Editor’s Note: This is the first post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
As orally narrated in the early days, a long time ago there was an orphaned boy named Kuroh whose mother was swept away by the river and whose father was killed in a war. Kuroh was handsome, resourceful, and a prodigy. The mothers of the village were jealous that an orphaned boy was better than their sons; the fathers were jealous that the orphaned boy would one day become the village leader; the girls were jealous of each other in their pursuit to win the heart of Kuroh and play with him; the boys were jealous because Kuroh received all of the attention. One fine day, the village took Kuroh for a hunting trip, and as planned, he was killed, and his body was left in a meadow of mandzii grasses (Imperata cylindrica). When the rain came, a plant emerged from the decomposed body of Kuroh, producing a beautiful white flower, and thus, Kuroh made the mandzii grasses his home. Once a famine hit, the village and its people were dying of hunger. The village ithiim (shaman) suggested that the famine was a curse from Kuroh, so they should seek forgiveness from him. But Kuroh had become a plant and refused to return to the human world; he advised the villagers to plant the lily at their home as atonement. The villagers foraged for the plant’s bulb. But hunger overtook them and instead of planting the bulb at home, they ate it and thus discovered a secret delicacy.
When the rain came, a plant emerged from the decomposed body of Kuroh, producing a beautiful white flower, and thus, Kuroh made the mandzii grasses his home.
The Kuroh lily (Lilium longigulium) is endemic to the hills of Chandel and Tengnoupal in the Manipur State of India. The plant blooms in mid-rainy season (July-August) with a single white (or white with a yellow hue) trumpet-like flower dancing in the pleasant, rain-kissed misty hill slopes. Some plants have two or three flowers, but they are rare. Underneath the soil is the lily’s bulb, a rather starchy bulb, from which the plant grows and is also a hunted local delicacy.
The bulb of the Kuroh lily has been harvested at first sight ever since the locals could remember, resulting in a decrease in the plant population in all of its habitats. There are various preparation methods used to consume the bulb. The locally popular and standard method is to roast it on hot charcoal. The roasted bulb is then cleaned and eaten whole or mixed with chili paste to make Kuroh Thingsuw.
Left: Kuroh lily bulb. Right: A collection of the wild herbs shamshaang, manshang, naesuwmdeen, and aetaang. Photos by Elija Chara.
The meadows where the Kuroh lily makes its habitat are also home to various edible herbs like the musky flavored shamshaang (Laserpitium sp.), manshang (Viola sp.) with an earthy taste, and the smooth-flavored naesuwmdeen (Sonchus sp.), as well as Cucurma angustifolia or aetaang which produce pink-colored flowers in the spring. There are also other wild edible plants which the locals seasonally forage to supplement their diet or as a pastime. The lily’s habitat is also an excellent choice for slash and burn cultivation; many areas have been repeatedly cultivated so that they no longer resemble the healthy mandzii meadows needed for the lily to thrive naturally. In fact, the lily plants growing among shorter grasses tend to snap easily in the wind or even just by the weight of their own enormous flowers.
It is quite ironic that most people remember the now-scarce Kuroh lily not for its beauty, but for its taste, as many people, when asked if they knew about the flower, said “Oh Kuroh, the one with the edible bulb? We used to forage a lot of it!”
The Kuroh lily shares a sorrowful relationship with humans in the duality of the natural environment and its local myth. In the natural environment, the lily struggles to survive and thrive in its fragmented and destroyed natural habitat, and thus it is in the dilemma of whether to be gorgeous to attract the eyes of the beholder and ultimately get its bulb harvested, or instead to remain unseen. In the local Bujuur myth, Kuroh, from whom the plant was believed to emerge and was named after, was an unfortunate figure tormented by his charisma, and as a result, he was uncared for by the society. Perhaps, the myth of Kuroh was woven by the Bujuur ancestors to mourn the unfortunate fate of such a beautiful flower that was hunted indiscriminately for its edible bulb and as a means to remind the younger generations about sustainable coexistence with nature; because whenever one encounters the lily, one is caught between two conflicting emotions – beholding the flower’s beauty in the wilderness or nostalgia of the bulb’s taste. It is quite ironic that most people remember the now-scarce Kuroh lily not for its beauty, but for its taste, as many people, when asked if they knew about the flower, said “Kuroh chu, arujung ishah arukha? Ajae dam kenjong chak ve! [Oh Kuroh, the one with the edible bulb? We used to forage a lot of it!].
I heard of the Kuroh lily for the first time in 2017 and was immediately enamored by the tales of it. I enquired from many about the plant, but none gave the information I wanted, except about their experiences of tasting the plant’s bulb and how they longed to taste it again. Using my basic knowledge of local ecology and geography, I was on a hunt to find the lily. The first plant I saw was in August 2021- four years after I began searching for it. It was an uprooted plant discarded on a hill trail and reported to be the only plant that grew in that area; it was disappointing. I waited another year and in August 2022, I went to that hill again to finally find, see, and touch six Kuroh plants with flowers. I was thrilled to finally see the lily, but sad at the same time that the hill which was once dotted with hundreds of Kuroh lilies was left with only six plants surviving. The following week, I explored another hill range to be beholden with patchy mandzii meadows and fields dotted with dozens of Kuroh lilies; many had been trampled over. I thought to myself, “Please, let no one, especially local tourists, see these flowers or they will be history”.
Many hill trekkers took orchids that were once dotting the mountainside.
If they were reminded that they were doing harm to the orchids because they would not grow outside of their natural habitat, the replies were the same –
“If we do not take it, others will take it”.
Our ancestors left us the philosophy of sustainability with the proverb “Kaven bavasha, kuru ven bavasha [My stomach is filled, my best friend’s stomach is filled]” reminding the people to think about others’ welfare. Thus, traditionally, the Bujuur foraging culture is said to be selective: they harvested only the optimal plants and left the young or inedible portions. But over time and with a population explosion, there is resource pressure and competition so that most foragers now pick every single edible plant in sight, even cutting entire trees or vines. Now, edible plants that were abundant a few decades back are difficult to find today. Many hill trekkers took orchids that were once dotting the mountainside. If they were reminded that they were doing harm to the orchids because they would not grow outside of their natural habitat, the replies were the same – “If we do not take it, others will take it”. Perhaps resource scarcity induces resource suspicion and competition wherein one wants to take hold of that rare resource before others notice it. The Kuroh lily is a testament to competition for resources in less developed areas, where people foraged whatever they could find to survive, disregarding considerations for rare species with cultural connections. This culture of foraging is following an unsustainable path, and with this attitude of harvesting everything, the future could be devoid of rich ethno-botanical knowledge and lore: for example, hardly anyone is aware of the Kuroh lily myth.
Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.
Latest posts by Elija Chara (see all)
- Reflections On the Kuroh Lily: A Dilemma of Beauty and Taste - August 10, 2023