Biodiversity at work: a glimpse into the world of Functional Diversity

A visit to the museum mesmerizes us with a fascinating set of collections; the same happens when we are in the botanical or zoological garden or seaside aquariums where a plethora of biota flaunts a glimpse of diverse culture, life forms or functions. Considering its expansion and variation, biodiversity is also comparable with these places when we mention about statistics like “374,000 species of plants” (Christenhusz and Byng 2016), “8141 species of amphibians” (, “10721 species of birds” (Clements Checklist v2019) and so on. Moreover, overly mention of the terms like “rare”, “endangered”, “threatened” or “endemic” species educate common people about the treasures of the natural world and its careful maintenance. Undoubtedly, this representation of the natural world through the lens of biodiversity ignites our imagination like the world as a gorgeous Persian carpet with intricate designs, colors, and patterns. Over the years, this emphasis on variation led to a large body of scientific research and documentation work thus unfolded interesting facts on species count, distribution, functions, and response towards the environment and biotic interactions.

We can also view this rich tapestry through various life-sustaining services offered by it. Let us think about water, food, shelter, medicine even fresh air, our list of debt towards nature gets longer and longer. For example, medicine is mostly of defensive chemicals (i.e. secondary metabolites) produced by plants or other organisms to resist the entry of unwanted guests in their system. Foods are stored products from plants or the organism itself which dissipates our hunger. Even the procedure of food production is a complex interaction among landscape, resident biota, and abiotic environment. Similarly, fresh air is ensured through photosynthesis, the food-making process in plants and perennial availability of water is ensured by the forest ecosystem. Based on this product based assessment, we can say that a species-rich system is worthy to maintain due to the overwhelming flow of products. So more species mean more benefits in terms of products/functions. This association between biodiversity and ecosystem function is commonly known as Biodiversity-Ecosystem Function relationship (BEF relationship).

The BEF relationship not only prompts scientific quest, but it also has a leading role in conservation agenda across the globe. The idea of the species-rich area, hotspots and productive landscapes all are mingling around this BEF relationship with an expectation to secure our survival in the long run. So the conservation work is not merely out of philanthropy, our calculation is very much in it.

As per the BEF relationship, the linear assumption that many species many services do not work every time. There will be redundancy if many members of the same clan have nearly similar types of functions. And, if there is redundancy there is no major problem if we lose one or two species. Accordingly, if we optimize the species number as per our requirement of services or natural world dynamics our conservation efforts will be efficiently streamlined. This function-based assessment of diversity is commonly known as functional diversity, which, in the true sense, monitor or assess how functionally diverse a system is. The redundancy in species function has some theoretical explanations. One line of thought is having multiple species with the same type of functions is beneficial for ecosystem stability or resilience. Loss of one or two members may compensate by others, therefore, no significant change can be felt at ecosystem functions (Functional Redundancy). Another view is revolving around the idea of the “insurance hypothesis”. The greater the variation in responses among the species in a community, the lower the species richness required to withstand the environmental odds. Therefore, whatever perturbations will come there will be always a few species who can effectively bypass the situation (Diaz and Cadibo 2011).

After redundancy, the next question is how a species-rich system (better to say function-rich system) manages to survive when there is a limitation of resource? Before answering, lets’ say a few lines about “niche”. The word niche can be explained as “a species’ place in the environment” i.e. its’ unique way to adapt with abiotic and biotic interaction, utilization of resources, survival strategy even modification of the environment, etc. Regarding resource use, we can say that a species occupies a definite place or niche in resource use strategy. It has a specific requirement, a particular method to acquire the resource, method to avoid competition, etc. In a multi-species environment, there are many possibilities 1) they may share same resources at the same place (niche overlapping) therefore high competition; 2) there may be random accession of resources with minimal or moderate overlapping (partial niche partitioning) or 3) random accession of resources without any overlapping (niche partitioning or complementarity) so to full use of the resources. A simplified example can be drawn from the garden or forest where different types of plants are available. When grasses and small herbs are busy to explore near-surface soil layers for their nutrition and water, trees extend their roots deeper to tap the not so easily available water. In that way, the competition for water is reduced as well as the utilization of the resources is balanced. This adjustment and optimization exercise are very much conspicuous in our surroundings. Think about diverse flower types both in structure and color which cater life-sustaining services to other depending organisms and for the organism itself. Flowers have an important role in pollination which secures the initialization of reproductive activities in the plant. In the majority of cases, the success rate of pollination is crucially dependent on how well the flowers attract the visitors for what they should be at their best in terms of appearance (i.e. size and color) as well as the availability of rewards (i.e. honey, nectar, etc.). To reduce the competition and optimal use of available resources in the show business, variation strategy has come to the scenario. Flowers differ themselves in terms of color, size, and structure even flowering time to fix a definite group of visitors for pollination activity (Figure 1). The diversity in fruit type also narrates the same story. It is for successful seed dispersal plants has to develop the best carrier (i.e., fruit) for luring predators to make use of them. Therefore, like predators, fruit also offers a diverse range of members varied in size (watermelon to berries) seed numbers (one to many-seeded) and fruiting time (Figure 2). All arrangements are for catering the requirement for different groups of depending fauna as well as securing their survival in the competitive natural world. For birds, from small hummingbirds to big hawk body size differs considerably which is an indication of their energy/resource requirement. Similarly, variation in beak structure hints at birds’ dietary requirements (Figure 3).

Biodiversity at work a glimpse into the world of Functional Diversity _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1
Figure 1. A partial view of flower-pollinator network in natural world.
Upper panel: flower differentiation based on shape. A. Gullet B. Bell C. Brush D. Tube E. Dish and F. Flag. Lower panel: few well known pollinators in our surroundings. a. Bat b. Bee c. Beetles d. Bird e. Butterfly f. Carrion fly g. Fly. Source: Rosas-Guerrero et al., Ecology Letters, 2014, 17:388-400

All different root types, flower, fruit characters, body sizes and beak types with definite functions have a technical term, known as “trait” or “functional trait”. The proper definition can be “Functional traits are morphological, biochemical, physiological, structural, phenological, or behavioral characteristics that are expressed in phenotypes of individual organisms and are considered relevant to the response of such organisms to the environment and/or their effects on ecosystem properties.” (Violle et al. 2007). These traits are measurable units for functional diversity. Traits are usually considered as surrogates to assess ecosystem functions and their presence in an organism represents its long history of interaction with surroundings. As a result, traits are conservative in their character and expression which is imprinted in the organisms’ genetic makeup. Traits can be categorized as “response” (those which are the outcome of the interaction with the environment, e.g. life form, seed mass, root type, etc.) and “effect” (organisms’ impact on ecosystem functions and services e.g. biomass production, nutrient cycling, etc.). Like species as a unit in taxonomic diversity assessment, traits are used in functional diversity indices, e.g. richness (how much volume is occupied in the functional space), evenness (how evenly abundance is distributed i.e. whether all traits are equally present or the system is dominated by few chosen ones) and divergence (measure of the dispersion from the center of trait range). These indices help us to assess whether the  ecosystem is functionally rich or stable or under stress or showing warning signals of upcoming danger.

Flowering plants’ seeds are diverse in color, size and shape_CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1
Figure 2. Flowering plants’ seeds are diverse in color, size and shape. Source: Dr. Sabrina Russo, University of Nebraska, U.S.A

Globally functional diversity is an active area of research. Studies include Arctic Tundra to Amazon rainforest, interior forest to the agricultural landscape, land to marine life forms to explore the connections between organisms and their environment. Some examples can be  discussed here. Giam et al. (2015) in their oil-palm plantation study in Indonesia found that maintaining a mosaic of plantation with riparian reserves is beneficial for the local fish community. This combination of landscape preserves functional diversity which benefits local livelihood in terms of fish availability and supports ecosystem functions like trophic position fulfillment, energy flow, etc. Similarly, in the Neotropics, eastern Amazonian region, the research found that disturbance to the forest leads to the prevalence of small-seeded plants over the large-seeded ones. The reason could be many but the important one is the loss of fauna responsible for the dispersal of large seeds owing to tree logging. As a consequence, both species’ existence and ecosystem function (e.g. plant-animal interaction) are in stake (Hawes et al. 2020). Leaving aside distinct ecosystems, functional studies in human-modified or associated systems (e.g., agriculture, grazing field, sacred groves) reveal the dominance of certain traits (due to preference towards certain taxa), ubiquitous presence of generalist species and loss of species-specific interactions. Flynn et al. (2009) studied the impact on functional diversity under land-use intensification in the agricultural landscape.

Birds’ beaks are modified according to their dietary requirement_CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1
Figure 3. Birds’ beaks are modified according to their dietary requirement. A. Fish eater B. Chiseling C. Honey and nectar eater D. Meat eater E. Insect eater and F. Grain eater. Source: Google image

They pointed out a drastic reduction in functional diversity in  birds and mammals in comparison to species richness however, the trend was not distinct in plant members. According to them the drastic reduction in faunal traits perhaps due to loss of functionally distinct species at a faster rate than redundant ones. Ray et al. (2017) in their assessment of functional diversity in sacred groves find that the majority of the studied groves are functionally less diverse (i.e. functional homogenization) although they are species-rich in comparison to their surroundings. Moreover, groves support a limited number of pollinators and seed dispersers, usually cosmopolitan. This generalization owes to land shrinkage, altered surroundings and invasive dominance which acts as a constraint for forest based specialist pollinators/seed dispersers. Thus species profile does not reflect the true state of biodiversity. Stuart-Smith et al. (2013) in their global study on marine reef species found that the profile of reef fish functional diversity varies over geographic gradients is distinctly different from global trend in species richness. One of the main reasons is the locations, mostly temperate regions, where there are more even abundance distributions (i.e. a greater proportion of species have moderate abundances), species with their unique trait characters contribute significantly to ecological processes.    On the contrary, in species-rich tropics, despite having a large number of species and functional groups, it is due to the low abundance of functionally unique members their contribution to ecological processes is relatively weak. Likewise, many such examples can be drawn from elsewhere to establish the fact that functional diversity is a better predictor for the status of ecosystem or biodiversity than its’ taxonomic counterpart.

In conclusion, functional diversity provides an opportunity to know the importance of having so many life forms, their dependence on each other and the environment, their role in maintaining natural world dynamics and the potential to survive in recent catastrophic Anthropocene. This shift to function centric assessment of biodiversity is a timely approach to increase our in-depth understanding of biodiversity and our association with it. Hopefully, future research will show us the directions to face the challenges in cultural, ecological and economical forefronts of the planet.


Author thanks Sandeep Pulla, Balaji Chattopadhyay, and Avik Ray for their comments and suggestions on the earlier version of the manuscript.


  1. Christenhusz M.J.M and Byng J.W. (2016). The number of known plants species in the world and its annual increase. Phytotaxa 261 (3): 201–217
  2. Clements, J. F, Schulenberg T.S, Iliff M.J. et al. (2019). The eBird / Clements Checklist of Birds of the World: v2019. Downloaded from
  3. Diaz S and Cadibo M. (2001). Vive la différence: plant functional diversity matters to ecosystem processes. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 16:11, 646-666.
  4. Flynn D.F.B, Gogol-Prokurat M, Nogeire T. et al. (2009). Loss of functional diversity under land use intensification across multiple taxa. Ecology Letters, 12:1, 22-33, DOI:
  5. Giam X, Hadiaty R.K, Tan H.H. et al. (2015). Mitigating the impact of oil-palm monoculture on freshwater fishes in Southeast Asia. Conservation Biology, 29:5, 1357–1367
  6. Hawes J.E, Vieira I.C.G, Magnago L.F.S. et al. (2020). A large‐scale assessment of plant dispersal mode and seed traits across human‐modified Amazonian forests. Journal of Ecology, DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.13358
  7. Ray Rajasri, Sreevidya E.A and Ramachandra T.V. (2017). Functional importance of sacred forest patches in the altered landscape of Palakkad region, Kerala, India. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 33:6, 379-394, DOI: 10.1017/S0266467417000360
  8. Stuart-Smith R.D, Bates A.E, Lefcheck J.S. et al. (2013). Integrating abundance and functional traits reveals new global hotspots of fish diversity. Nature, 501:539-544, DOI: 10.1038/nature12529
  9. Violle C, Navas M, Vile D. et al. (2007). Let the concept of trait be functional. Oikos, 116:5, 882-892. DOI: 10.1111/j.0030-1299.2007.15559.x

About Author :


Rajasri Ray


Rajasri Ray 
Centre for Studies in Ethnobiology, Biodiversity and Sustainability (CEiBa), Malda, India

Bhoot Choturdoshi – An ancient Shaak eating ritual with ethnomedicinal importance

Today Radha, Jyotsna, Nandarani, Bimala are very busy. They are going out for a hunt as part of an ancient Bengali ritual, Bhoot Chaturdashi. It involves finding some specific edible greens which will drive the ghosts away. The ritual practices of Indian sub-continent are often underlined with ethnobotanical significance many of which yet remains to be unveiled. Bhoot Choturdoshi, celebrated on the day before Dipanwita Amabasya/Kali Puja can be addressed as Bengal’s own version of Halloween as bhoot literally translates to spirit! And just like any other Bengali ritual, it is connected to special food – leafy greens in this case. This ritual food famously called ‘Choddo Shaak’/‘Fourteen Greens’. It traditionally involved the collection of fourteen uncultivated greens by women from their homestead gardens or home surrounding areas like roadsides, ditches, ponds or canal banks, field bunds. Uncultivated meant those plants which are not purposefully cultivated in fields but grown on their own. While agriculture entailing domestication of several plants secured food and nutrition security it has overlooked many. Yet it is a common traditional knowledge that many un-cultivated greens, fruits and vegetables have been part of the rural lifestyle for ages. Choddo shaak is thus a ritual of celebrating such uncultivated greens. It ensures that while focusing on agricultural fields on a few types of crops the enormous variety of uncultivated foods in our surroundings is not lost or loses importance.

The historical origin of Choddo Shaak ritual – Role of Bengal

Though the word shaak currently implies leafy greens in modern Bengali language (later denoted as B.), the word shaak was traditionally used in Ayurveda to denote six different types of greens. The verse explaining this is:

             “Patrang pushpong folong nalong kondong songswedjong totha.
Sakong shorobidhmuddishtong gurung bidyad jothottorom.”

Common edible leafy greens of Bengal
Figure 1. Common edible leafy greens of Bengal

These are leafy greens e.g. spinach, floral greens e.g. Banana flower/B. Mocha, fruit greens e.g. Bottle gourd/B. Lau, tuber greens like Taro/B. Kochu, shoot greens e.g. shoot of Elephant Foot yam/B. Olkochu, mushrooms e.g. Termitomyces heimii/B. Durga Chatu (Bhattacharya 1989, pp.1-5). In 6/24/4 sūkta of Rigveda, a place called Shaakdwip, located in eastern India is mentioned where several Aryans lived. Here ‘Shaakal’ otherwise known as ‘Baskal’ branch of Rig Veda originated. They use to rely on mostly greens instead of meat. These group of people later spread to other regions and came to be known as ‘Shaakdwipi Brahmins’ due to their food habit. It is mentioned in the 13th verse of chapter 84 of ‘Banaparba’ of Mahabharata that Yudhisthira has visited ‘Shakambhar Tirtha’. It is a place in Shaakdwip where Shakhambhari Debi, a deity who eat Shaak was worshipped by serving Debi Shaak for fourteen days’ time period (Sanskrit Choturdosh).  It is also mentioned eating of only Shaak for a month-long vrata is comparable to the virtues gained through Asmawamedha Yagna.

 “Jodi totro bosenmasong sakaharo noradhip.
Sonunong lovote punyong bajimedh folong totha’’

Thus it is opined that the practice of eating greens to celebrate Shaak Choturdoshi Vrata was started by ‘Baskal’ or ‘Shaakdwipi Brahmins’ (Bhattacharya 1989, pp.1-5). However, there was no mention regarding the period when this particular practice should be done. Krityatatta (16th century C.E.) written by Raghunandan first mentions about the ritual of eating Choddo Shaak on Bhoot Chaturdashi (Bhattacharya 1989, pp.1-5). The verse is:

‘‘Olong kemukbastukong, sarshopong nimbong joyang.
Shalinching hilmochikancho potukong shelukong guruchintotha.
Vontaking sunishonnokong shibdine khadonti je manobah,
Pretottong no cho janti kartikdine krishne cho  vute tithou.’’

The fourteen greens consumed during Bhoot Choturdoshi are given in the following table:

Common English name / Bengali name Scientific name Family
Elephant foot yam/B. Olkochu Amorphophallus campanulatus Araceae
Crepe ginger/B. Keu Cheilocostus speciosus Costaceae
Lamb’s quarters/B. Betho, Bethua shaak Chenopodium album Chenopodiaceae
Coffee senna/B. Kalkasunda  Senna occidentalis Fabaceae
Mustard/ B. Shorshe Brassica rapa Brassicaceae
Neem/ B. Neem Azadirachta indica Meliaceae
Egyptian river hemp/ B. Jayanti Sesbania sesbans Fabaceae
Sessile joyweed/B. Shalincha, Shanche Alternanthera sessilis Amaranthaceae
Heart-leaved moonseed/ B. Guruchi, Gulancha Tinospora cordifolia Menispermaceae
Pointed gourd/B. Palta, Patal shaak Trichosanthes dioica Cucurbitaceae
Indian cherry/B. Sheluka Cordia dichotoma Boraginaceae
Watercress/B. Helencha, Hinche shaak Enhydra fluctuans Asteraceae
Flaming glorybower/ B. Bhant, Bhantaki, Ghentu Clerodendrum splendens Lamiaceae
Four-leaf clover/ B. Sunishnnok, Sushni shaak Marsellia quadrifolia Marsiliaceae


Even today this ritual is performed by Bengalis of both West Bengal, India and Bangladesh with equal vivacity. Another ritual of Bengal which involves consumption of leafy greens is observed in Manbhum area. This ritual involves cooking 21 types of shaak during Jihur day (Ashwin Sankranti). These include green leaves of Crepe ginger/B. Keu, Lamb’s quarters/B. Bethua, Mustard/B. Shorshe, Coffee senna/B. Kalkasunda, Neem, Egyptian river hemp/B. Jayanti, Sessile joyweed/B. Shalincha, Watercress/B. Helencha, Pointed gourd/B. Palta, Dill/B. Shulfa (Anethum sowa), Heart-leaved moonseed/B. Gulancha, flaming glorybower/B. Ghentu, Four leaf clover/B. Sushni, Water spinach/B. Kalmi, Roselle/B. Tok Bhendi (Hibiscus sabdariffa), Marsh barbel/B.Kulekhara, Asiatic pennywort/B. Thankuni, Water hyssop/B. Brahmi, Adhatoda/B. Vasaka, Felworts/B. Chirota (Swertia chirayita) and green stems of Ele-phant foot yam/ B. Olkochu.

Yampukur vrata, a ritual celebrated by Bengali unmarried girls throughout Bengali Kartik month (mid-October-mid November) diminish the fear of facing hell. It involves making of a small square-shaped model of a pond. The bunds of the pond are planted with Kochu, Turmeric, Kalmi, Sushni, and Hinche, along with rice seedlings are planted in the middle (Basak 1998). The verse said while watering the pond is:

‘‘Sushni-Kalmi lo lo kore
Rajar beta pakkhi mare
Kalo kochu, sada kochu  lo lo kore,
Rajar beta pakkhi mare.”

Greens in scriptures

The practice of eating leafy greens can be traced in scriptures as old as Charaka Samhita (c. 700 B.C.E.)

‘‘Barshashitochitangonang sahasoibark rashmiviih.
Taptanamachitang pidong prayoh saradi kupati.’’

meaning ‘‘in rainy season our body becomes numb/cold. With the advent of autumn, our body becomes suddenly warm by sunlight and often suffers sudden bile upsurge. So sages have alerted us to consume greens in this season to be safe’’ (Bhttacharya 1989, pp.1-5). In  Markandaye Purana (7th century C.E.) we get the eulogy of Shakambhari Durga. It denotes that Debi is creating greens, tubers and fruits from her body to save and feed the world from famine. Thus the concept of nutrition garden is not only a need for Indians but also a part of their religion and culture. Mention about consumptions of uncultivated greens is also available in Prakrita Paingal (9th-14th century C.E.), written in Apabhramsa language mentions (Roy 1959, pp. 444). The verse is:

‘‘Oggor votta romvo potta gaiko ghitta dugdh sangyukta.
Moili maccha nalita gaccha dijjai kanta kha punbanta.’’

which means the one who is served by a woman to eat warm rice with gawa ghee (ghee made from cow milk) along with milk, mourola fish (Amblypharyngodon mola) and nolche shaak on banana leaf is lucky.

Few well known leafy greens in rural Bengal
Figure 2. Few well known leafy greens in rural Bengal. a) Tinospora cordifolia b) Hibiscus sabdarifa c) Hygrophila auriculata and d) Lagenaria siceraria

Kavikankan Mukundaram Chakraborty had written in Chandimangal Kabya (16th century C.E.) about cooking several types of greens in ‘Nidayar Sadhvokhhon’ part. The verse is:

Amar sadher shima
Helanchi kalmi gima
Boali kutia koro pak.
Ghono kati khor jale
Santlibe kotu tele
Dibe tate paltar shaak.
Pui-doga mukhi-kochu
Tahe fulbori kichu
Ar dibe maricher jhaal.”

It means a person wishes to enjoy helencha, kalmi and gima shaak along with thick gravy of the Bengal boal fish (Wallago attu). Along with it bitter tasting palta shaak, pui shaak stems, mukhi kochu, bori (dried lentil dumpling, a traditional Bengali delicacy) and marich (either black pepper, Piper nigrum or chilli, Capsicum annuum which was brought to India around 16th century C.E. by Portugese) should be well-sauted on fire. The six greens mentioned here are Watercress/B. Helencha or Helanchi or Hinche, Water spinach/B. Kalmi shaak, Bitter Cumin/B. Gima shaak, Pointed gourd/B. Palta shaak, Malabar Spinach/B. Pui shaak (Basella  alba), Taro/B. Mukhi-kochu some of which are uncultivated. Another verse in ‘Nidayar moner Kotha’ part also depicts cuisines of greens:

‘‘Bathua thonthon teler pak
Dogi dogi lau cholar shaak’’

Here the greens mentioned are Lamb’s quarters/B. Betho, Bethua shaak, calabash/ B. Lau shaak (Lagenaria siceraria), chickpea/B. Cholar shaak (Cicer arietinum). Thus it is evident that the practice of consuming green with rice is a part of Bengali cuisine culture since long.

Mentions of greens as foods of Bengalis can be also traced in different Vaishnava literatures of 16th century C.E. Chaitanyadeva, the great Bengali saint, himself was fond of eating greens. Bangaleer Itihas (1959) written by Niharranjan Roy also testifies that leafy greens formed a significant part of cuisines of Bengal’s people. It is also very common among Bengalis of Bangladesh. Many of these greens are collected as uncultivated food mainly by the female members of the family in rural Bengal. Other uncultivated greens of Bengal not mentioned in Krityatatta but commonly popular as consumable greens are:

1. Amrul (Oxalis corniculata)

2. Kalmi (Ipomoea aquatica)

3. Kulekhara (Hygrophila auriculata)

4. Khrkol/Ghatkol (Typhonium trilobatum)

5.Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri)

6. Dhenki shaak (Diplazium esculentum)

7.  Nunia/nun Khuria (Portulaca oleracea)

8.  Telakucho (Coccinia grandis)

9.  Dandakalash (Leucas aspera)

10. Gima (Glinus oppositifolius)

11. Thankuni (Centella asiatica)

12. Kantanote/khairakanta (Amaranthus spinosus)

13. Kochu (Colocasia esculenta)

14. Malancha (Alternanthera philoxeroides)

15. Kalmegh (Andrographis paniculata)

16. Vasaka (Justicia adhatoda)

17. Tok bhendi (Hibiscus sabdariffa)

18. Kasturi (Abelmoschus moschatus)

19. Morogful (Celosia argentea var. cristata)



Significance in current scenario

In the current scenario of climate change imposed agricultural risks when food and nutritional insecurity is held to be directly related to the degradation of public health these ancient rituals should be treated with additional importance. All of these greens are a significant source of several micronutrients. Over-reliance on very few crops has been gradually unleashing the terrors of micronutrient deficiency throughout the world. This consequently is resulting in a different form of hunger called ‘hidden hunger’ which is often ignored or overshadowed by the hunger of energy deficit (Roudart 2002). Global statistics attest to the fact that more than 3.1 million child deaths were attributed to undernutrition (UNICEF 2018a), and that deficiency in iron, zinc, or vitamin A caused an additional 750,000- 850,000 deaths (Food and Agriculture Organization 2004). According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015–2016, 38.4% of Indian children, below the age of 5, were stunted & 35.7% were underweight.  The latest Global Nutrition Report showed that 48% of rural Indian women of reproductive age group are anemic (IFPRI 2016), 1/5th of Indian women in the reproductive age group were suffering from chronic energy deficiency while an-other 1/5th were obese (IIPS and ICF 2017).

The ancient rituals discussed is most probably done with intentions to keep the practice of consuming greens both cultivated and uncultivated as all of these fourteen greens mentioned  in Krityatatta have some medicinal value which is briefly discussed below (Bhattacharya 1989,  pp.1-5).

     Common Bengali Name Medicinal value
Olkochu Lowers cholesterol, improves cardiovascular health, slow down ageing, anti-diabetes, anti-inflammatory, boosts immunity, slimming food, skin and hair care benefits, cure piles
Keu shaak Beneficial for diarrhoea, cough, jaundice, arthritis, burning sensation, constipation, leprosy, skin diseases, asthma, bronchitis, cures diseases caused by intestinal worms
Bethua shaak Slimming food, also a good source of Vitamin A, B complex and C, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, minerals, good for liver
Kalkasunda Diuretic, laxative, blood purifier, antibacterial, and antifungal properties. Also used for treatment of haemorrhoids, gout, rheumatism, cures cough
Shorshe shaak High vitamin K promoting bone health, also a good source of vitamin A, C boosting immunity, slimming food, reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases, eases difficulty passing urine and stool
Neem Detoxifying, good source of calcium and thus promoting bone health, rich in antioxidants and boosts immunity and provide skin and hair care benefits, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, cures bile derived skin diseases
Palta shaak Rich in vitamin A and C, rich in dietary fibre, boosts immunity and provide skin and hair care benefits, cures biliary disease
Jayanti Used in curing sore throat, hoarseness, cough ailments, chronic coryza, have anti-inflammatory properties, also used as a medicine of scorpion sting, cures wet cough due to season change
Shalincha Cures infertility, prevents cancer, ideal for curing night blindness, reduces body heat, cures piles and irritation during urination
Gulancha Cures gastric problems, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), hepatitis, peptic ulcer disease (PUD), gonorrhoea, syphilis, high cholesterol, allergic rhinitis (hay fever), gout, lymphoma and boosts immune system
Sheluka Treating cold, cough, fever and skin diseases, anti-diabetic, appetizer and taste enhancers
Hinche Nutrient-dense food, very high in Vitamin K and also a good source of Vitamin A and C, boosts immunity and provide skin and hair care benefits, high antioxidant, help to prevent diabetes, cancer and heart disease
Ghentu Used in treatment of malaria, coughs, skin diseases, ulcers, rheumatism, asthma, uterine fibroid, gonorrhoea and syphilis, cures diseases caused by intestinal worms

It is diuretic, detoxing, anti-inflammatory and hemostatic. Used in the treatment of nephritis, malaria, calms nerve and serves as natural sleep aids


The consumption of greens will keep the persons healthy, boosts their immune system and will hence keep away the probabilities of ailments. The growing problem of under-nutrition can be only dealt with by addressing compounding factors involving nutrition-sensitive agriculture, increasing incomes, improving food accessibility, shifting dietary patterns, nutrition education and health awareness. Setting up a kitchen garden having these seasonal greens can contribute to this aspect.

It is most plausible that the several illnesses which can be kept at bay by regular consumption of greens are considered as ghosts in these rituals (Singh et al. 2017). The period of celebrating Bhoot Choturdoshi in the month “Kartik” (Bengali pre-winter month) ritual coincides with season change from autumn to winter. This period is accompanied by several diseases like seasonal cough and cold, allergic rhinitis/coryza (inflammation and irritation in the nasal membrane), seasonal skin rashes, gastrointestinal dysfunction and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), type of depression with a seasonal pattern, mostly occurring in the winter and autumn (Singh et al. 2017 and references within). Consumption of the fourteen greens at this time, therefore, aid in retaining our strength and ward off the dangers. This is because as discussed before in details these greens exhibit antihistaminic, antimicrobial, hepatoprotective, antihel-minthic, anti-inflammatory, psychopharmacological, immunomodulatory, anticonvulsant and anxiolytic activity any one of these individually or more (Singh et al. 2017 and references within). Hence it is high time we try to decipher the underlying values of our age-old rituals instead of simply discarding them as mere superstitions. 


Authors thank Morshed Chayan, Mohad Maruf, from Bangladesh and DRCSC Hingalgunj team for sharing the images.


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  2. Basak S. 1998. Banglar Bratoparbon.
  3. Roy N. 1959. Bangalir Itihas. pp. 444.
  4. Roudart L. 2002. L’alimentation dans le monde et les politiques publiques de lutte contre la faim [World food and public policies on hunger relief]. Mondes en de ́veloppement. 30:9–23.
  5. (2018a). Malnutrition rates remain alarming: stunting is declining too slowly while wasting still impacts the lives of far too many young children. Retrieved from
  6. NFHS-4. 2015-2016.
  7. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). 2016.
  8. IIPS and ICF. 2017. National family health survey, 2015–2016—India, Mumbai: IIPS.
  9. Singh A, Mondal S, Kundu M.2017. Pharmacology and ethno-pharmacology of traditional Bengali cuisine ‘Choddosak’. International Ayurvedic Medical Journal. 5(10) : 3755-3761.

About Author :

Debarati Chakraborty_Ardhendu Sekhar Chatterjee_Mahidi HasanDebarati Chakraborty1,2,3, Ardhendu Sekhar Chatterjee1, Mahidi Hasan 

  1. Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), 58A, Dharmatola Road, Kasba, Kolkata- 700042 
  1. Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, University of Kalyani, Kalyani -741235, West Bengal, India 
  1. Centre for Studies in Ethnobiology, Biodiversity and sustainability (CEiBa), Malda, West Bengal, India 
  1. Sonali Bank, Bangladesh


Glimpses Of Nature And Culture

Bees and Beats

 Whether you flee from a stinging bee or are enamored by the sweet honey on your pancakes,Bee Dance_1_Glimpses of nature _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1 there is no way that you can ignore a dancing bee! Bees are quite famous among ethologists for what is termed as a ‘waggle dance’. Nobel laureate Karl Von Frisch was among the first to interpret this rather peculiar behavior of bees. The worker bees perform this curious dance to convey the location of food, nectar, pollen, new nesting spots and water sources to the other members of their colony.

The dance is a biphasic process: the waggle and return phases. The bee does a ‘waggle’ (curved trajectory) to create small figures of ‘8’. The bee performs a waggle run which is directly correlated with the indicated resource in terms of direction and duration. There is a range of behavioral signs and variations shown among different species. For instance, Apis mellifera has waggle runs that are made at an angle with respect to the direction of their combs(vertical) so as to indicate the location of flowers corresponding along the direction of the sun. The duration of the dance is to give an estimate of the distance; the more the bee wants to ‘convince’ the others, the more vigorously it dances. Bee Dance_2_Glimpses of nature _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1

The mechanism is quite effective as the bees accommodate the changing directions of the sun in their waggle dance to make sure they reach the required resource.

So, how do they do it? The bees can develop charges on their wings while flying and they can manipulate the surrounding electric field by emitting frequencies (high and low). The antennae of audience bees are thus stimulated and it has been suggested that their mechanoreceptors play a key role during this interaction. Though the dance is majorly intended to locate foraging sites, Martin Lindaeur has theorized that the in the light of evolutionary perspective, the intent of the dance was originally for new nesting sites.

An experiment in 2008 showed that when honeybees of Apis cerana cerana and Apis mellifera ligustica were mixed, the difference in the subtleties of the dance was noticed by the participant bees and soon they learned to interpret the ‘dialect’ of the other group. This also directs our attention to the fact that different species have different ‘dialects’ of the waggle dance in terms of the path, time period, etc. Interestingly enough, other members of Hymenoptera also show this ethnological character. Many developers of computer algorithms have already found ways to draw inspiration from this behavior while designing software and coding.

While it all rather interesting, one must also keep in mind the various contradictions and controversies regarding the efficiency of this dance. Some studies suggest that almost 93% of audience bees travel to known foraging sites while some others suggest that the dance just triggers a foraging attitude.

Nevertheless, waggle dance of the honey bees is an area that demands everyone’s interest due to its unique nature and the potential evolutionary knowledge we can gather from understanding the origin of such dances and their transformation with time. Humans can learn a lot of things from nature for sure, but who knew that we can also learn to sway to a beat!
Collector: Aishwarya H. Iyer


Autumn color: Handicap signal to Leaf peeping

Come summer, we are enchanted with the flowering burst in evergreen and deciduous trees – a very known phenomenon everywhere especially in tropics. But, hold on, leaves are not far behind. They have their turn in autumn, when, temperate countries in the northern and southern hemispheres witness the riot of colors in deciduous trees before annual leaf fall. This is also a popular event fondly known as autumn color, autumn foliage, fall color or fall foliage. The coloration is an adaptation for the approaching winter period when there is a limitation in photoperiod and a decrease in temperature,AutCol1_Glimpses of nature _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1 which are not favorable for plants’ profound activities. So, if spoken in biological terms, there is a slowdown in photosynthesis, gradual degradation of chlorophyll and releasing of other pigments, thus, there are leaves with different colors.

This purely physiological event has many takers. For instance, leaf color acts as a signal for the availability of fruit (fruit flag), or conversion of light into heat (leaf warming), or enhancing parasite visibility (anti-camouflage) or supporting mutualism among plant-aphids-ants (tri-trophic mutualism), and so on. Interestingly, leaf color also flaunts signals for some special guests. Coevolution theory suggests that leaf color acts as a deterrent for specific aphids; intense the color is stronger the resistance against colonization. But, on the flip side, the plant has to pay for it. Here it is a loss of photosynthesis, nutrients and energy consumption in pigment synthesis thus making the plant handicap to some extent in terms of fitness. This cost-benefit relationship mimics the famous ‘handicap signal’ in the animal world where one has to compromise its fitness for long term survival benefits.

Far from academic interest, leaf coloration fetches a huge chunk of money. In the northern countries, a special sect of tourism is in fad known as “Leaf pepping” where tourists are directed towards the places where leaf coloration at its peak in the season. However, changing climatic patterns is affecting this coloring event and leaves reported to remain green for a longer period than earlier. So, the autumn color is not only a sheer visual treat but the beauty with locked-in mysteries of nature.

Source: Hamilton W.D and Brown S.P. (2001) Autumn tree colours as a handicap signals. Proceedings of Royal Society London B 268: 1489-1493
Archetii M. (2009) Classification of hypotheses on the evolution of autumn colours. Oikos 118:323-333.
Image: Rajasri Ray
Collector: Rajasri Ray

Bamboo rice or Mulayari

Humans have an ingrained urge of exploiting natural resources found at their fingertips. Because, thatMulayari 1-1_Glimpses of nature _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1 allowed them to save their energy instead of walking for miles in pursuance for food. Apart from the domesticated grass species, such as rice, millets, wheat, barley or oat, a wide variety of grass or forb species have been exploited for their seeds, these energy-dense pre-cereal grains were a good source of nutrition. They often demanded a processing followed by harvest and were mostly made into sumptuous porridge or bread to satiate their stomach. However, from a rich repertoire of plant species consumed by our prehistoric forefather only a handful were able to made their permanent place as global staple. And, most were left out in this race falling short to meet the human need. Many remained localized, hidden in a forest or under-recognized in the waterbodies, or mixed with their domesticated brothers. Some still find their way to the connoisseurs’ palate as occasional cuisine for special events or festivals.

Such an example is bamboo rice or Mulayari (in Malayalam) or Moongil arisi (in Tamil) which is locally famous in parts of the southern India. Tribal known as Kani or Kanikaran or Kanikars (agriculturist tribes living in forests of Kanyakumari and adjoining Kerala forests) dwelling around the Western Ghats possess a vast knowledge harvesting the seeds of bamboos (mostly Bambusa bamboos). Indigenous throughout India (except the northern part) from the hills upto 915 m and in the plains, this is the quiet abundant species of bamboo in the region (Moongil in Tamil) can attain a height 30 m and a diameter of 18 cm. The green culms turn to a straw-yellow color on drying. The bamboo can beMulayari 1-2_Glimpses of nature _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1 easily identified by thorns and large yellow culm-sheaths. Commonly, it flowers gregariously though at long intervals, produces seeds for next generation to come up, and finally dies down. To collect the mature seeds, the Kanis clean the ground around the plant and patch the floor with cow dung; it follows the collection of the fallen seeds mostly by the women and the children from the cleaned floor every morning and evening. Kani people used to set a traditional rat trap called Elipori to catch unwelcome rodents sharing their resources. Excesses are sold in the adjoining forest areas which perhaps arrives at the urban markets after passing through many hands and when price soars up to almost rupees two to three hundred a kilo or even more.

The nutritive value of bamboo seed is higher than that of rice or wheat as it contains minerals such as Ca, P, Fe, Mg and vitamins such as vit B1, nicotinic acid, riboflavin and carotene. It is believed to possess medicinal properties and a healthy food for diabetics. Delicacies like payasam are prepared during festive seasons or on special occasions and are well a part of traditional food lives.

Photo source: 1- Kavitha, A., N. Deepthi, R. Ganesan, S. C. Gladwin Joseph, India Biodiversity Portal
Collector: Avik Ray


Bombay Duck – duck or a fish

Much remains hidden in the names, names of an avenue, names of cross-roads, names of cuisines,Bombay Duck_Glimpses of nature _CEiBa_Vol 3_Issue 1 names of artifacts, names of villages. Sometime the antiquity of names goes back deep in the history and left little-changed over the time. Our biological-cultural heritages also flaunt such a diversity of vernacular names, the heirloom rice we eat or local landrace of vegetable or a nondescript herb, many a time the name associate with the place of origin or special feature of the biota or sometimes the name could be earned through other routes which may have a much lustrous cultural historic connotation.

The name Bomaby Duck tickle our imagination in that sense!

A species of lizardfish, Harpadon nehereus which is most famous as the Bombay duck throughout the western coast. An abundant species across the Indo-Pacific is available from both the coastal regions of India. The body is slimy with an average size of 25 cm but adults may attain a length of 40 cm. Though cooked and eaten as fried or curried, it is one of species often consumed as salted and dried. Very popular among Indians from Bengal, southern Gujarat, coastal Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka, it is also quite favorite among Bangladeshis as well.

All is well, but why duck? It does not fly like one! And that too from Bombay while it is found in tonnes throughout the Indian coast!

So, there are stories but not conclusive ones, so might take with a pinch of salt.

One story attaches it to the transportation of the dried fish by early Indian mail train in the days of the British Raj. Perhaps, the strong smell of the dried fish became synonymous with the mail train (the Bombay Daak). But critiques say the word could be older than the earliest railroad in Bombay. The other story pulls Robert Clive into the scene saying he was the first person to use the term and later popularized in the Indian restaurants in the UK. It somewhat goes like this: presumably Robert had tasted a piece on his sojourn to Bengal and compared with the smell with that of the newspaper and mail delivered in the cantonments from Bombay.

We do not know the true one, but that does not matter much here, even the wrong one has become a part of the story; and stories are what we are always love to listen.

So, name is a not merely a name, it is much more – a slice of our world!

Photo source: Hamid Badar Osmany,
Collector: Avik Ray


Part 5
(…..after part 4)

Meyna spinosa Roxb. ex Link
Family – Rubiaceae

It is a spiny small tree or a large shrub with greenish-white flowers found in the south and east Asian countries. In India, the plant is found in the northeastern states of Arunachal, Assam, Meghalaya and in West Bengal. Down the south, the plant is reported from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. It is called Moin Tenga in Assamese, Maina in Hindi, Mankatha in Bengali and Manakkarai in Tamil. It is widely popular as a folk medicine among the tribal peoples of Manipur, Assam, Maharashtra, Meghalaya. They also prefer to eat the fruits either in raw or in cooked form. The fruit is small and yellow when ripe. The fruits and leaves are good for the liver and supposed to help in treating indigestion. In Meghalaya, the fruits are also used to prepare an alcoholic beverage. The seeds are roasted and powdered to be used as a tea. In Odisha, seeds are roasted and eaten by the tribes during summertime. Nutritional analysis shows that fruits are a rich source of essential nutrients, e.g., Calcium, Zinc, Potassium, and Magnesium. Similarly, leaves are enriched with Iron, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Molybdenum, and Chromium which contribute to their antioxidant property.

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Mimusops elengi L.
Family – Sapotaceae

This medium-sized fragrant evergreen tree is native to India and also found in the tropical forests of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and northern Australia. It belongs to the Sapotaceae family and is famously called ‘Bakul’ in the northern and ‘Elenji’ on the southern side of India. It has been planted throughout the country and is among the popular avenue trees found all over except the extreme ecosystems. The culinary use of the plant is less known in comparison to the medicinal use of its bark, flowers, fruits, and seeds. In northern states of Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh ripe fruits are consumed as raw, whereas in some other places, the fruit is a common ingredient for pickles. The fruit is rich with carbohydrates, protein, sugar, and minerals and is nutritionally comparable with any other widely-eaten cultivated fruits like mango, guava, pomegranate, sapota, etc.

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Morus serrata Roxb.
Family – Moraceae

This is popular as ‘Himalayan mulberry’ and known as ‘Kimmu’ in the northern parts of India. It is mainly found in the Himalayan tracts up to an elevation of 3300 mt. It is a small deciduous tree can grow up to 15 mt with leaves that are densely hairy on the veins underneath. The fruit is edible and in clusters of several small drupes turns red upon ripening. The tree leaves are used to feed silkworms and the fleshy fruit is sweet and eaten raw. Apart from their traditional consumption by localites, fancy edibles are also prepared from it, e.g., these longer fruits can be dipped in chocolate and made to variants of strawberry chocolates. Already these berries have found importance as ‘superfoods’ and available online from many stores and trendiest markets. The fruit is rich in carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Though it’s eaten quite regionally recently efforts are made to enhance the processing options like dry fruits, jams, squash, and juices; it is on its way to find the status of alternate food especially in the urban areas.

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Myrica esculenta Buch.-Ham. ex D. Don
Family – Myricaceae

Myrica esculenta, a member of Myricaceae, is a tree of medium height with white flowers found in bunches. Fruits are globose or oval, bright red to dark brown color, and sweet and sour taste. It wears many names, Box berry, box myrtle, bayberry or Kath phal or Kaphal. It is found in hilly regions of northern India around Garhwal and Kumaon of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and the neighboring states of Nepal and Bhutan especially at elevations of 900–1,800 m. The fruits are eaten by the locals either raw or used to make juices, squashes, and jams. The fruit is high in minerals like Magnesium, Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Sodium, Zinc, Iron and Copper. The fruit is a good source of vitamin C and is considered as one of the tastiest fruits of the sub-Himalayan regions. The dried bark and fruits are also available online and are finding places in modern kitchens and ecofriendly restaurants. The roots and fruits are constituents of ‘Chyavanprash’ and ‘Brahma Rasayana’. A large population of Uttarakhand and nearby areas uses the decoction of the bark as a mouth freshener. Despite its untapped potential the cultivation of the tree is very much limited and is only confined to the wild. The regeneration of the plant is very poor and thus demands active human intervention for propagation.

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