Nei Kumbalam also known as Winter Melon / White Melon in other parts of the world is the smaller purely indigenous variety of the Ash gourd.
Each gourd of this variety weighs only around 500gms to 1 kg, and is generally a handy ovoid (egg-like in form). It is also called as Petha in Hindi, Budagumbala in Kannada, Poosini kai in Tamil, Ilavan/Kumbalanga in Malayalam and Boodida gummadi in Telugu.
While Nei Kumbalam have been traditionally employed by Ayurvedic healers to prepare medicine, as a vegetable, Nei Kumabalam is no different in texture or taste from the larger varieties of Ash gourd we see in markets today.
When tender, the fruit of this trailing creeper is covered with downy hairs which fall off when matured. The skin thickens with maturity and is covered with a white powdery ash like coating that turns a bit sticky when it comes in contact with water. The flesh inside is cool, white, bland, mildly crunchy, super juicy & succulent (96% water content!)
Though composed primarily of water, it contains a variety of beneficial vitamins & minerals, including vitamin C and B-complex vitamins such as niacin, thiamine and riboflavin. Ash gourd is also a valuable source of minerals like iron, potassium, zinc, calcium & magnesium and also provides a good amount of protein, carbohydrates besides dietary fiber.
Ash gourds are nerve tonics, super coolants for the brain, anti-depressant in nature and calm the nerve system. While Ash gourds are known as an anti-diarrheal agent they also help relieve constipation and other heat related complaints in the body like boils & piles (hemorrhoids). Besides they also protect the kidneys and help inhibit supply of blood to cancerous tumors.
The indigenous variety of Nei Kumbalam is often hung in front of a new house or at construction sites to ward off the ‘evil eye’ because of its immense positive energy. However Naturopaths & other healers who swear by the Ash gourd’s high Pranic power and its hugely positive impact on the nervous system recommend eating it sliced raw or drinking its juice on an empty stomach to imbibe its positive energy rather than just letting it just hang outside a building!
Nei Kumbalam (Epiphanies/Memories/Reveries)
I move in from the bright sunlight of the harvest and move into a barn for some rest.
In the soft darkness, as the eyes adjust from the dazzling sunshine outside, I am a little boy once more in one of the old graceful homesteads of our village that thrived on agriculture…
Craning up my neck I can once again see the rounded contours of gourds & melons gradually emerge into focus like strange planets, suspended as they are with coir ropes from wooden rafters under the cool eaves of the sloping tiled roof-a traditional practice prior to the advent of refrigeration that ensured safe storage for even up to three years without spoilage.
But this holds true only for organically grown indigenous varieties. Such astounding shelf life is unthinkable with today’s gourds that squish into a mess in no time because they have been grown with chemical inputs.
The sun is hot on the nape of my neck as I return to the fields. The sun has a sound akin to a low frequency buzz. You can hear it only when all else is silent.
An ancient faraway memory awakens - “Kuushmaandam… Kuushmaandam… Kuushmaandam …”
This time it is an aural one.
I can suddenly hear the rapt utterance repeated over and over in my grandmother’s hushed bedtime story voice as she narrates the tale of an unlettered low caste novice who approaches a famous Brahmin (Nampoothiri) Visha vaidyan (an Ayurvedic toxicology expert) for knowledge with hopeful persistence despite being ignored completely.
Daily this impoverished simpleton would appear at the Nampoothiri’s door with some vegetable or the other in his hands as his humble dakshina or offering asking the same question. One day as he patiently waits with a ripe Kuushmaandam / Nei Kumbalam in his hands as offering, the annoyed Nampoothiri finally turns to him and exclaims disparagingly –
“Viddhi Kooshmaandam! (You foolish Ash gourd!).
The poor novice is delighted and accepts the word Kuushmaandam as a Gurumantra conferred upon a fool (Viddhi) like him by his wise & beloved master.
With one pointed attention & reverence the syllables of the word Kuushmaandam open the doors of intuitive knowledge in him. Within a very short period the Fool (Viddhi) rises to such eminence that the Nampoothiri’s clientele dwindles. Curious to meet the new adept, the Nampoothiri decides to pay him a visit. Recognizing his ‘master’, forgetting all else, the goodhearted simpleton joyfully falls at his feet in gratitude greatly humbling the once arrogant Namboothiri who now blesses his best ‘disciple’ with all his heart…
What is this story really about? Where does the Kuushmaandam / Nei kumbalam figure?
As I straighten up to relieve my aching back, another bit of information floats in forming a thesis in my mind.
… There is this belief that the first ash gourd harvested from one’s garden should necessarily be given away to a Brahmin.
Fine. Now let’s link it with the next bit of information.
In some ancient time it seems the shuudraa or servant class, were not allowed to consume Nei kumabalam by the brahmanical class, ostensibly because with the vegetable has such capacity to confer intellectual brilliance upon the eater that it would upset the power status quo!
Next question: who is a Brahmin?
My hands slow down and with the intensity of unfolding thought, I sink down into a squat on the loamy soil bed full of bedraggled creepers. The answer comes in the form of a clear epiphany, as if spoken by an invisible presence - "Castes are not determined by birth but by latent tendencies, tastes, proclivities. A Brahmin is actually anyone at all irrespective of caste, creed, gender who has the potential, capability and most importantly, the thirst to pursue/attain to knowledge, the pinnacle of which is Brahma Jnaana or Direct Experience/Knowledge of God."
In which case aren’t there more shades than meets the eye in the first story?
What if the Nampoothiri was not telling off the low born simpleton but actually guiding him as to what to aspire for in code form with the imagery of the pranic power packed Kuushmaandam(nei-kumbalam) shaped as it is(at its best) like a cosmic egg?
“Sir!” My team calls out to me bit anxiously, “Are you alright? “
I hastily wave back with a thumbs up sign and rise vigorously to my feet. As I do my eyes alight on an especially ripe perfectly ovoid god-like Nei kumbalam . Gently, reverently I bend and cup it in my palms. At the slightest tug it disengages from its stalk without effort. On the spur of the moment I take a length of the stalk too.
Loading done, I take my leave.
The Nei Kumbalam sits in its serene silence beside me on the front seat as I drive back
It is already well into the night when I park my car.
I enter the door way holding out a few Nei Kumbalams as a placatory gift for my wife who is quite fond of them. We were supposed to have gone visiting her cousin.
A long creeper also trails from one of the gourds.
“Hullo!” My beloved remarks quite drily,” I see you have grown quite a tail. Is that what you took you so long to come?”
I counter the barbed remark brightly while thrusting the lot onto the shelf - “Listen! did you know the Nei kumbalam creeper is so strong that interwoven with Kovor-naar, the same vine used by Nilgiri honey hunter tribe to hang on the cliffs for honey extraction, it was once used to tether Elephants?!”
My wife gave the creeper tail a withering glance as she swiftly skinned and sliced one of the ash gourds with great precision directly into a stone pot of water boiling with turmeric on the stove - “I am sure it is equally good to tether disappearing husbands with no sense of time, with or without the Kovor naar”.
I duck and flee as I often do till my loved one’s (justifiably) acerbic moods pass.
I tear a length from old worn cotton dhoti, carefully pleat and knot it like a little cradle that I then hang securely from a hook on my study ceiling. Then with infinite care I lovingly place my favorite Nei kumabalam, mother stalk coiled around it inside its soft folds like an infant - An improvised urri of my own making. Urri is a traditional suspended storage facility from days of yore woven out of coconut palm fronds or coir ropes.
I check if I can see it from my bed at night before going inside to bathe.
At the table awaiting me as I return are bran-rich kanji, roasted papad, some stock Lumiere condiments, Nei kumbalam prepared with sour buttermilk & freshly ground green chilly- coconut paste, the tangy gravy seasoned with mustard, cumin, fenugreek, red chilly and curry leaves spluttered in hot coconut oil.
I realize how ravenous I am only when the first delicious morsel enters my mouth…
The clock ticks.
“The name Kuushmanda is a combination of three words”, an erudite friend had explained over phone after dinner – “Ku, Uushma & Anda. Here 'Ku' means little or small, 'Uushma' means warmth or Energy and 'Anda' is Egg. It basically means the One who created this universe as a 'little cosmic egg'…”
I throw a glance into the study from where I lie.
So I was not wrong.
God as gourd sleeps in the improvised cloth urri suspended from a hook in the ceiling.
In the dark, all external sounds gradually fall away. The regular rhythm of my heartbeat slowly rises to awareness... the sensation of breath rising & falling through my body like the tides ...
…Once again I am standing on the breathing loam of the vegetable patch with the last Nei Kumbalam. I vividly feel the sensation in my fingers as the ripe one comes effortlessly off the vine with the mildest tug.
“…uurvarukam iva bandhanaath/Mrutyormuksheeyama amrutaat…” The last two lines of the Maha Mrutyunjaya mantra… In these lines the effortlessness with which the ripe Nei Kumabalam is freed of its binding stalk is the imagery employed to explicate the ease with which the Soul exits the Body in the event of Perfect Death that the remembrance of Siva is said to confer.
My eyes well up silently as the lids gratefully come together.