It’s close to 11 a.m., and a hum of conversation ebbs and flows as people check out the tables laden with turmeric bulbs and fingers at the market hall in Nasiyanur.
Now in its 65th year, the association of 357 turmeric traders and warehouse operators, called ‘Erode Manjal Vanigarkal Matrum Kidangu Urimaiyalarkal Sangam’, is among the busiest in the country. Its market is open through the year, stocked with manjal or turmeric from Tamil Nadu and neighbouring States.
The vast complex is 9 km from Erode, the city that’s famously called manjal maanagaram or turmeric capital.
The daily auction of turmeric at a market hall in Nasiyanur, Erode district. Photo: M. Periasamy
Today’s session is well attended — nearly 452 stands are up in the covered market hall, and customers slowly read the yellow cards that carry the details of the farms. The typical nutty fragrance of turmeric permeates the air, as potential buyers break the roots to test for colour and freshness. Nearly everyone I meet has fingertips tinged yellow.
And triumphantly, the office window displays the Geographical Indication (GI) tag that Erode turmeric won early this month. “The GI tag is a stamp of approval for our turmeric, and a potential means for farmers and traders to add value to the local variety,” says M. Sathyamurthy, the association secretary. “It gives us an exclusive identity in a crowded market, and also stops people from passing off inferior strains as Erode manjal,” he says.
High in curcumin
According to the documents that were first submitted in 2011, the GI tag may be applied to any turmeric that’s grown in the entire Erode district, as well as to the crop grown in Annur and Thondamuthur taluks of Coimbatore district and Kangeyam taluk of Tirupur district.
A farmer in the middle of a rich turmeric crop at a farm in Erode. Photo: M. Govarthan
India is the world’s largest producer of turmeric (Curcuma longa), a perennial herbaceous plant of the ginger family. The plant’s underground stems or rhizomes have been used as spice, dye, medicine and religious maker since antiquity. Tamil Nadu is the third largest grower of turmeric in the country (behind Telangana and Maharashtra), with 132.4 tonnes produced in 2015-16.
The spice’s colour comes mainly from curcumin, a bright yellow phenolic compound that has been in the news for its ostensible potential to fight cancer. As a result, the demand for turmeric with high curcumin content has risen, with pharmaceutical companies willing to pay up to ₹20,000 per quintal for such varieties (up from ₹7,000 earlier), says Sathyamurthy.
India grows nearly 50 types of turmeric, so what makes Erode’s variety so unique? “Our manjal is smaller and more slender,” says Sathyamurthy. Plus, it has a high curcumin content of around 3.9%. The loamy red and black soil of the area is believed to be the reason behind the distinctive brilliant yellow colour, as well as its characteristic sweet taste and aroma, making it the preferred choice of commercial curry powder manufacturers in India and abroad.
Once harvested, the turmeric fingers are separated from the rhizome and boiled for 15-20 minutes either in water or in specialised steamers until they get the right texture. The boiling influences the colour and aroma of the final product. The fingers are then dried in the sun for at least a fortnight before being polished mechanically to remove impurities and then brought to the market. Farmers say the Erode turmeric is pest resistant for up to 100 days after boiling.
At a processing yard nearby, I find four women using metal sifters to clean sacks of turmeric fingers in time for a spice powder order. They pick out pebbles and grit, then sort the fingers according to size. These will be sent to mills for powdering.
The daily auction. Photo: M. Periasamy
When I visit, the harvest season is almost over. The market is flooded with turmeric from Dharmapuri district, a variety known for its high curcumin. But the farmers look disappointed because their stocks don’t fetch a good price.
Turmeric is a labour and water intensive crop, so farmers grow it along with onions, tapioca and coconut or sugarcane. “A farmer needs to earn at least ₹9,000-10,000 per quintal to make ends meet,” says V.K. Rajamanickam, a trader and former association secretary. “But prices fell to ₹3,000-6,000 this year because stocks were damaged by pests.”
The low prices won’t deter the farmers. Agriculturist S. Thangaraj has set aside three of his 12 acres to turmeric, and he says the spice will always be popular in Erode despite the crop seeing hard times in recent years. And despite the threat of pests, farmers like Thangaraj swear by the native Erode plant. It lasts for at least five years, whereas hybrids die in three years, he says. “As with everything, the original is always superior to the duplicate.”