By Pradeep Singh
Sugarcane as a crop was introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century but it was not considered significant from a commercial perspective, as the early varieties were susceptible to frost which the Valley experienced much through the winter months. However, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, landowners of Badripur, Dudhli, Sewla and Majri had acquired adequate knowledge of propagation of sugarcane and a few of them had started venturing into sugarcane crushing. Drawing on my family’s oral tradition and long association with these villages, the story of sugarcane crushing can proceed.
Before the advent of modern sugar mills, the crushing of sugarcane was done on sugarcane presses and on pestle and mortars, the make and technology of which had not altered much since medieval ages. Pestle and mortar crushing was the first mechanical aid used in crushing the cane stalks and it was not a very efficient way in terms of labour needed and the recovery of juice for converting to molasses, jaggery or sugar. Moreover, whole stalks of cane could not be fed and these had to be cut in smaller pieces to be put into the mortar over which the pestle rotated by the help of bullocks to crush out the juice. The method adopted by the Badripur landowners was the one in which crushing of the sugarcane was done with the aid of wooden rollers (called kolhus) moved by a pair of bullocks. This was an improvement on the pestle and mortar method and was easier to operate.
The sugarcane variety first cultivated in Badripur for crushing was known as 312. It was a soft cane and its juice was clear and tasted good. Also, being soft, three stalks of cane at a time could be fed between the rollers and it was also less taxing on the bullocks that plodded around in a circle to rotate the geared rollers. These kolhus had wooden rollers, though iron rollers were becoming available, but for most farmers wooden kolhus were good enough. In the late nineteenth century, a kolhu could be bought for under a hundred rupees. Importantly, these wooden kolhus were rudimentary enough for the village carpenter and blacksmith to repair when any breakdown occured. Iron roller sugarcane presses became available towards the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Not too far from the Doon Valley, in the neighbouring princely state of Sirmour, its ruling chief, Raja Shamshere Prakash, set up a modern iron foundry at Nahan in 1864. He sent his blacksmiths to Roorkee to learn the basics of sugarcane presses and, in 1873, the Nahan foundry started producing sugarcane presses on a commercial scale. These Nahan sugarcane presses found their way to Badripur and added to the efficiency of the sugarcane crushing process and helped to increase the capacity of the kolhus whereby nearly 25 quintals of sugarcane per pair of bullocks and kolhu could be crushed in a day.
Buoyed by the coming of Nahan sugarcane presses to Badripur, the landowners went further to capitalise on the opportunity to boost the sugarcane crushing business. They first tried to raise a new variety of sugarcane known as 57. This variety proved to be a hardy one, but it was also harder to crush and only two sugarcane stalks could be fed in place of the earlier three and also the crushed waste pulp was more. Concerned but not daunted, the Badripur landowners sought out yet another variety of cane, the seed of which was transported all the way from Aligarh.
The Aligarhiya Ganna, as this variety became popularly known, turned out to be a real winner for the landowners. It was a soft cane, had a higher sugar content and it made a very refined category of jaggery which old Doon-walas will recall as “andarki “, the fine textured square or rectangular chunks of delicious soft confection.
Yet another product from these quaint kolhus of Badripur was “khand”, a form of granular powder of jaggery but made in an equally quaint method. After the cane juice had been heated on large flat bottomed iron pans, the first clarified syrup was taken to an indoor platform of wooden planks over which a layer of a pond weed called “suraal” was spread. On this loose padding of suraal, the cane syrup (called raab) was poured and covered yet again by a layer of suraal. Over the next few days, the raab filtered through the suraal into a masonary pit in the floor and then a crystallised residue remained on the platform. This residue was sun dried for a few days and then hand rubbed to produce “khaand”, a much loved form of sugar.
The famous Badripur jaggery and andarki was carted to the gur merchants located around the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai, where it got good returns for the producers. Gur in the form of bhelis of two and a half sers (approximately 2 kgs) was also sent from Badripur to Rishikesh, which was a big mart for gur headed to the upper districts of Garhwal. Here, Garhwali families bought their annual supply of gur. Each household purchased thirty bhelis for their annual needs: two bhelis per month for the family’s tea and half a bheli for entertaining visitors.
Smaller bhelis were made for those visiting the Laxmansiddh Temple and offering these to the deity, where the priests deftly cut the bheli with a special iron pick, retaining a quarter for the temple and returning the remaining, which the devotees carried back to their near and dear ones and sweetened their palates. (Concluded) – With inputs from Ch. Yudhveer Singh of Badripur.
(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of ‘Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun’)