A food festival and an upcoming eco journal celebrate stories of the Western Ghats

Sky Islands, an ambitious initiative of local eco-journalism from the Western Ghats launches over food inspired by produce from the region

What does a deconstruction of the Palani temple prasadam as an ice cream have to do with learning about the fragile but rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats? Kurinji, a food festival on through 19 April at The Amethyst in Chennai, has the answers.

Developed and anchored by food historian Rakesh Raghunathan, the festival is a sister-initiative that follows and complements the announcement of Sky Islands, an upcoming online eco-journal focused on the issues of food, community, culture, and environment of the Western Ghats.

“Having grown up in the hills, showcasing the produce and history of the region has always been of interest to me,” says Raghunathan. Through the Palani prasadam – essentially a panchamritham made with dates, milk, bananas, honey and ghee – Raghunathan wants to not only showcase the natural produce that was grown, foraged, and produced by the earliest settlers of Palani, he also wants to make a point about the uncomplicated but sincere nature of faith, and the ideas of sanctity and devotion behind offerings made at and received from temples.

Also Read: A community-run newspaper that celebrates the diversity of the mountains

Through a spoonful of a panchamritham reimagined as an ice-cream, audiences could very well be introduced to the story of the indigenous communities and their contribution to the culinary landscape of the region, he says. Similarly, a take on the concept of the Buddha bowl will showcase produce from the regions of Kodaikanal and Ooty in one bowl – from millets to tree tomatoes and forest mushrooms with a vinaigrette made of plum – all brought in, in collaboration with foraging members of the Adivasi communities there.

Such an intersectional approach will also inform the stories in Sky Islands, to be published by editor and writer Rajni George from early 2025. George has already done a version of this earlier with The Kodai Chronicle(TKC), an initiative that was born during the pandemic. Through storytelling, the initiative showcased the biodiversity of and challenges in sustainably developing the Kodai region’s ecosystems. This will now give way to Sky Islands. With this, George and a team that she’s still putting together, will expand coverage from just the Kodai region to the entire 1,600 kilometre stretch of the Western Ghats.

Jacob Cherian, an advisor to TKC, says that when he worked on commissioning a series of stories for TKC about waste management in Kodaikanal, he realised that in Conoor, Ooty, Panchgani, Mussorie, and Gangtok too faced similar issues. “We then realised we had to carve out a niche,” Cherian, also the director of TerreGeneration, a collective of social-impact storytellers, says. “It became quite evident that we needed a publication that could span these mountains–well in the long term it would be all mountains, but for now it’s the Western Ghats,” he adds.

Editor and writer Rajni George with Rakesh Raghunathan. (Courtesy @therakeshraghunathan on Instagram)

With Sky Islands, George hopes to continue with the model of hyperlocal, community-driven journalism that TKC has championed. This will ensure that they avoid instances of parachute journalism – where a writer with no adequate context or knowledge of the region, reports on issues specific to a place. “This is very, very difficult even for the best reporter,” says George, who has experienced the pitfalls of such an assignment – as a reporter, editor, as well as a reader.

“Also, as insiders, we are mindful also of our roles as stewards for the environment when we are writing stories,” George says of being journalists with lived experience and responsibility towards a place.

Expanding the geography of their coverage means getting different kinds of readers, too. This will further translate to more funding avenues, one of the biggest hurdles when trying to sustain the running of The Kodai Chronicle. George roughly identifies advertorial opportunities when including regions like the Nilgiris, or the Goan Western Ghats. Additionally, The Kodai Chronicle Trust will turn three in June, which, George says, will finally make them eligible for CSR funds.

Also Read: Coexisting with the gentle giants of Kodaikanal

Their effort towards Sky Islands are “much more ambitious”, she notes. In addition to reported stories, they will also have audio and video content to get an extra edge in reaching as many people as possible. “There are people who were just not into the reading habit,” notes George, and issues of the mountains are too crucial to go unnoticed by them. “We really feel a sense of urgency with these stories,” she adds.

Raghunathan concurs. “I have taken a lot of inspiration from these mountains in my work when creating menus or flavouring food…the forests of the Western Ghats are truly one of those biospheres that give without any expectation…and we, as humans just take endlessly,” he says. “Creating awareness at multiple levels, like with Kurinji and Sky Islands soon, is a way of starting to give back.”

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