. What is the reality of Basmati rice? Are we really growing traditional Basmati rice? Why has it become famous? Is that the only scented rice we have? Native to the north and eastern parts of India this long grained, slender, much loved rice has a long illustrious history . It is also no stranger to controversy. However, is the claim to fame of this rice over rated?
The origin of the word Basmati is from the words ‘vass’ in Sanskrit meaning fragrance and ‘matup’ which means ‘possesses’ , so a rice which possesses fragrance. The earliest mention of scented rices was in Sushruta’s treatise where cultivars like “Sughandana” are mentioned. Charaka mentions “Gandhana” rice. The next mention is a document from Southern India, which dates back 500- 1000 years. There is a mention of “Deerghasali” – having sweet flavour, and “Kalama” cultivar. This Kalama mentioned by Sushruta could be a scented rice. (In Malabar area today all biriyani rices are called Kazhama rice). Someshwara Deva, a Chalukya King, in 1126 CE, in his treatise on food and health called Manasollasa mentions Gandhasali( scented ) among the eight different kinds of rice. Upavana Vinoda by Saranga Dhara (1301 CE) mentions Kalama (scented)rice. In the 15th to 17th century CE Acharya Bhavamitra in his treatise on Ayurveda and foodalso mentions Kalama rice. Ain-I-Akbari written by Abul Fazal about the regime of Akbar explains in detail about how various rices are procured for the imperial kitchens including scented rices, which were highly valued.
The first record of Basmati rice was in the poem Heer-Ranjha by Waris Shah in 1766, where the poet mentions Basmati and several other rices. The name mentioned in Heer Ranjha continues to be used for this cultivar even today, though place names have got attached to it. For example: Dehradun Basmati, Amritsar Basmati etc . Botanist George Watt mentions Basmati in the context of several regions like Uttar Pradesh, Dehradun, Kashmir and Punjab. From records it seems that the Basmati grown by farmers in Northern India and Pakistan has a history of at least 250 years, whereas white coloured fragrant rices with slender grains seem to have been grown in India for over 2500 years.
The main Basmati growing areas in India are Punjab, Uttarakhand (Dehradun, Bijnor, Hardwar, Nagina etc), Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir as well as Punjab province of Pakistan. It has been observed that Basmati grown outside these regions do not possess the same superior cooking and grain quality (long grains, non sticky and fragrant when cooked). It grows best in warm, humid, valley like conditions. The Basmati rice is photosensitive, tall, has strong aroma and comparatively lower yields.
Even though Basmati is associated with long-grain scented rices of north-west India, similar varieties with names Basmati & Basumati are also found in parts of Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Terai areas of Bihar & Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Burkill, an English botanist who worked in India, in the Agriculture Ledger - 1910 describes Basmati as a race of rice cultivated in what is now - Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab (India & Pakistan), Himachal Pradesh, Shahbad & Bha-galpur (Bihar), Kathmandu (Nepal), Pabna (Bangla-desh), Sikkim, Manbhum (Jharkhand & West Bengal) and Bairelly (Uttar Pradesh). A variety named Balangir Basmati has been registered in name of Harish Chandra Patel in 2015 by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Authority (PPVFRA)- New Delhi. So where does Basmati rice belong— across North & East India,Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal? .
Basmati was at the centre of a patent claim where a United States based company called Ricetech patented Basmati rice with the brand name Texmati. This shocked the Indian farming groups, and scientists working on Basmati rice. A serious challenge was mounted on this patent application. The moot question was whether Basmati was a specific variety or a generic name for scented long grained rices. The Indian team was able to convince the United States patents office with supporting documents that Basmati is a specific rice variety grown in the northern Indian plains and is not a generic rice. In the recent past there has been a lot of researchinvolving Basmati as one parent along with other varieties, but most breeders have named the resultant cultivars as Basmati to benefit from the fame and recognition attached to the Basmati name. For example Pusa Basmati.
This trend by breeders and scientists to call any cultivar developed from Basmati as Basmati-something will bring Basmati into being a generic name and thus dilute India’s claim to the fact that Basmati is a unique variety. Currently most of the Basmati rices in the market are “improved” varieties like Pusa Basmati and its variants.
Basmati in various regions:
As per a decree by the King of Tehri only Tapovan village (near R i s h i k e s h , Uttarakhand) could produce the famous Basmati rice for the consumption of the royal family. Later the land ownership was transferred in the name of the head priest of the temple at Rishikesh and since then Basmati has been grown and used for preparation of bhog of the temple. However shift in cropping intensity resulted in decline of the soil quality as well as the loss of the original Basmati varieties.
Dehradun Basmati used to be grown in the Seola- Majra Belt in Uttarakhand, however 80% of the best Basmati lands have been taken over by housing projects. The traditional Dehradun Basmati has been replaced by modern varieties like Pusa Basmati, China- 4, Pant Dhan etc. Only in the valleys of Dudhai Khadar some Dehradun Basmati may be found. Champaran Basmati (including one red grained variety) is still found in Bihar; but the aroma, yield and land area under this variety is going down due to modern varieties and sugarcane cultivation. Pakistani Basmati is probably the only original Basmati landrace still left. However, this rice once grown in Punjab (India) does not give the same results as Punjab (in Pakistan). Over the years increasing use of chemicals, mixing and impurity of seeds, rising temperature and decline in soil nutrients have taken its toll on the quality of the rice
The Basmati we eat today and what are theother choices we have?
So what we eat in the name of Basmati is far away from what the original Dehradun Basmati or Champaran Basmati was. We may have already lost the original varieties. Yet Basmati continues to rule the scented rice markets, while hundreds of other scented rices of India suffer to find markets.
Chhattisgarh has more than 200 types of aromatic rices (we have more than 50 in the rice diversity block maintained by the Save Our Rice Campaign). Similarly all the rice growing states have their own scented rices, with distinct aroma, taste and appearance( Read more about these rices in Beyond Basmati : http://www.thehindu.com/todayspaper/ tp-features/tp metroplus/beyond-basmati/ article19183050.ece) . These scented rices are usually small grained and do not elongate much after cooking and most importantly only few buyers are aware about these varieties.
We need to promote the non Basmati scented rices of India, since what is being sold in the market is not in any way indigenous Basmati and may not be organic as well. We need to find out the last remnants of Dehradun Basmati, if there are seeds and protect it. These varieties and the diversity of scented rices is our heritage and if we do not consume these rices farmers will stop growing them and it will result in narrowing our rice diversity.Therefore let us while loving Basmati also adopt the lesser known, yet in no way inferior scented ricesthat grow in various parts of India.
Jeeraga Samba from Tamil Nadu, Gandhaka Saale from Karnataka, Mullan Kazhama from Kerala, Ambe Mohar from Maharashtra. Tulaipanji from West Bengal, Kaala Jeera from Odisha, Chinnor from Madhya Pradesh, Vishnu Bhog from Chhattisgarh, Badshah bhog of Eastern India, the aromatic black rices Chakhao amubi and Chakhao poireiton of Manipur and 100s more …comprise the treasure trove of our scented rices.
References: A Treatise on the Scented Rices of India, Chapter : Basmati Rice: A Distinct variety( Cultivar) of the Indian Subcontinent, Y L Nene