Harvesting Legacy: Seed preservation and storage among the Ao and Sümi Naga

Traditional knowledge of seed preservation helps Nagaland’s native communities ensure continued sustenance

By Rongsenzulu Jamir, Alino Sumi
Published: Sunday 12 November 2023
Households in Ao and Sümi Naga villages have granaries (called jen in Ao and aleh in Sümi language) to store seeds of Poaceae crops, particularly rice. Aeration tools made of bamboo are placed among the threshed rice in granaries, to ensure out-circulation of warm air that can impair the grains. Photo: Rongsenzulu Jamir & Alino Sumi__

In the early 1920s, a famine gripped Longkong village in eastern Nagaland. The farmers of this village, inhabited by the Ao Naga community, were unable to cultivate any crop one particular year, which pressed them to seek help from their neighbouring villages for  seeds. After a successful harvest, the farmers returned what they owed.

Such inter-village assistance, especially in times of crisis, is a traditional practice followed by both the Ao and Sümi Naga communities. Researchers visiting six villages in the state—the Ao Naga villages of Longmisa, Longkong and Wamaken and Sümi Naga villages of Shiyepu, Natha Old and Natha New—observed that traditional knowledge associated with seed storage and preservation has been orally passed from one generation to another and is a persistent characteristic in every aspect of cultivation. 

“Seeds are important for our survival. My father and grandfather have been following seed storage since we can remember. I learned from them,” says Sujuyienba of Longmisa village.

Seed preservation is traditional knowledge for the Ao and Sümi Naga communities of Nagaland, orally passed from one generation to
another. The principle of saving seeds is present is every aspect of cultivation, right from the selection of crops. Photo: Rongsenzulu Jamir, Alino Sumi

Seed preservation is traditional knowledge for the Ao and Sümi Naga communities of Nagaland, orally passed from one generation to another. The principle of saving seeds is present is every aspect of cultivation, right from the selection of crops. Photo: Rongsenzulu Jamir, Alino Sumi

Traditionally agrarian, the Ao and Sümi Naga communities practise jhum or shifting cultivation. They commonly grow crops, such as rice and millet (Poaceae); pepper, tomato, brinjal, tobacco (Solanaceae); creepers and climbers (like Cucurbitaceae or cucurbits); and beans, lentils and legumes (Fabales). Seeds selected for cultivation in new jhum fields depend on the type of land. Traditional jhum fields are of two kinds: in highlands, the soil is loosely condensed and glutinous, better suited for maize, taro, mustard crops, glutinous rice and long grain rice; and in lowlands, it is compact and more porous, suitable for beans, chili and leguminous crops.

The communities select seeds from initial harvests in new jhum fields to preserve for successive cycles, as these are recognised to exhibit optimal yield and resilience. “It is also by taste. We store seeds from the best harvest to enjoy the same taste every year,” says Lukhevi of Shiyepu village.

Storage methods differ across crop varieties. Beans, sesame and mustard seeds are sun-dried, while maize is bundled in rows above fireplaces or tied to kitchen roofs. Poaceae seeds, particularly rice, are stored in household granaries (called jen in Ao and aleh in Sümi). Residents also build community granaries that are strategically positioned on the outskirts of villages to serve as a dependable resource in case of emergencies, such as a fire.


Seeds of some varieties such as beans, sesame, mustard and pumpkin are preserved through sun-drying (left), while others are stored in baskets. Materials used for the baskets are bamboo, rattan or cane, whose culm or stems have low starch content, as these are more resistant to pests. Photo: Rongsenzulu Jamir, Alino Sumi

A peek inside these granaries draws attention to an aeration tool (called tsükpongsemtsü in Ao) made of bamboo. Normally, three or four aeration tools are placed between threshed rice in the granaries, to ensure out-circulation of warm air that can be detrimental to the preservation of grains. The presence of sprouting rice stalks around this aeration tool is considered a symbol of abundance.

Every traditional Naga kitchen also has multiple rectangular tiers above the hearth, to store seeds and small agricultural implements. Seeds of cucurbits, Solanaceae and Fabales varieties are stored on these tiers to prevent attacks from pathogens and reduce accumulated moisture. Cotton seeds are stored in terracotta sandwiched between layers of ash. In a few cases, seeds are mixed with ash and charcoal — 500 grammes of ash and charcoal for 1 kilogramme of seeds — to keep dry.

To store smaller seeds, people use either hollowed calabashes with corn lids or in baskets.

Pumpkin and mustard kernels are also sun-dried in these baskets, which may be short or mid-length, open or closed, or winnowing baskets. The materials used to make the baskets are bamboo, rattan or cane, which the communities harvest at the end of monsoon and the beginning of the dry season as the starch content is relatively low and the culm or stem is naturally more resistant to parasites, borers and fungi.

Historically, basket-making is a sex-aggregated domain and is tabooed for women, to avoid misfortune in the village. The researchers interpret that this apprehension is to align and not diverge from the specificity of gender roles and responsibilities.

In current times, interpolations such as airtight containers and zip-lock bags are used for seed storage along with appliances like refrigerators. Additionally, in Wamaken village (near Assam), cash crop farming has replaced jhum cultivation. This transition has result in the adverse decline of seed diversity and a potential threat of cash crops invading the native ecosystem.

With such forces reshaping the agricultural landscape, the communities face the challenge of effectively navigating potential opportunities while preserving cultural heritage and documenting seed storage and preservation knowledge before they are lost. 

This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated October 16-30, 2023)

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