Monday, January 23, 2017

Karingali Vellam of Kerala -Made in China

Every visitor in Kerala, both foreign and domestic is taken by surprise, as they have their first food experience here. As water is served, to be had with a meal, ‘confused’ is the obvious state of every first timer. Staring at the pink colored liquid in the glass, in a state of daze, some may even declare their strict adherence to teetotalism.
By the way, the liquid that’s served, pink in colour and sometimes mildly golden, is not alcohol but hot water boiled with fennel, bark of Pathimugham (East Indian Red Wood) or Karingali (Cutch Tree). They are called Jeeraka Vellam and Karingali Vellam in Malayalam.

So, why does Kerala drink boiled water even with a hot, spicy meal? When and how did this practice begin and why is it so popular?
The rich heritage of Ayurveda, must be an apparent answer that comes to one’s mind. But is there more sociology and history into it?
Often this is thought to be habit limited to Kerala. Is it? Yes and No.
In India this is a practice limited to Kerala.  However, surprised you may be to know that this is a pan Asian habit and a very common practice in China. With Kerala’s historic trade linkage with China and it having adopted a number of other things from China including the Chinese Fishing Net and Kanji (Rice Porridge), did the habit of drinking boiled water also come from China?
Call them hypothesis or not, some logical reasons which worked individually and in combination to make this practice so popular and maintain its popularity through generations are being presented here.  Considering the spiritual and philosophical associations that communities have with water and the varied associated meanings for water served along with food, these questions become more interesting.

Cumin Seeds

Ayurveda, as practiced in the pre-independence period and centuries before had a very different perspective and outlook from today’s version.  It was more of a repository of local knowledge which allowed space for innovation, than the closed institutionalized format it has now. In other words, Ayurveda was an open social system which functioned through the knowledge shared by practitioners of varied social orders. For example, a healer would explain to a patient the way a decoction was to be prepared and this information percolates into the society and improvises itself into another medical knowledge. The benefit of drinking boiled water, Ushnodoka, as it is referred to in Ayurveda has always been a part of this local wisdom.  This wisdom would have passed on through generations to make drinking hot water a common habit.  

The second assumption connects to the drinking water hygiene campaigns which were pushed by both royal and British administration in the modern history so as to prevent epidemics. Literature on epidemics states that in 1925, it was common with the economically better off in Kerala to use water boiled with cumin (Nag, 1987). How about the poorer sections? Interestingly, they resorted to Kanji vellam, which is boiled rice water, which is also a rich source of starch. So, the poor and rich, all of them drank hot water.

Many studies which enquired the relatively lesser outbreaks of waterborne epidemics in Kerala, have found the consumption of boiled versions of water to be a significant influential factor (Nag, 1987). These findings would have been obviously used as a community medicine extension input. 
There was very strong emphasis by Travancore royal administration on community health campaigns. Quarter of the heath budget of 1941-42 was reportedly spent on Cholera and Malaria eradication (Singh,2015).   Also , the communist movement empowered people to be vigilant of public policies. It is to be noted here that Kerala became the first Indian state to have completely eradicated Malaria by 1965. 
All these campaigns preached drinking hot water as a preventive tool subscribing to the research findings on boons of boiled water.  Gradually, this would have become the norm. Further to add taste and science to this concept of hygiene, improvisations were made based on Ayurveda and so resulted  all the versions of hot water popular today.

Boiled Water Karingali Vellam

The third assumption is connected with Sree Narayana Guru, a social reformer who denounced superstitions, rejected casteism and was a healer himself.  He preached ‘drink hot water and bathe in cold water’ theory which was an important shared health knowledge. The observations of Nag (1987) in terms of the social class divide in drinking hot water also connect back to the social structure which existed during the life time of Sree Narayana Guru.  With his huge influence in the society, his campaigns on this note would have had great impact.
Boiled Water Karingali Vellam

The final and the most interesting assumption is that Kerala’s own Karingali vellam and its cousins were ‘Made in China’. Though that was on a lighter note, reading together the facts that drinking hot water is a common Asian trend and there were strong ancient trade links between the West Coast and China, couldn’t there be a connection with China and Kerala’s Karingali Vellam? Kerala got its celebrated Chinese Fish Net, Cheena Chatti (Chinese Frying Pot), Cheena Kali Mannu (Chinese Sand for Pottery) very much from its trade partner since ancient times, China. Kerala’s Kanji (Rice Porridge) has an improvised parallel in other Asian countries called Congee which has thousands of years of recorded history of consumption in China.  
In China, it’s very common to carry and store boiled drinking water in thermos. References on drinking hot water in China go back to one of the most ancient Chinese texts, I Ching, which was written in the 7th century BC. The legend on the evolution of Tea also confirms that drinking hot water was very common then in China.  In Vietnam, every restaurant offers you free hot herbal drink (Green Tea mostly) just like free boiled water comes free with a meal in Kerala restaurants.

So, are Jeeraka Vellam and Karingali Vellam -Made in China????

(Thank you Vinod Krishnan T Y, Manoj Kumar A K and Dr. Suresh Kumar for those crucial inputs. Albert, kudos to the constant motivation)


  1. Very interesting and informative post, Nirmal :)

    Thank you so much for sharing and I really liked the way it's composed.

  2. You are right. Initially this pink looking warm water look strange with every meal but then you get used to it.
    Thanks for sharing interesting information.