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Visit to Kerala and Tamil Nadu 4—Turmeric and Sandalwood Areas

Visit to Kerala and Tamil Nadu -- November 1995

Part 4: Tumeric and Sandalwood Areas

Upon returning to the factory we made preparations to leave for Erode some 200 kilometers from here in the very heart of Tamil Nadu where we were going to photograph the turmeric fields for which that area is famous. At about 10:30 we were on our way and our route to us through a part of Coimbatore where the main flower market was located. Here I had a chance to go from stall to stall photographing the exquisite floral creations made for temple worship, weddings, special occasions, and self adornment. India's flower markets are remarkable places where small shop owners sit fashioning floral mandalas, garlands, and other special creations for the above mentioned purposes. It is, save for the big cities, a market which thrives on the sale of fresh flowers which must, for the most part be used that very day. These are centers of intense activity as the Indian people have a deep and innate love for flowers and they are seen as one of the most appropriate offerings in their religious practices. Women also love to adorn their hair with strings of jasmine flowers which over the course of the day releases their enchanting fragrance. A most natural way to enjoy their fragrance. Special guests are often honored by placing garlands about the neck.The shop owners were very excited to have me taking pictures of their small operations. Seldom do they see Westerners in their market and even less frequently to photograph their art and craft. In visiting such places I am time and again impressed with the industry and vitality of the Indian people. Certainly not much money is to be made in these small enterprises, yet their is on their faces a sense of self worth and respect that comes from engaging in the work at hand.

We reached Erode at 3:00 P.M. had lunch and rested until 4:00 when we were met by our guides for this section of the trip. One of the main turmeric merchants of Erode had sent his car and two employs to guide us to the areas where some of the finest turmeric fields could be photographed. Once again I had cause to marvel at my good fortune in being welcomed to India by Mr. Paul and the Jacob family. It would have not been possible to find these lovely places on my own and how the Indian people manage to make such precise arrangements is wonderful. Along the way we stopped at one shop where a spice merchant came out and hopped on his scooter to lead us on. In a village further down the road he picked another merchant from a rototiller firm and together they guided us to the region where I was shown fields of turmeric growing amidst coconut palm groves. Turmeric is a lush green broad leaved plant eventually reaching 5-6' in height just prior to harvest. It is grown for the rich golden roots which form vital ingredient in Indian cooking and also is used in cosmetics. One very interesting thing that is often done in connection with the cultivation of turmeric is the co-planting of fast growing tree saplings. These saplings provide places for the birds to perch that eat the insects that damage the crop. They also provide a light shade which is beneficial to the crop. When the crop is harvested, so are the saplings and these are used for fuel. It is a wonderful and ingenious way of intercropping.

Early the next morning we made another sojourn into the surrounding countryside to photograph another district where turmeric is grown in abundance and after completing this work we headed back to the factory near Coimbatore. At this point the main work for which I had come to Tamil Nadu was complete and arrangements were made for me to travel with the son of the founder of the company, Varghese Jacob, back to Cochin. So on Saturday morning we departed to begin another phase of the work. On the way back it was decided that I should spend Sunday visiting the Mannur district in the mountains of Kerala State where I could photograph sandalwood, cardamom and black pepper.

Early Sunday morning we began our trip into the high country and once again I was delighted with the lush and varied landscape that revealed itself to us as we made our ascent. Again we were to witness an area that was filled with innumerable cascading waterfalls, rivers, forests and wildflowers. Here in there we came across black pepper and cardamom plantations but I was even more eager to see the sandalwood gardens that grow in this region. Eventually we came to an area of vast tea plantations that literally covered thousands of acres. The tea plant a species of camellia thrives in these cooler mountain regions. After reaching the summit of the mountains we descended into a valley where we were able to locate the sandalwood gardens. The trees are nothing spectacular to look at but possess that incredibly rich woody fragrance that is loved the world over. It is a small to medium sized evergreen tree sometimes reaching up to 18 m. in height and 2-4 m. in girth. The bark of the tree is dark grey or nearly black, rough with deep vertical cracks in old trees.We were fortunate to meet with one of the employees of the forest service who explained to us how the regeneration of the tree was taking place. It seems that the most successful means of growing of new trees is achieved by carefully protecting areas around the roots of the trees from which new shoots are borne. These shoots grow much quicker than plants grown from seed. The trees growing in the government owned land were not cut and only when the tree naturally died or branches fell off where they harvested for their fragrant sandalwood. The fragrant principle of the plant is extracted from the heart wood and roots of the tree. This hearted begins forming rapidly when the plant reaches 20 years of age and it is desirable to harvest the tree only after it reaches 50 years or older. This is done on trees growing on private land. Such trees even though in the private sector are officially owned by the government and the owner receives a certain percentage of the profit when the wood is sold.

After we visited the sandalwood garden we were able to see one of the facilities where the wood was stored for twice yearly auctions. This was a large facility where every small piece of heart wood was carefully labeled and stored in an appropriate location. There was the area in which the wood coming in from regional locations was kept. Another area was designated for the careful removal of the soft outer wood from the heart wood. It was transferred to yet another area for more refined removal of the two layers of wood. Then there was the final storage area where the pure heart wood was carefully stacked for auction. The entire area was perfumed with the lovely rich fragrance of sandalwood. It was quite a rare and interesting sight to behold. There was literally several hundred thousand dollars worth of sandalwood in this one location. Here perfumers, incense makers, and wood carvers or their agents would come to bid on this precious material. The domestic consumption of sandalwood has become so great that now the government has placed a temporary ban on the sale of the oil on the international market. The true implications of this are yet to be felt but the value and use of sandalwood for the perfume industry is considerable and it will be a great loss if this material is no longer available.

Wednesday morning I took my departure from my hosts and traveled to Bombay on route to my return to the USA. I had made arrangements to meet with Mr. Ramakant Harlalka of Nishant Aromas to discuss the next phase of my work in India as he had graciously offered to help me. Upon coming out of the domestic airport he was there to greet me and we immediately launched into a discussion about future possibilities for this work. As our discussions evolved, it became apparent that I was in the company of someone who had extensive understanding of the state of the industry in India and its role in the international market. He took me to their city office where we egan to develop a firm plan for my visit in February and where I was able to feel the pulse of the dynamic business center that Bombay has become. While our discussions were going on Mr. Harlalka was busy answering phone calls from all over India about various aspects of the essential oil and fragrance business. He and his family are highly regarded for their comprehensive knowledge of the industry and along with running their own business in which their factory does fractional distillation of essential oils, they do sophisticated gas chromatography analysis of oils coming from all parts of the country. Both the traditional manufacturers and buyers of attars, India's traditional natural fragrances, and the manufacturers and buyers of essential oils distilled by modern equipment rely upon them to test these products for purity. There has been a real revolution in this industry as it is no longer controlled by traders who are interested only in profits but by people who possess the technical training for seeing that the needs of everyone from farmers to buyers are met.

As our discussions continued, Mr. Harlalka explained that now India has the technology to quickly and efficiently determine how and when essential crops should be harvested so that they meet the chemical profiles that each crop should possess to meet international standards. In many cases producers will send him a sample of oil from a crop about to be harvested by courier service and a gas chromatography test can be run in 2-4 hours that can give that person the exact information required as to whether they should wait for some more time or go ahead and harvest. It is a sophisticated science that requires a lot of co-ordinated effort on the parts of many people. Fax machines have also helped to keep both domestic and international companies informed of the day-to-day developments taking place in essential oil producing parts of the world. As this is an industry in which the vagaries of nature play a considerable role it is becomes very important that this information circulates freely between companies that trade on the international market. It was interesting to see how much benefit was being derived from this technology because Mr. Harlalka was very well-informed about the condition of the crops being grown not only in India but in other parts of the world and what their status was on that very day. This information, in turn, allows him to give good advice to people within India involved with essential oils. He mentioned that sometimes people have the idea to grow some crop that is being grown elsewhere in the world under much better conditions and at price with which India cannot compete so he is able to explain to them what would be in greater demand and fetch them a competitive price. Not only does he provide such technical information on the phone or by fax but he and a group of scientist and horticulturist regularly tour throughout India to meet with farmers and explain how they can improve their cultivation techniques so that they can up their production levels. Along with this they also help develop areas where small local stills can be set up that utilize modern technology but are affordable and environmentally friendly. Their is a concerted effort being made to see that this industry is beneficial to everyone and everything concerned.

Sitting and listening to him was a delight and pleasure. It had been my dream for many years to meet someone who would be willing to teach me about all aspects of the fragrance industry and I had made efforts to contact such people and to study the literature available but my endeavors had been piecemeal at best. Now I was sitting listening to one who had dedicated his life to this work, who was deeply involved with every aspect of India's fragrance industry, who was personally acquainted with the families and businesses concerned with this work, and who was willing to teach me about it and take me to all the places throughout the country where growing, harvesting and distillation/extraction both traditional and contemporary was going on so I could gain a first hand knowledge of the industry. Such opportunities come along very rarely and I felt immensely grateful that such a one had come my way. It seems that now it will be possible to produce a work that will do justice to the world of fragrance to which India has contributed generously throughout the centuries.    END


Part 1 -- Spice Oil Facility
Part 2 -- Floral Extraction Facility
Part 3 -- Jasmine and Tuberose Harvest
Part 4 -- Tumeric and Sandalwood Area