The other name for the northern state of Uttarakhand — home to some of the highest mountain peaks in the world — is ‘Devbhoomi’, meaning “land of Gods”. Within its mountains are nestled hundreds of ancient temples, each with its own place in the stories that comprise Hindu mythology.

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Saints and sages of yore would come here to perform tapasya in the wilderness. They relied on edible flowers, fruits, roots and wild vegetables, during this solitary quest for enlightenment. Later, even though many common folk too made the mountains their homes, the villages remained sparsely populated, retaining all the charm of the past.

Present-day Uttarakhand draws nature lovers and adventure junkies… thousands of tourists annually, seeking solitude, spirituality or an adrenaline rush.

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However, tourism isn’t enough to save the villages of Uttarakhand, many of which have been affected by the continued large-scale migration to cities. This exodus — propelled by agricultural setbacks, a depleting water table, and all-around lack of employment opportunities or essential infrastructure (such as healthcare services) — has created hundreds of “ghost villages” all over the state. Everywhere there are signs of abandonment; beautiful wooden houses — long bereft of residents — are being reclaimed by nature.

In this grim scenario, finding alternative sources of income and making optimal and responsible use of natural resources is vital. And one such resource, which occurs abundantly in Uttarakhand, is the Buransh or Rhododendron. The buransh flowers not only have socio-cultural value but are also a lifeline for the women who collect and make juice from them, which they sell locally.

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It was while exploring the tiny villages of the Garhwal region that the red, bell-shaped flower caught my attention. Shanta, a local from Uttrakashi district’s Raithal village, was aiding me in my quest to find the flowers. A steep road led us to Dayaara Bugyal, a large meadow on top of a hill.

Red petals were strewn all along our path, but of the flowers themselves, on the trees, there was no sign. After a treacherous hour-long hike, we were at an elevation of 3,000 metres. It was then that the trees laden with rhododendron flowers started to appear. We sat beneath one of the trees to catch our breath; Shanta rued that there were fewer buransh flowers in her village this year. As she climbed high up a tree to pluck a couple of flowers for the upcoming festival, she told me: “We don’t get enough to offer to God, leave alone for own consumption”.

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Later that evening, the same flowers were used to decorate the temple for the festival of ‘Phooldeyi’; I observed the festivities from The Goat Village, Dayara Bugyal. Phooldeyi means ‘the festival of flowers’; it indicates the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Drums beaten in the temple announced the start of the celebrations. The men and women formed two separate rows behind each other and moved in the slow, rhythmic movements of the ‘raas’, a dance performed to please the local deity. Children threw fistfuls of flowers into the air.

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Found in Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Almora, Pittogarh and further up in Auli, several high-altitude treks provide a chance to view these beautiful flowers. In peak season, the blooms cover the mountains in a fiery red hue. The higher you go, the lighter the blossoms become: their colours fading from red to pink, then white. The blooming of rhododendrons heralds the onset of spring in the Himalayas, but due to climate change they have been flowering much earlier, in winter itself.

I encountered the flowers of the buransh in a different form on another occasion. I was on my way to Tunganath, in Rudrapragya district, and stopped to have a cup of tea. Instead, I was offered a sweet juice. I had neither seen nor tasted it before, this refreshing, red concoction now served to me in a plastic tumbler. The elderly shop-keeper told me the juice was from his last bottle; his stock had nearly run out. This year, the supply — which came in from small-scale local manufacturers — hadn’t been near enough.

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Later, I met the founder of the Himalaya Gramin Vikas Sanstha, Kailash Pushpawan, who took me to his manufacturing plant in Okhimath. He brought a big can of buransh juice, telling me about its health benefits (which apparently include many positive effects those with heart ailments).

The recipe for the juice is easy enough to be made at home; Pushpawan’s plant provides employment to nearly 200 local women. About 20 other units similarly engage 10,000 families. However, without support from government bodies, the transportation cost for the raw materials is often higher than the profit margins, for such micro manufacturing units. And the changing weather pattern is impacting the livelihoods of the villagers, just when they need this income the most to be able to stay on in their remote villages.

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In rural areas, the effects of climate changes are swiftly apparent. The buransh’s early flowering in recent years has experts worried, many of whom advocate conducting a thorough scientific study to ascertain the factors influencing the phenomenon.

“It is a matter of great concern that spring season flowers are blooming one month early. The peak flowering season for buransh is March, but this year too it has bloomed early. Low or late rainfall, low snowfall, drying of water sources at high altitudes etc contribute to such phenomena. It is the impact of climate change,” says scientist Vijay Bhatt of the state government-owned Herbal Research Centre.

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The change in the rhododendron’s flowering pattern, over the past decade, has had a domino effect. Usually, the flowers bloom and are ready to harvest by mid-March. With the flowers now blooming in January, it leads to problems in storing the juice at a particular temperature through the year. The flower once contributed significantly to the economy, but local salesmen now avoid buying it in bulk due to lack of adequate storage facilities.

Ranjeet Singh Rawat, 58, is among the few people who know and understand the value of the buransh flower. He established a small enterprise in 1985, and in the early days, could produce 4-5 quintal of juice out of flowers collected from the neighboring areas alone. In 2018, he could only produce 250 litres.

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Little known outside the hills, a few initiatives have attempted to popularise rhododendron flower juice in other areas. ‘Himlaya2home’ is among the rare organisations to offer online sales of the product. Another local brand – ‘Bakri Chhap’ – created an innovative campaign around the drink, labelling it ‘Hearty Sip’, highlighting its medicinal properties, and packaging it in recycled Bacardi Breezer bottles. Sold in one of Delhi’s upscale hotels, the dream is to have a product created by marginalised farmers replace the MNC-made colas out there. Stoked by their success in the capital, the team is now planning to launch the next phase of their campaign in Dehradun.

But government and other organisational support still remain lacking.

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The industry around the juice of the rhododendron, the money and opportunities thus created, could offer a reason to those who might otherwise move away, to stay back in Uttarakhand.  Kailash Pushpawan believes young leaders, who will raise awareness about local produce and organic farming, are the need of the hour.

Pushpawan himself has recently started to train some of the farmers in organic farming methods; saplings have been sown in previously barren fields, those who were solely dependent on wheat and maize crops are now experimenting with organic potatoes and vegetables. The buransh, he says, is among the most valuable resources of the Himalayas, and in it, given governmental support, a solution may yet be found for the state.

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Empowering women

Lastly, while many women are already involved in the process of collecting the flowers and producing the juice in a very homely setup, establishing all-women enterprises would be a positive step in a region where gender discrimination is a reality.

Women-centric organisations would not only help these women earn their living, but also provide them much-needed respect as entrepreneurs and self-sufficient individuals.

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— All photographs courtesy Deepti Asthana

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