Hathei chilli or umoruk as it is called in the local dialect is considered to be God’s gift and the pride of Ukhrul for the people of Sirarakhong. This special chilli along with the seven other organically grown varieties of chilli in Manipur have been cultivated for generations. Hathei chilli thrives only in the Mahadev hills surrounding the remote Tangkhul Naga inhabited Sirarakhong village in Ukhrul district. Sirarakhong is famous for its organically grown brinjal, cotton and an endangered rice variety called changlei-thi in Tangkhul dialect.
Locals say that an elderly person of the village found this variety of chilli growing in the wild while hunting and brought it to his home without realizing that it was a chilli plant. The plant blossomed after awhile and the villagers tasted the vibrant hued chilli and found it to be bitter and extremely hot. As bitter is called ‘Ha’ in Tangkul dialect, the chilli came to be known as Hathei.
This indigenous chilli variety is cultivated under the jhum system on the slopes. Large sections of land are cleared by burning and organic waste, dried leaves etc. are then spread on this land on raised beds. Seeds are sown after the land is burnt as it reduces weed growth and increases the potash content in the soil. The well-drained loamy soil found on the slopes is excellent for growing chilli. Seeds from the previous crop are used for sowing in the months of March – April on nursery beds which are then transplanted in the jhum field after they germinate. Transplantation is done in the rainy season (May – June).
As this area receives good rainfall spread over six to eight months, farmers can cultivate chilli without irrigation because of the high moisture content in the soil. Harvesting starts from July onwards and the harvested chilli is either sun-dried or dried over a local furnace to give the desired colour. The chilli is either green or red in colour.
The dried chilli is ground into powder using mortar and pestle. Dry chilli, fresh chilli, chilli pickles and powdered chilli is sold in Ukhrul market or during the annual festival or in the market at Dimapur, Nagaland.
The cultivation of this Sirarakhong chilli is the main source of income for the two hundred-odd families who reside in this village. They even have a song to celebrate this God’s gift describing it as a ‘red cover’ over the hills. Each family produces about 100 – 300 kg of chilli every six months and earns at least Rs 10 lakhs a year by selling chilli alone.
Hathei is said to be one of the best varieties of chilli in the world and its distinctive colour, taste, size and shape is typical of the variety grown in Sirarakhong village. Hathei is said to be useful in treating cancer and other diseases. It is rich in Calcium, Vitamin C and packed with antioxidants. It is also deemed far more useful and tastier than the Kashmiri chilli. This chilli is extensively used in the preparation of meaty dishes as its taste and aroma lends the tender meat a rich and flavoursome quality. It is used as an ingredient in curry powder and seasonings. Dry Hathei chilli fetches about Rs 60 a kg and fresh about Rs 500 a kg.
This organically grown chilli has tremendous export potential and can be used in multiple industries. Hathei chilli received the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2021.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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