The Big Picture: Precious rice harvest makes India's winter turn gold

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Indy Lifestyle Online
On the death of his wife, Mumtaz, the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan presented her with the Taj Mahal. While she was still alive his gifts were less elaborate but equally precious and pearly white; he gave her basmati, the prince of rice.

So highly valued is basmati rice that the majority of Indians could only dream of eating it on a regular basis, although the poorest peasant might sacrifice a great deal to present it at, say, his daughter's wedding.

Some 390km north of Mumtaz's tomb, the Taj Mahal in Agra, in the state of Haryana, Sukhwant Singh wades through his golden fields of basmati, shrouded in the dawn mist, checking the paddy before harvest. This area is part of the Indo Gangetic plain, fed, via irrigation on an immense scale, by rivers originating high in the Himalayas.

This is the only place in the world that true basmati is grown and its annual harvest runs from November to early January. The fact that it is only harvested once a year and it is an extremely difficult crop to grow gives rise to its status and price at the local mundis (markets). Although some large farms are now mechanised much of the crop is grown on small farms where most of the work is done manually. On the road west through the paddy fields, running the gauntlet of pot holes and rice lorries, you constantly see small groups of men and women wielding bundles of rice threshing out the grain in an old drum.

The mundi at harvest time is a mass of enthusiastic humanity flowing between mountains of golden husked rice. What at first sight seems chaotic soon adopts a recognisable form. Workers pile up rice, scooping it with old cooking oil tins and throwing it in graceful arcs to the top of the pile, or dheri. The auctioneer moves from one dheri to another with a gaggle of buyers hot on his heels sinking up to their ankles in the mounds letting the rice flow through their hands which are dusty and worn from crushing the golden grains.

The sale ends with a flourish as the auctioneer throws a handful high in the air before moving on. From here the basmati goes to the mills. Some of it is fully processed for domestic consumption but most is exported raw to countries such Britain, where it has long been appreciated as the perfect accompaniment to an Indian meal.

The only cloud on the horizon other than those brought by the monsoon winds originates in the United States, where farmers are attempting to create basmati or "Texmati". In retaliation, the Indian government is said to be taking legal moves to protect the basmati name. This may not, however, be necessary - one cannot help feeling that Mumtaz would have turned up a noble nose at any young pretender to basmati's throne.

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