The sweet potato (botanical name: Ipomea batatas) was a humble food of the masses since early historical days. Rama, the dark skinned prince of Ayodhya, during the early part of Indian history, went to live in the forest for fourteen years along with his wife Sita and brother Laxmana, only to honour the promise made by his father Dasharatha to his wife (Rama’s step mother Kaikei). Rama and others had to consume roots and tubers like sweet potatoes and wild fruits in the forest. Sweet potato is a common root that can be consumed in raw as well as cooked form.
Reports said that sweet potato (see, Manjunath) was also brought to India by the Portuguese some five centuries ago along with chilies, beans, potato, cassava, breadfruit, sunflower, groundnut, pineapple, guava, sapota, passion fruit, cashew, tobacco, onion, garlic and so on. Sweet potato is reported to be native to the American continents since 5000 years. Archeological evidences suggest that it was cultivated ca.2400 BC in South America; and Columbus is said to have discovered it in the Caribbean region during AD1502.
Balasubramanian, a reader commenting on Manjunath’s cited posting on imported vegetables, elucidated an interesting custom of using native vegetables and materials in shraddha ceremonies of Tamil Brahmins. Sweet potatoes are one of the acceptable tubers used in the preparation of ceremonial food, indicating that sweet potato has attained nativity to our land since long time. They use bitter gourd, raw bananas, banana stem, colocasia, snake gourd, cluster beans, local cucumber, sweet potato, ginger, raw mango and black pepper. Similar ceremonies in Tulu households make use of specified vegetables and allied materials for the preparation of meal on the uttarakriya day. Raw bananas, ash gourds and inner part of plantain (banana) stem constitute the essential vegetables for obituary ceremonies in Tulu families, though modernization has tacitly replaced some of the traditionally accepted items with currently prevalent ‘desi’ items (like chillies for black pepper) in the menu. These obituary traditions appears to be quite ancient and some research is desirable on the nature and evolution of our traditional ceremonies.
Balasubramanian distinguishes between ‘valli kizhangu’(=sweet potato) and ‘mara kizhangu’(=cassava). Even in Tulu, cassava (tapioca) is called ‘mara kireng’, wherein ‘mara’(= tree )refers to the shrub of cassava. However the Tamil word sarkarai valli kizhangu is a clear translation of sweet ‘vine tuber’ inspired by the imported name of sweet potato.
Apart from its emphasized nativity to American continents, the sweet potato is being grown in diverse lands such as Polynesia, New Zealand and China. In Polynesia, New Zealand and Peru, it is called ‘Kumara’. The similarity of the word Kumara to the Sanskrit word may be coincidence. However, according to linguistics like Michael Witzel, the word ‘Kumara’ in Rigveda, composed in Indo-Aryan language (early Sanskrit) has been considered an extraneous word borrowed from uncertain language. How the sweet potato traveled into different continents is still an unsolved mystery.
The Tulu and Tamil words for the sweet potato are interesting. In Tulu it is ‘kireng’ (also, ‘kileng’ and other variants) and in Tamil it is ‘kilang’ (or with slightly different but allied pronunciation like kizhangu). Both the words mean the same: keeL or keer =the lower or underground; ang=part. The nomenclature is quite original and not an adopted word from the imported name of sweet potato. Most of the imported vegetables and fruits have names similar to or derived from their foreign names. The Malayalam word ‘kiraNNu’ is related to Tulu and Tamil words. However, Kannada and Telugu have the word ‘genasu’ for the sweet potato. In Tulu there are several related species of sweet potatoes cited in Tulu Nighantu (=dictionary) such as: Tuppe kireng, koLLi kireng, guddoli kireng, toonNa kireng, pottel kireng, muLLu kireng, apart from the kempu kireng (=red sweet potato), boldu kireng (=white sweet potato) and mara kireng(=cassava). I have seen tuppe kireng, a short variety of tuber named after tuppa, the butter. MuLLu(=spines) kireng refers to one with spines. Other species may still be surviving in our rural areas and our botanists should look into these research aspects. All these tubers, some of them rare and vanishing species, could not have been brought by the Portuguese. Tribals in India still consume several variety of tubers. Many of these tubers are possibly native to our land since ages.
Similarity of Tulu and Tamil words for sweet potato (or allied tuber) suggest certain antiquity to the said tuber. Available evidences indicate that proto-Tulu and proto-Tamil tribes coexisted in early Vedic times (ca. 1500 to 500BC) as suggested by borrowing of Tulu/Tamil words in Rigveda. (See, previous postings, No.26).The reference to edible tubers in the Ramayana (ca. 500-200 BC) only confirms this postulation.
Similar problems exist for other agricultural crops also. For example, peanut (groundnut) is also considered a native of Americas, but it is reported to be cultivated in China since 1500 BC. The antiquity of agricultural crops suggests that many of these are as old as our civilization, if not more. For example, how to fix the nativity of a now ubiquitous plant like coconut? Coconut (Cocos nucifera) is found on the earth since Miocene age ca. 20 million years ago, i.e. long before man appeared on this planet.
South American nativity of sweet potatoes and several other agricultural crops has been asserted based on the extensive archeological and paleo-botanical studies carried out in the Americas. Similar studies in Indian context are highly desirable for better understanding of our past.
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