Are bananas an essential item in South Indian pujas (prayers) and celebrations? Yes, people decorate temple entrances, weddings, and festivals with banana trees at the entrance, offer banana fruits to the deity, and during meals use banana leaves as plates (no spoons or small bowls for liquids).
It is an art to eat rasam saadam on a banana leaf. Although these days one can buy ‘modern’ banana plates in restaurants, where dry banana leaves are ‘stitched’ together for convenience.
A sacred fruit
J. Meenakshi, a science writer, writes in BBC that the banana tree is equated to Lord Brihaspati (Jupiter) for fertility and bounty. Thus, bananas are considered sacred.
Dr. K.T. Achaya, in his book, Indian Food: a Historical Companion (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994) mentions banana in Buddhist literature in around 400 BC. He mentions that bananas came to South India from New Guinea island through the sea route. Some have claimed that it was in New Guinea that bananas have been first domesticated.
Ms. Meenakshi found during her travel from Hyderabad to Nagercoil that there are some 12-15 varieties of bananas. These plants grow in regions that are warm and humid, abutting the Western Ghats.
Given this, where all in India is banana grown? Largely in the peninsular southern coastal region, namely in parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and Bengal, and in the Northeastern areas such as Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
However, the central and northern regions (Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab) also grow the plant but neither in such variety nor in numbers.
India produces about 29 million tonne of banana every year, and next is China with 11 million. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says that about 135 countries produce bananas, and banana plants like warm and wet conditions.
Of particular note are the Southeastern Asian countries, which have as many as 300 varieties of banana, many of which have visually beautiful plants.
The nutritive value
What is it in bananas that has made them tasty, holy, of medicinal value, and nutritional value? The book Nutritive value of Indian Foods from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) points out that bananas have 10-20 mg of calcium, 36 mg of sodium, 34 mg of magnesium and 30-50 mg of phosphorous per 100 g of edible material. All these make bananas highly nutritious.
Dr. K. Ashok Kumar and colleagues, in their 2018 paper in the Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry have updated the nutritional value of cultivars of banana with similar results. It is relevant to point out that of all the fruits in India, banana is the cheapest, available even in the rural areas in most parts of India all through the year, and more nutritious than many other fruits in the marke, such as mangoes and oranges, most of which are seasonal, expensive, and less nutritious than the lowly banana.
And, banana is not just a fruit that is tasty and good for health. Even its peel is of use as a ‘biochar,’ which is used both as a fertilizer and to generate electricity. Efforts are on to use it to drive electric automobiles.
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