The sugarcane happens to be one of the most important crop plants known to man. Native to South and Southeast Asia, it is now cultivated across the globe, in the tropical and subtropical zones. The fibrous stalks, rich in sucrose, are crushed in mills to manufacture approximately 80% of the world’s sugar supply. As much as 1.9 billion tonnes of sugarcane was harvested in 2016 (according to figures released by the Food and Agriculture Organization). Of this, 41% was harvested in Brazil (equivalent to 768.7 million tonnes). India came second with 18% of the world output (equivalent to 348.4 million tonnes).

While most of the world’s sugarcane is sent to mills, some varieties are grown for people who love to chew them up. Chewing upon sugarcane is a favourite pastime of rural Indians. Especially around harvest time when the village markets are inundated with fresh, juicy stalks. South Indians celebrate their biggest festival, Pongal, Sankranti or Suggi, a harvest festival associated with the Sun’s transition from the Dhanusha Rashi (a zodiac sign corresponding to Sagittarius) to the Makara Rashi (a zodiac sign corresponding to Capricorn) with the sugarcane close at hand.  The festival, based on the solar calendar, signals the northward movement of the Sun, the end of winter, and the lengthening of days.

Young and old alike can be seen tucking into long stalks of sugarcane. One variety from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu is grown solely for this purpose and has become very popular all over the country. Known as ‘Senkarumbu’, it is grown by farmers along the banks of the Kaveri River. The crop is harvested in time for Pongal, the Tamil festival par excellence. Consignments of cane are purchased by traders arriving from Gujarat, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. A bundle of 20 canes can end up fetching farmers a princely sum of Rs. 400. This is just one of the many ways in which the sugarcane has become an integral part of South India’s culture and economy.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows pieces of cut sugarcane. It was uploaded by Rufino Uribe of Venezuela.