Like most people the world over, the Khasis of Meghalaya too love chillies. They have been raising varieties of these fiery plants in their backyards ever since the Christian missionaries introduced them into the Northeastern part of India … maybe five centuries ago.
Meghalaya’s chillies have quite a name too, especially the bird’s eye chillies, and what better way is there to know more about them than from the farmers themselves.
My intention was to discover for myself how these farmers grow chillies (sohmynken or ‘ken) and whether they grow them exclusively or with other crops.
One such farmer is Bah Ha who’s also a well-known personage from Pahamshken village, 8 km from Nongpoh, in Meghalaya’s Ri-Bhoi district.
In the Bhoi dialect Paham means village and shken is a kind of bamboo popular for making baskets. So that’s how Pahamshken might have got its moniker, because of the abundance of bamboo, particularly the shken.
Bah Ha is authority there. Not only is he a farmer, but he’s also a ‘Lyngdoh’, chief of the village and had held that post for 17 years. It was only recently that he handed over the reins of governance to his nephew, his sister’s son, according to tradition. But he still calls the shots in matters of village administration.
It’s not easy to get an appointment with Bah Ha. He seems busier than the Chief Minister himself! So when he agreed to meet on the 28th of September I immediately rushed to Nongpoh before he changed his mind. Following his directions I took a cab to his house, coursing on a narrow metalled road that snakes through lush fields, green with paddy and abounding with fish ponds and bamboo groves everywhere.
Half an hour later I arrived at a fork: the metalled road continues winding to Nontyrlaw village and another one - the dirt road - to Pahamshken.
Ten minutes more of rough riding later I came face to face with an elderly, barefooted gent in shorts. Clad in a flowing shirt with two buttons off and sleeves rolled up, and a ‘bhoi’ jhola hanging around his neck, there he was, waiting to welcome me with a wide grin on his face!
The local cow breed produces the best milk and cow dung
It’s hard to believe Bah Ha is 73. His medium frame is still ramrod-straight and sinewy. The village air and pure food must have done its work on the clear, almost wrinkle-free skin that he wears. Even his head still sports a flock of thick black hair, albeit with strands of pepper here and there.
But what’s striking is the happy demeanour he carries around his personality, which shimmers with a distinctive, disarming congeniality. You can sense he’s a contented man by the way his eyes sparkle as he speaks in a soft, unhurried tone, flashing his full set of still-intact teeth – stained with ‘kwai’, of course.
Bah Ha’s story is the familiar farm story of rural Meghalaya, where 70% of the population lives. He hails from a farming family and had learned to farm ever since he learnt to walk, he says, in the 1950s.
Like most farm families, his too is a typically a large one too — eight children and eleven grandchildren. Unfortunately, he lost one his sons died to cancer two years back which saddens him till this day. They had to sell one of their fish ponds to finance his treatment but all to no avail.
Bah Ha and some of his happy grandchildren
Despite his age, Bah Ha walks with a sprightly sprint on his steps. I found that out during our three-kilometre-and-back long brisk walk we had up and down slopes to one of his ‘sohmynken khnai’ – bird’s eye chillies fields. While the jaunt left the much younger me gasping for air only halfway through the journey, Bah Ha seemed like he could do rounds of three plus three kilometres two times over!
But by no means is his life a smooth sailing, he confided in me. Rather, he’s a man who’s learnt to come to terms with life as it happens, taking the good with the bad with equanimity and living close to Nature. That was his daily sustenance.
As I panted away behind Bah Ha on our way to one of his fields, I could only listen with rapt attention as he described how the farmers select a good ground for their chillies, at the same time pointing out the best spots to me.
“Come November the leaves begin to fall and litter the fields. By mid-January, the ground is a carpet of dead, brittle and brown plant debris. That’s a good time to select spots for chilli plants. We prepare the soil, carefully upturning the earth, tucking the decaying matter underneath.
When pyrem (springtime) approaches in the month of Lber (March), the soil has metamorphosed into a rich, dark mass. The colour’s deep-brown because the fallen leaves have transformed into nutrient-rich humus – a natural plant food that has just the right moisture to quench the plant roots but never drenching them …”
We now reached an up-slope. Bah Ha waited for me to catch up. Then he continued…
“Chilli plants are devourers of manure. They love rich and well-drained soils and grow best in places with some protection from direct sunlight. That’s the reason we intercrop chillies with taller plants, for example, turmeric, that provide some amount of shade.
Some of the best places to grow chillies are under the banana trees and bamboo groves. Not only are these sites shady, but the soil there’s also naturally fertile due to the profuse dead matter of fallen leaves. These leaves are also excellent mulch material that retains soil moisture even as they decompose fast and turn to rich manure.”
“Early spring, that is, late February/March is the best time to prepare the nursery beds and sow the seeds”, says Bah Ha.
“The seeds don’t want rain at the time of planting and germination and this season is perfect as it is dry.”
They select the best seeds from the previous harvest. To prevent seedling rot they often treat the seeds with Trichoderma harzanium or Pseudomonas flourescens, two species of bio-control agents that they obtain from the horticulture department.
“We prepare the beds by pulverizing the soil into fine granules and then we scatter the seeds after which we cover lightly with soil to the depth of about 2 cm. We water the soil every day to moisturize it.”
In about a week the seeds germinate and by 5-6 weeks, when the young plants sport 3-4 leaves on their stem, they’re ready for transplanting.
Some species of chillies, for example, u ‘ken bhot (ghost chilli), are better planted individually on raised ‘buns’ or earth mounds. In this method farmers drill holes and drop couple or more seeds into them.
About a month or 45 days later they root out the excess and weaker saplings to thin the population and fill gaps wherever required.
“But for this job of transplanting, we must avoid sunny days,” he stresses.
It takes five to six months for the first flush of harvest. After that, another two to three harvests are still possible before winter sets in and the fruiting season’s over.
Bird’s eye chillies under the shade of the banana tree
All farmers in the village grow chillies in plenty but they don’t depend on them alone as the main source of income. The farms there are comprehensive and mixed, comprising of assortments of crops such as paddy, vegetables, and fruits, besides livestock.
As a cash crop chilli is an important plant, fetching a good price in the market, especially the bird’s eye and bhot varieties.
On the types of chilli, Bah Ha names quite a few varieties: ‘ken khnai, kba, nongku’um, war, ding, asom, thnat syiar, karo … names I haven’t heard in a long time.
‘Ken asom is almost extinct, he says, and the problem nowadays is the flood of cheaper chillies from other states that’s slowly edging out the costlier indigenous ones.
Sohmynken ding – dalle khursane – under the shade of turmeric plants
Everything his family needs come from the farm says Bah Ha. “Rice, vegetables such as beans, pumpkins, and yam … fruits such as banana, pineapple, papaya, lemon, guava, and litchi ... everything comes from our farm.” They have their chicken, eggs, fish, and milk too. “We practically do not need buying anything from the market except salt, sugar, and oil,” says he, jokingly.
Farmers are always on an uphill road. The difficulties they face only they understand. Bah Ha should know because he’s as much involved in village administration as he is in farming. Farmers have pricing problem for their produce, transport problem, seed problem …
The year 2020 hasn’t been a good year for farmers, Bah Ha confessed. The virus has hit them hard and they couldn’t farm as in previous years. Perennial crops such as banana, papaya, and lemon, to name a few, are okay but the seasonal ones, including chillies, have suffered a hit.
However, he’s a faith-filled man, with immense trust in divine providence and he takes his job very seriously. He has done his bit for the society, that too in no small way and has been awarded for it too. Although farming is his main occupation he’s also at the forefront of preserving the culture of the Bhoi people and their wildlife, representing them not only in the State but as far away as Delhi.
One of his awards for wildlife conservation
“Why don’t you consider concentrating more on one major crop,” I proffered, suggesting, as an example, bird’s eye and ghost chillies which have a huge demand. He could also revise the method of plant management … make it more scientific for better yields.
“Hmm…that’s not a bad idea…”
Well, before I knew it, four hours had passed. It was time to say goodbye to Bah Ha, his family, and his idyllic Pahamshken village. He accompanied me till the metalled road where I caught the auto back to Nongpoh. On the way back to Shillong I thought of Bah Ha as a remarkable person … unobtrusive, but striking remarkable.
The most distinctive feature of Pahamshken’s chillies is the natural method of planting. Not a spoon of chemical fertiliser is ever fed to the plants.
Maybe we, from Zizira, might catch up with the farmer again someday. It’s our mission to partner with farmers to help raise them to a better position than they were before. In doing so we also bring their produce to the world - pure, natural produce.
We hope you enjoyed this story of Bah Ha, a chilli farmer of Meghalaya. Please do comment, or maybe share some of your own experiences. And contact us and get to our website for more stories and our product-line we source straight from the natural farms of Meghalaya.