A few years ago, the Western world was introduced to the taste, texture and goodliness of chakka – the South Indian name for the giant summer fruit called, the jackfruit. A well-choreographed marketing strategy, good product sampling, talk of incredible nutritional benefits, and the low-profile fruit from the developing world became the buzz on the subways in Manhattan. People were in ecstasy about chakka smoothies, chakka sorbets and tales from the chakka blogs. There was nothing that was not possible with chakka! That summer, chakka displaced heirloom tomatoes and pluots!

Chakka is – Hortus Malabaricus, a member of the Plantae kingdom. The Portugese rechristened the fruit as jacca and this was later anglicised into jackfruit. In 1563, Garcia De Orta, the naturalist mentioned jackfruit in his work Coloquios dos Simples e Drogas da India. A century later, Henrik Adriaan Van Rheede, the Dutch Governor of Malabar gave the world visuals of the chakkamaram[1]  its leaves, fruits, seeds and timber, in his famous work – Horti Indica Malabarici. The volumes were in Latin but Van Rheede’s editorial team wrote the names of every tree, flower and fruit in four languages – Latin, Malayalam, Arabic and Hindi. In a ‘we-too’ move, the British botanist R.R. Stewart stood up to say that the jackfruit was named after a Scottish botanist William Jack who was on the payroll of the East India Company. Nothing changed for chakka!

We knew none of this as we grew up under the many jackfruit trees in my grandmother’s house in Malabar. All that we knew was that there was a chakka season that started in the first quarter of the year and ended with the first showers of the South West monsoon. In those days, there were few choices in the markets by way of produce and very little money to spend on them. The produce from every backyard was what put food on the table, day after day. Chakka had a leading role in that play.

At the start of the season, my grandmother would survey the bounty on the trees and take a call on when the first of the iddichakka[2] should come to the table. These tender jackfruits were used in a dozen different ways to make both mains and sides. They were cooked with spices and coconut to resemble a mutton curry, or simply stir fried in coconut oil with a hint of turmeric and salt and eaten with rice and lentils. There was much sharing and gifting as well all over the neighbourhood and there was no one who did not have iddichakka on the menu during the first flush of the season. A few more weeks on the tree and the mature chakka was ready to be sliced and deep fried in coconut oil in giant Chinese woks. A light sprinkling of salt and you had an amuse-guele that went with everything from evening tea to a single malt. During the season, it was jackfruit with jackfruit for breakfast lunch and dinner!

As the fruit thrived on the heat and humidity, grandmother would make many more recces to see which of the chakkas was ready to be cut. Cutting the jackfruit from the tree and lowering it to the ground was no mean task. The fruit was what the airlines now term ‘oversize’- carrying it from anywhere to anywhere required well developed biceps and a worthwhile tip.

Parents in Malabar made it a point to send jackfruits to each of their children – a tiny strip of jute cloth across the belly of the fruit was all the packing that the fruit required to travel on top of the mofussil bus or the luggage compartment of the local passenger train. The fruit never formed part of carry-on baggage but no one hesitated to check it in on a flight!

The cutting, slicing, cleaning and removing the pods called for many hands. During the summer months, several afternoons were spent in this bonding activity.  Our cook used a large well-oiled vettukathi[3] to cut the fruit at the diaphragm and remove the central fibrous core.  Then it was sliced into workable portions and spread out on an old edition of the Mathrubhumi[4]. We oiled our hands to avoid the sticky white latex and began pulling out the juicy pods from its sheltered base and then removing the seeds. A large portion of the pods were consumed on the spot and the rest got to the table for the rest of the family. The jackfruit seeds – chakkakuru were delicious and lasted long after the rainwater seeped into the last of the fruit.  The seeds were spread out to dry and then stored in open containers to be used later.  They were cooked into a curry with coconut, buttermilk and mangoes or boiled and stir fried with just a brush of turmeric and salt. For those who needed an immediate protein rush they were roasted over coals and eaten hot on the spot.

There were different varieties of jackfruit and one variety was just perfect to be turned into a confection called the chakkavaratiyade[5]. This was made with the chopped fruit and jaggery over blazing flames in giant urulis[6] and later topped with clarified butter and stored for the whole year. Every home took pride in storing the confection and later reconstituting it into a dessert called chakkapradhaman[7] served on very special occasions.

Chakka was an integral part of the food culture of Kerala together with coconuts, mangoes and plantains. Until a few decades ago, the leaf of the jackfruit tree was used as a spoon to drink rice congee –the leaf was shaped into a cone and pinned together with a one-inch piece of the midrib of the palm leaf. After the meal, the disposable leaf spoon was thrown out and fresh ones were made for every meal. There are folk tales and proverbs and a whole inheritance that revolved around the tree and its fruits. Every compound had a tree and every home some item of furniture made from the wood. It never went out of fashion and never needed an epiphany and hopefully never will.






[1] Jackfruit tree

[2] Tender jackfruit

[3] chopper

[4] Local newspaper

[5] A confection made with jackfruit

[6] A wide mouth vessel

[7] A dessert made with jackfruit, coconut milk and jaggery


A search for the Kuthiravandi or the single horse carriage on Google throws up titbits of meagre consequence. It has vanished from existence and there are very few people who remember the days when it was one of the preferred modes of transport in Malabar. What made the Malabar Kuthiravandi special was that it was unique in construction and style and very popular till the middle of the 20th century.

Chances are that the Kuthiravandi traced its genetics to the hansom cab patented by Joseph Hansom in Britain. The design was gradually introduced to the British colonies in the latter part of the 19th century and then modified locally. Some of these had longer lives than others and have lingered on in places like Mandalay till today. Nobody referred to it as a pony trap, or a horse trap but in some parts of India, a version of it was known as the tanga[1] or just simply the goda ghadi[2]. The Malayalam name for the vehicle came from the combination of two simple words – kuthira meaning a horse and vandi meaning a vehicle. There were other horse drawn carriages used in Malabar, but the Kuthiravandi was in a genre of its own.

Calicut, the Malabar District head quarter’s town had its share of kuthiravandis operating within the town limits and in nearby localities like Feroke. It ferried children to school, took the family on social visits and for shopping and was very popular to get to and from the railway station. The kuthiravandi never competed with the hand-pulled rickshaw – one was able to carry four adults while the rickshaw was able to carry just one adult. When a family wanted to go somewhere, the vandikaran or the driver of the carriage was informed well in advance. Minutes before the departure time, one would hear the bells announcing the arrival of the carriage. Seating in the kuthiravandi was decided by the vandikaran. He would assess the height and weight of the passengers and then politely suggest that those with ample proportions sit up front to help maintain the balance of the carriage. Children were lifted up last on to the laps of the elders.

The kuthiravandi was assembled in Calicut and customised for the needs of the community. It was a two-wheeled cart, high above the ground with a basic suspension arrangement. Atop this was a placed a near square wooden structure that was linked to the driver’s seat in front and had a little door at the back for passengers to get in and out. Above the wooden base was a frilled canopy that served as a sun screen but was of little use in the rain. Below the rear door was a footstep that was fairly high above the ground; many Malabar matrons had to get a little back end push while getting in and a brief hand-holding when alighting. The outside of the carriage box was painted and decorated and the inside had padded seats covered with a white cotton fabric. The seating was a tad cramped and knees knocked but then there were flounces and curtains and clean upholstery.

The driver perched in front and most often had a little boy with him. The little boy’s role was to hold the horse while the passengers alighted and at the end of the journey to feed the animal with grass and horse gram generously laced with tiny laterite stones. The horse was decked with a saddle, decorated with blinkers, and had a bunch of colourful feathers flying above its head gear.  On either side of the carriage there were head lamps that were low on lux but would today have been a collector’s item. A number of bells of different dimensions on the wheels and on the saddle announced the movement of the carriage in the narrow lanes of the town.

There were few safety measures in existence during the kuthiravandi era. The carriage performed well on a flat road but when the horse had to move up a slight slope there was anxiety all round.  The biggest challenge for the horse was the gradient leading up to the Kallai bridge. With carrot and stick, the horse was prepared for the slope but everyone held their breath to see if the animal would make it up to the top or slip back and often just go on its knees. On occasions when this climb was made at a time when the train was passing on the adjacent rail bridge, there was added anxiety in spite of the best set of blinkers. Everything was set right when the vandikaran coaxed the animal back into the bridle and harness.

Sometime in the last century the kuthiravandi disappeared from the town without fuss and fanfare. By then, Calicut had grown up and become a city.  Around the same time, the hand-pulled rickshaws were withdrawn, cycle rickshaws were introduced and three-wheeler autorickshaws made their debut.  It was swansong time for the Kuthiravandi and the vandikaran accepted that change was on the way. The tragedy that remains to this day is that it is difficult to locate even the skeletal remains of a Kuthiravandi anywhere in the area.










[1] Horse carriage

[2] Horse carriage

The ease of modern day travel makes us erase the years before the advent of superfast trains and non-stop flights. That was a time when travel was meaningful and memorable. In those days, my mother was a school teacher in Calicut. During the summer vacation, she would travel to her sister’s home in Ponani and take my cousin Madhu and me with her. Ponani was about sixty kilometres away – less than an hour’s travel really in a modern crossover. But the journey in those days took the best part of a day and included a train journey, two bus rides, a river crossing and finally a bit of a dusty walk as well.

The first leg of the journey was the slow-train ride from Kallai, a suburb of Calicut to Tirur. The train moved over the Feroke river and bridge and then chugged on to the Kadalundi bridge with splendid views of the rivers meeting the Arabian Sea. The train stopped at every station; and every now and then moved on to the siding to allow the mail trains to speed on their way.

This was the era of rail travel in a newly independent India. Steam engines with coal-fed furnaces and steam whistles, semaphore signals and tokens in large cane rings that engine drivers picked up at each station for a safe run to the next. The travel treat was a walk to the head of the train to see the driver shovel coal to feed the furnace inside the engine and watch him pull the string that set off the shrill whistle.

The stations announced themselves – giant chimneys spewed black smoke as the train ran into Feroke; then you held your nose at each of the next three stations – Kadalundi, Vallikunnu and Tannur. Feroke was a major tile manufacturing town and Kadalundi was where rope makers retted coconut husk by soaking it in the backwater pools till it disintegrated and smelled putrid. Vallikunnu and Tannur were landing beaches for the fisherfolk of the coast. Every train that went north or south picked up a few baskets of the catch of the day. Passengers had to cope with the smell of fish and water dripping from the open-weave baskets.

The only entertainment on the journey in those days was to look out of the window, scan the Railway Timetable, track the numbers on the telegraph poles and if possible strike up a conversation with others in the train. The first activity always resulted in coal dust blowing into the eyes after which the other two activities came to an end. Speed was never an issue and the train took its own time to make its way to Tirur.

At Tirur station, we stopped at what was then called the VRR (Vegetarian Refreshment Room). There were just a few items on the menu, but their vermicelli payasam[1] loaded with raisins and cashewnuts and flavoured with cardamom was well rated by all who passed through the station.

At Tirur it was also time for the second stage of our journey – the bus ride from the Station to Chamaravattam on the banks of the Ponani river. Our transport this time was a dilapidated coal-fired bus with the chassis perched high above the ground. The bus ran through the suburbs of Tirur, passed in front of the Muslim Girl’s School, then the market and mosque and hundreds of stamp-sized fields. Many fields later we finally came to the banks of the Ponani river.

We carried our bags and footwear, walked down and waded through ankle-deep water to reach the boat. When the boat was reasonably full, the boatman picked up his bamboo oars and rowed us across the deep stretch of the river to the sand bank on the other side. It was a short but eventful crossing – during every crossing children would drop their sandals, or toys, or the bag of banana chips they were carrying. When tears were wiped and order was restored we were ready to resume our road journey in the second bus.

Travelling in a bus through the villages of Malabar in the fifties of the last century was a colourful experience. The bus was piled high with farmers taking gourds and greens to the market,  women carrying salt fish in wicker baskets, a drummer on his way to the temple and a pettikaran[2]with a selection of bangles, ribbons and cosmetics quite ready to open his wares. There were no bus stops or schedules – the driver obliged everyone and in return everyone was resigned to getting home when the bus got to their home stop.

And so about five to six hours and nearly sixty kilometres later we reached Chandapadi where we had to get off the bus. No! the journey was not done yet – we still had the last mile of dirt road past the temple and more paddy fields. On days when we reached after sunset, we had an escort for this stretch – my aunt would send one of the farm hands with a pantham[3] to lead us home. As we started, he would light the pantham and swing it up and down to light the way. And as we walked, he would also give us news of what was happening in his world – the coconuts had just been plucked and they were going to pluck the mangoes the following day.

The last mile was the most difficult part of the journey. After what seemed like a mini-marathon we finally saw our aunt waiting on the threshold with the hurricane lantern in her hand. Unforgettable journeys.




[1] A milk and vermicelli dessert

[2] A travelling vendor

[3] A locally made torch

Ammu Amma was born in the first decade of the 20th century just before the whole world  went to war. She lived through two World Wars, the birth of independent India, the first elected Communist government in Kerala and the advent of television. She was low on good looks, high on wisdom and enjoyed being able to draw on the courage of her convictions all through life.

As a young girl she was determined about a profession. This was not difficult for the eldest daughter of educated parents. She chose Queen Mary’s College, for her graduate studies and left her sheltered life in Malabar for a cosmopolitan environment at the Presidency Headquarters at Madras. She stayed on in Madras for her post graduate studies, a licentiate in teaching and eventually an assignment at her alma mater.

She was an average student but had a rare flair for languages and glided from one to another with ease. She had the amazing ability to straddle cultures and step down literature into digestible prose and verse. She would narrate the story of the Merchant of Venice to her nephews, put the book down and then recite verses from the play Nalacharitham Randam Divasam in preparation for the evening’s Kathakali performance.

At College, her autograph book was full with messages of colleagues from distant parts of India and the world. She studied and lived with students and teachers from different cultural backgrounds and new confessions. By the end of her student days, she was drawn to the Christian faith and decided to make it her own. Her parents accepted that she was old enough to make her own decisions but the rest of the clan viewed her decision as both a heresy and an irreparable insult.

For years she remained a novitiate in her new faith. She continued to live in the culture she was familiar with and to it gradually added some of the rituals and observances of her new confession.  She was more at home with the stories from the Vishnu Purana and the Shiva Purana than with the work of the evangelists or the names of unfamiliar saints and martyrs from the Christian pantheon.

The world was again at war when she decided once again to make a choice. She had not married and till then there had been few suitors queuing up at the door. In the last quarter of her reproductive life cycle, she decided to have a child. She was certain it would add an essential dimension to her life. All the odds were against her. While in Madras, she had met a man a few years younger than her and the inevitable sparked between them.  He had legally separated from his wife but according to the stringent provisions of his personal law was in no position to ever offer marriage to her, or to any other woman.  Their choices were limited.

The baby was born at a hospital near her college and in due course the news was conveyed to the family.  Her parents waited to see their new granddaughter but others on both sides of the family were less euphoric. The traditional stand-off fell into place and both mother and child remained constantly in the line of social projectiles. She remained unperturbed. Her financial independence stood her in good stead and she faced the stigma and odium of both sides with calm resignation. She spoke little, explained nothing but continued to love every member of her family just as she always had. Ammu Amma had thought it through and was prepared for the long haul. She persevered and balanced her career with the responsibilities of an unwed single mother. Gradually, the stand-off eased into a kind of one-sided non-negotiable tolerance.

Ammu Amma enjoyed her life as a teacher. For some time she worked in a Muslim Girls School in Malabar and while there enjoyed the love and affection of both her students and their parents. When there were signs of communal strife in the area, the parents of the students vowed to keep her safe.  She continued to be with them knowing full well that they would keep the promise. She enjoyed her time at this school just as much as her students enjoyed their Ammu Teacher. This was another dimension and she had the opportunity to understand another culture and another faith.

She loved her profession as a teacher and enjoyed being with her colleagues and her students.  All through her career she was aware of people who had perennial unspoken questions about her marital status. She got her increments and promotions and became the Headmistress of the School but the highest award was always held back year after year. After all, she had a child but could produce no paper-proof of a husband to complement the family picture. It bothered the judges. It never bothered her.

After retirement, she became a student once again. She resumed the study of her new faith, explored the verses from the Psalms, went deep into the Book of Revelation and enjoyed listening to interpretations of theology. She walked through the Christian pantheon reading for the first time about saints like Ulrich and Homobonus.

Between her learning and listening, she taught Sanskrit slokas to her grandchildren, made them understand the various names of Arjuna and told them stories about Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari.  She revelled in the bonus of cultures and religions and assimilated the riches of each of them.

Those around her finally realised that her choices had made her both strong and determined. And through it all she remained the same – a daughter, sister, mother, grandmother and every other feminine profile possible. Whether she was a feminist or a woman before her time, she still commands applause – a hundred and eleven years after her birth –  Ammu Amma ki jai!


A ring for each finger

Most antique shops in the Muttrah souk in Oman have an open container with odds and ends thrown in – key chains, hair ornaments, pendants and an entire selection of silver rings of different shapes and sizes. Customers who are blue blood collectors sit and patiently sift through the semi-precious rubble to find what they are looking for. “I am leaving the country in a few days and I want to complete my collection of Omani silver,” says a French collector bending over the silver bric-a-brac.  In her hand she carries the photocopy of a dog-eared page from the book, “Omani Silver” by Ruth Hawley. “I am taking back a sample of each item of Omani jewellery and now need to find only the finger rings,” she says putting her head back to work to find the missing objects, oblivious of the retail chatter round her.

Countries of the Arabian Peninsula are well known for their unique finger rings. H.R.P.Dickinson in his book “The Arab of the Desert” says that in some Middle East countries up to four rings are worn on one hand at one time. Women in Oman have done better. They used to wear a ring on each finger. Five rings on a hand – ten on both hands! In Oman, until not so long ago, rings were made in pairs. It was the practice to give the bride a gift of ten rings – with one design for each finger. Each ring had a special name and some of them also had a purpose in addition to ultimate adornment. There was no special wedding ring – every finger was already adorned. There was a deep belief that silver possessed qualities to shield the wearer from the evil eye and also had the ability to ward off disease. Both men and women have worn talisman rings for centuries.

Ruth Hawley says that it is very difficult to be precise about the name of the various pieces of silver in Oman as the name varies from place to place. The name for a ring in the Muttrah souk may be entirely different from what it is called in the Nizwa souk.

The origins of designs found on Omani rings date back thousands of years. Some designs are difficult to trace with accuracy.  It is presumed that geometric designs originated from Yemen.  The Nizwa design of flowers date back to the T’ang or Liao dynasty of the 10th century, a period when Oman had trade links with China. The dome shaped cage ring was possibly of a Jewish wedding ring design. The techniques used in the crafting of rings included chasing, engraving, piercing, filigree work and granulation.  Each part of the ring had a name. The hoop of a finger ring is called the khawatim.  The decorated upper part, the bezel and the encompassing band usually holding the design or stone is the collet. In addition, the rings for each finger had a different name.

Silver was melted in a crucible over a charcoal hearth.  It was then rolled into sheets or rods that were then cut and shaped in a brazier.  All the rings of yore were made in silver and some were treated to a gold wash.

The most important ring is the one worn on the index finger or fore finger known in Arabic as the al shahid. The khawatim shahadah is shaped like a large drop, sometimes stylized, but always with a pointed tip. Every Muslim points his finger when saying the shahadah, the affirmation of faith. In wearing the ring, the person re-endorses faith in the one God day after day. It is important to note that this ring is known by just one name.

The ring worn on the thumb is a wide silver band called the jabiyrah.  This ring is also referred to as batham, maramiy or ha’is masbuwqah. The ring for the second finger is rounded or rhomoid and has several names – it is called mahar and also referred to endearingly as Abu Fawz or khatim abu fawz.  The third finger is always adorned with a square called kanabir or khatim abu sath murabba.  The ring for the little finger, khanafir, was the only one that was embellished with a stone.  This ring was usually made from a common umla (coin) and in size was smaller than the rings that adorned the other fingers. Rings worn on the toes were simple with bosses – a round knob or stud or other protuberance. Rings for men were usually set with the fairuz – a turquoise stone.

Gold has usurped the place of silver and it is the yellow metal that is now preferred for rings and other ornaments. But there are collectors like the French aficionado at the souk who are looking only for the silver with history. She planned to display her Omani silver collection. What better peg for an after dinner story than one about men who gifted their women with a ring for each finger?




During the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program on Oman, the Sunday Shopper feature in the Washington Post profiled a product familiar to everyone in Oman – the incense burner. Thousands of visitors to this Festival in Washington picked up an incense burner and a little bokhur (incense) as a keepsake of their visit to the festival and perhaps as their first introduction to Oman. Most of the tourists who come to Oman do the same – the incense burner or mijmar as it is commonly called is about the most popular souvenir to carry back from the country. What people take back with the mijmar is a slice of Arabian civilization – the mijmar has been around in Oman from the years of the first millennium B.C.

In Oman, the mijmar is taken for granted and every household owns a couple of them. The incense burner in this role is just a household item of daily use and shares the same status as the ladles and spoons in the kitchen. Walk into a mall or the Souk Muttrah and the mijmar is a tool for marketing. The slow curling smoke arising from the mijmar can lead one blindfolded to a shop selling fragrances and bokhur. In government offices, the fragrance arising from the mijmar vies with the smell of freshly brewed khawa (coffee).  The mijmar is a part of office equipment in both government and private establishments.

Mijmars may have evolved in design and become more decorative or progressive. HowThe Spice with a Taleever, their basic design has undergone little change from the days when it was first conceived and put into use thousands of years ago. Every excavation that has taken place around Dhofar has thrown up ancient samples of incense burners. The Khor Rori Report I (part of the  collection Arabia Antica) has a chapter written by Alessandra Lombardi devoted to Small Finds From the Gate Complex at Sumhuram in the Dhofar region. The report says that the Khor Rori was a port of Hadramawt which was constructed near one of the most important incense producing areas of the time. The author adds: “Among the stone finds, we have been able to identify some objects which may be interpreted as incense or aroma burners, definable because of morphology and marked traces of burning in the used area.”

What did these early incense burners look like? At Sumhurum archaeologists have found simple round limestone incense burners with three or four legs and the classical small cubic or rectangular basins. Some of the earliest incense burners even had incised decorations on the outside walls. Tub-shaped, stone incense burners with truncated pyramidal shaped bases supported a parallel piped tub with various religious motifs and symbols on the outside. Illustrations of these early burners show them to be of rough manufacture. Some of them have a functional stub as a handle and all have extreme structural compactness. Excavations in the Dhofar region have brought out limestone incense burners and a few made of basalt as well. Historians conclude that the limestone mijmars were fashioned from stone found in the Dhofar region while basalt mijmars were probably brought into the area on one or other of the myriad ships that plied the incense trade. Each of these finds also showed traces of burnt incense in the low hollow cavity of the burner. These early incense burners are from the pre-Islamic era and from the days when Sumhuram and Khor Rori flourished as centres of trade.

To this day, the design of the incense burner remains robust. One has never heard of a traditional Omani pottery incense burner toppling over or falling apart because of an unstable base or weak sides. A traditional burner sits firm on the surface, has sides that protect the coal and also has an open space between the base and the burning area.  A few design changes in the mijmar have been introduced to make them look more appealing and decorative. Shopkeepers are quite aware of the fact that visitors to Oman who buy the mijmars do so to add to their collection of travel memorabilia. There are models that are tall and slim and others that are fine glazed and many that are lined with a stainless steel sheet inside to collect the ashes. Most mijmars are decorated with bright colours all around the sides. The most progressive design complement to the incense burner is the addition of an electrical fitting that enables the user to plug it in and do away with the bother of live coals or the special start-up lighter bricks.

In parts of the Middle East, the incense burner is also known by the name mabkhara . Modern versions of the mabkhara are made of shiny plated sheet metal and decorated with mirrors and coloured metal. While the Omani mijmar is squat and sits firm on the base, the mabkhara is tall and slim in design. Both mijmar and  mabkhara come in different sizes – some small enough to fit into carry on baggage and others large enough to serve as a container for a festival gift of dates or chocolates.

There are other designs of incense burners too. Well to-do families in Oman have for ages used silver incense burners. The most common design among these come with a cup-shaped silver bowl fixed to a silver tray and topped with a perforated hinged silver lid that allows the fragrant smoke to permeate the area. A small length of silver chain on the side holds the bowl and the lid together. A scaled up model of this can be seen standing out like a hydrographic marker at the Riyam Park in Muttrah.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has some fine samples of incense burners that go beyond the traditional. One bronze piece from the first millennium B.C. from Southern Arabia features two intertwined snakes and an ibex. The head of the ibex serves as a handle for the metal burner. Another is a lion-shaped burner in which the head can be lifted out to place incense in the cavity. The metal body and neck of the animal are perforated to enable the fragrances to float.

Incense burners have been used from ancient times to provide pleasing scents and to cleanse the environment. A visitor to Oman in the 18th century mentions that visitors are greeted with perfume sprinklers, dates and coffee. However, he adds that after a meal the incense burner is taken around the room and it is a signal for those present to say their farewells and leave.

The time-tested design of the mijmar has been used extensively for civic aesthetics. Planters shaped like the traditional Omani incense burner may be found all over the country and in all sizes. The incense burner in the centre of the Wadi Kabir roundabout is a landmark that few can forget. At night, the coals in the burner glow at the base and give passers by a quick picture of ancient traditions that Oman is keen to preserve at all cost. The rose water sprinklers all around the incense burner complement each other as two of the symbols of Omani hospitality.




Little things in every day life in Oman tend to go back hundreds of years. They open up stories that are fascinating and contribute both to culture and history. The reference here is to cloves – a spice that is found in every Omani kitchen. Stop at any of the hundreds of shawarma outlets in the country and the aroma of cloves floats up and fills the senses together with the aroma of the meat being grilled on the vertical spit. The smell is a high note, distinct and full of flavour. How did a dry and arid country with little else than dates and sardines introduce cloves into their diet? And where did it come from?

Like many of the other introductions to life in Oman, it was the spirit of adventure of the Omani sailor that brought the clove to the country. It is difficult to give an exact timeline to it but it was certainly hundreds of years before the western powers ventured into the Indian Ocean and beyond. The Omani mariner could have come upon the clove when the nakhooda anchored for fresh water and food among the legendary Spice Islands now forming part of Indonesia. Or, he could have come across it at the court of one of the Chinese emperors. Cloves were in use in China from around the 3rd century BC and they were also known to the Romans. The Chinese kept a single clove in the mouth to sweeten the breath. It took hundreds of years from there for the western world to understand the economic worth of the spice trade. By the time the European countries woke up to cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and pepper they were already a part of the Omani diet. The foreign powers waged spice wars that were fought ruthlessly on both land and at sea.

At the end of a voyage, many an Omani sailor would have put a few cloves in his pocket and taken it home to his wife and instructed her to add a little of it to the family cooking. She must have experimented with it and tried it in turn on rice, lentils, fish and meat. There is no way one can put a date to when it started but it was decidedly hundreds of years before the rest of the world stumbled on the flavour. Cloves gradually became ubiquitous in Omani cooking. The spice is referred to as coronfil (or qaranful) on the grocery shelves in Oman. The name bears a close resemblance to the name for cloves used on the West Coast of India – karambu. Both names again take their source from the botanical name for the tree Syzgium Aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata).

For a brief period in history, clove cultivation was confined to just two islands in Indonesia. The Portuguese and then the Dutch held the global clove trade  monopoly. To control the world market, they eliminated the trees from all but one or two islands like Amboina and Ternate.  In the second half of the 18th century, the French smuggled cloves from the East Indies to the Indian Ocean islands and to the New World breaking the Dutch monopoly. Thanks to this, clove trees began to thrive in several parts of the world. As a trading nation Oman watched these developments with keen interest.

In the late 17th century, Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman.  Sayyid Said Bin Sultain bin Al Imam Ahmad bin Said Al Bu Saidi or Said Sayyid as he was popularly known was born in 1791 and came to the throne in 1806.  Said Sayyid made Zanzibar his capital city in 1832. A few years into his reign cloves found their way into Zanzibar and the cultivation of this spice tree started on the east coast of Africa. The temperature, rainfall and humidity were ideal for the crop and the trees took root without problems. In 1828, Said Sayyid visited Zanzibar and Pemba and acquired two properties on which cloves were cultivated. During his lifetime these two places became the largest clove producers in the world.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, clove trees were introduced to Zanzibar and Said had the good business sense to grow them as a plantation crop for export …..” writes Patricia Rosso in her book Oman and Muscat. The ruler’s efforts must have been so successful that he made Zanzibar his primary residence after 1841. American ships from Salem Massachusetts had been trading with Zanzibar for several years. During the reign of Said Sayyid, the US government took the initiative to make trade relations easier by removing the customs duties payable on its exports. President Andrew Jackson sent Edmund Roberts to Muscat to begin trade talks with Said Sayyid. It was not difficult for the Omani merchant to trade in cloves or carry cloves to different markets. But the fortunes of the clove trade were mired in both politics and the vagaries of economics.

In 1861 after the death of Said Sayyid, Zanzibar was separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate.  Cloves continued to dominate the fortunes of Zanzibar and contributed in great measure to the economy of the island. A hundred years later, the short lived Sultanate of Zanzibar and Pemba created a flag that had two cloves in a circle of green on a full red base.

While political and economic fortunes changed with the passage of time, the properties of cloves remained constant. The clove still continues to play a dominant role in the kitchens of Oman. Today, cloves lend flavour to everything from Bizar Al Omani  (Omani Spice Mix) to Bizar Shuwa (Shuwa Spice Mix). The list of Omani recipes that need a few cloves to round off the flavours is by no means limited. They are found in recipes originating in every one of the regions of the country. Traditional preparations like Foaq Al Aish (Over the Rice) and Tahat Al Aish (Under the Rice) use whole cloves to lend the distinct flavour.  Its whole cloves that go into the Ouzi or Baryani and the Ka’ata Bil Laham as well. In some of the preparations the cloves are left whole. In others they are crushed in a mortar to release the flavours before adding to the food or as in the Spice Mix mechanically pulverised at a commercial food factory to come up with the right blend. Cloves are added to rice and lentil dishes as well but are not very popular for the catch of the day.

Clove production in Zanzibar has diminished and Indonesia has regained its former status producing nearly 20% of the world crop. Other countries like Brazil, Sri Lanka and India have also got into the business. Clove prices shoot up every time there is a shortfall in one of the major producing areas. For those living in Oman who will always continue to use the spice, the comfort is that it takes just one or two of these spice buds to flavour an entire meal.

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