Photography - ISSUE #9
While trekking in the rugged mountains of Uttarakhand, northern India, a red bell-shaped flower called buransh (rhododendron) caught my attention. I found them almost everywhere, hanging above my head and also lying beneath my feet. Only found in high altitude above 1,200 metres, buransh is the state tree of Uttarakhand. The flowers varies in colour depending on the altitude - ranging from red to pink to white.
The flower has social and religious relevance as it is an important part of Phool Deyi, the festival of flowers, that indicates the end of winter and the onset of spring. During the festival, the temple is decorated with the flowers; men and women line up to dance to please the local deity and the children throw fistfuls of flowers into the air.
The next few days spent in the tiny villages of this hilly state made me realise that this revered rhododendron not only has socio-cultural value but is also a lifeline for the local women who trek deep into the jungle to collect its flowers, from which they make and sell juice, chutney and sauce. The flower has proved to be good for heart disease, blood pressure and also has anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it useful for medicinal purposes in addition to its everyday consumption.
To my surprise, my guide, Shanta, told me that the production of the flower was significantly less this year, as the mountain usually turns red in the flowering season. She also mentioned how the changing weather patterns and lesser snowfall in the region have led to the early blooming of flowers by at least two months, and this change in the flowering season has affected the storage, flower quality and durability of the juice. While the flowering usually heralds the onset of spring, the rhododendrons have been flowering in the winter months.
Despite being a famous destination for adventure seekers and local pilgrims, the villages of Uttarakhand are rapidly being abandoned by locals due to flash floods, unemployment and agriculture loss, leading to numerous “ghost villages”. It is important for people to find alternative sources of income and use natural resources responsibly to produce value for all. The rhododendron juice could be one of those ways. These fiery-red flowers play an important role in the community.