Large cardamom or bada elaichi is an exotic ancient spice and medicinal herb prized for its complex aroma grown across the Eastern Himalayan region that includes Sikkim, the Darjeeling Hills in West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh. The crop is believed to have first been cultivated by the indigenous Lepcha tribe who used to collect the large cardamom pods from the forests primarily for medicinal purposes and as an aromatic edible wild fruit. This was later passed on to the neighbouring communities of Bhutias and Nepalis of Sikkim and then to Darjeeling, Bhutan and Nepal.
Now, however those large cardamom forests have given way to the domestic cultivation of the crop in the sub-Himalayan region that has gentle to moderate slopes and altitude ranging from 1000 to 2200 m above mean sea level with evenly distributed annual rainfall. Large cardamom is a shade loving plant generally grown in loamy soils that are slightly acidic, having good drainage and rich in organic matter adopting the agroforestry system that renders sustainable production in the region.
Trees like the Himalayan alder, Pipli, Panisaj, Malito, Asare, Argeli, Bilaune and Kharane to name a few are the preferred shade trees used in the cultivation of large cardamom. In addition to providing shade, these trees are used for fuelwood, fodder and timber. Planting of large cardamom happens between May to July as growers prefer to take advantage of the monsoon. Traditionally large cardamom is cured in kilns called bhatti where the pods are dried by direct heating.
Large cardamom is an important perennial cash crop in Sikkim and Sikkim is considered to be the largest producer of large cardamom in India and contributes a lion share to both the Indian and world markets. Large cardamom of Sikkim commonly known as ‘Queen of Spices’ was awarded the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2014-15 for its heady aroma, distinguished flavour and superior quality of produce attributed to the agro-climatic conditions and organic farming techniques of mulching, decentralized irrigation methods, no application of chemicals or fertilizers, use of organic matter, indigenous pest control and disease management measures and following the traditional practice of burning the stubble.
Large cardamom is used for various food preparations as a flavouring agent, in confectioneries, to make perfumes and medicinal preparations for sore throat, lung congestion, digestive disorders and pulmonary tuberculosis in Unani and Ayurveda.
Ramsey, Golsey, Varlanegy and Sawney are some of the varieties of large cardamom found in the region. A variety of large cardamom called Seremna grown in West Sikkim has recently been in the news for garnering a premium price for its big size pods. Local farmers say that Seremna’s life-cycle is shorter than other varieties and thrives on crop rotation. Farmers are now growing this variety for four years after which they uproot the entire plantation and grow corn with paddy for a couple of years before returning to Seremna cultivation. This ensures optimum soil health, fertility and higher production with lesser number of saplings.
Sikkim has become a leading example of the values of traditional organic farming practice and large cardamom has immense export potential that can be explored further. As the cultivation of large cardamom contributes significantly to the economy by providing employment and substantial income to the growers and helpers, it raises questions of what value-added products can be produced from this cash crop.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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