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A lost vocabulary of cultivation

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Even until just about one hundred years ago – which is a trifling length of time for a civilisation such as ours whose record of cultivation goes back to some eight millennia before the Common Era – there was in the drier regions of Maharashtra a very vivid vocabulary to describe soils, and a very large glossary to describe the tools and implements required for agriculture. But modern India has caused a great portion of the vocabulary used in agriculture to be lost.

In the district of Ahmednagar, the three chief soils used to be called kali or black, tambat or red, and barad or gray including pandhri or white. The sub-types of these soils were numerous and the names used for the major divisions and their many sub-types differed from one taluka to another. There used to be known three divisions of the kali or black soil. There was black cotton soil but in Ahmadnagar this was more suited for wheat than for cotton. There was also a clayey loam soil called khalga, easier to work than the black soils and which was apt to cake in the rains and to crack in the hot weather. There was also a light soil or sandy loam called chopan, but which although light-coloured was not classified with the pandhri group.

A kind of soil very well suited for horticulture – which used to be commonly known as ‘garden crops’ during my grand-father’s generation – was called munjal, deep, rich, reddish and alluvial in some of the river basins. A friable soil, it wanted less moisture than others and could be more easily worked than others. Then there were the many tracts of poorer soil, flats of murum or gravelly land and khadkal or stony land. Bare ridges or water partings separating small streams were called mal, or upland.

Some of the late 10th century Bombay Presidency (British era) sub-divisions of Ahmednagar, such as Parner, Nagar, Shrigonda and Karjat, with cross-ranges of hills, were known for deep-soiled tablelands called pathar. The variety of landforms also hid, here and there, a few favoured plots of rich and moist alluvial soil called dheli. That we have such descriptions is due in no small part to the detail found in the district gazetteers, and I have been able to elaborate the names of soils and agricultural implements by referring to the 1884 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, volume XVII on Ahmednagar.

A detailed table from the 1884 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, volume XVII on Ahmednagar.

All cultivated land in Ahmadnagar used to be considered under the two great categories and they were jirayat which is dry crop and bagayat which is watered. The jirayat lands were either kharif (sown with early crops) or rabi (sown with late crops). Early crops were sown in June or July and reaped at the end of August, or in October or November. Late crops were sown in October and November and reaped in February and March.

The great variety of soils, the land forms in which they were found, determined the draught power and the kind of tilling, ploughing and levelling implements to be employed. Four or five generations ago, it required one to five pairs of bullocks – and sometimes in stiff soils as many as six and eight pairs – to drag a plough. Whereas in easier soils a pair of bullocks with a light plough would suffice, on stiff soils it used to be a common sight to see even 10 or 12 bullocks labouring heavily as they slowly dragged the big plough after them. Normally, a farming household kept one pair of bullocks, with the extra pairs as required borrowed and likewise their own lent out as needed.

The chief field-tools were the plough (nangar), the harrow (aut, vakhar, or kulav), the bullock-hoe (kulpa or joli), the drill (tiphan, moghad, or pabhar), the beam-harrow (phula or maing), the seed-harrow (rakhia or pharat), and the cart or gada. The plough or nangar used to be made from tough babul (acacia) wood. Naturally, the very large number of implements essential for cultivation kept busy an industry of village repairmen, as skilled with wood species as they were with metalcraft (the shoe of the plough was iron).

[Photograph: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, ref PH.1269-1908]