As one drives through the huge canopy of trees on the deserted Ponnai-Chittoor highway, the chocolatey smell of jaggery persuades one to stop the car and follow the tempting trail — which leads to roadside jaggery makers at Thengal village, bordering Andhra Pradesh.
In a small hut, four women and a man are busy making jaggery that is used mainly in the production of chikki (traditional Indian sweet of nuts and jaggery).
The man takes care of crushing the cane. One of the women then continuously heats the sugarcane extract in a huge pot, fuelled by bagasse, till it reaches the consistency of a thick paste.
The man then tilts the bubbling jaggery paste from the pot onto an empty tray. With bare hands the three women shape the hot paste that slowly hardens into jaggery balls of around 500 gm each.
BA for Bhagyalakshmi
Amongst the women is Bhagyalakshmi, called BA by the others, as she is a graduate! “I am the only graduate in the family but I preferred to be part of the family business of making jaggery than search for a job,” she says.
Bhagyalakshmi’s sister Pushpavalli says they prepare nearly 500 kg of jaggery everyday, which is supplied mostly to buyers in Chennai for chikki preparation. Each kg is sold in the range of ₹50-75 depending on the demand and supply.
When the Covid pandemic hit in March 2020, jaggery makers in the region were left jobless and families suffered for nearly six months due to the lockdown. However, business has bounced back strongly since December, she says, with relief.
Looking for support
Marimuthu, working in a nearby unit, rues that quality sugarcane to make jaggery is not consistently available. The sugarcane is sourced from places like Jeddarpalayam, Ayyampalayam, Kabilarmalai, Parmathi Vellore, Pandamangalam and Cholasiraamani.
While some jaggery makers sell directly to the buyers, some prefer to sell in the Pillikalpalayam jaggery market where auctions happen every Wednesday and Saturday.
Jaggery is packed in bags of 30 kg each. At the auction, each kg of jaggery fetches between ₹35 and ₹75 depending on the taste. The price also fluctuates based on the demand and supply, explains Marimuthu.
Jaggery-making in huts, employing a sizable number of people from the region, is looking for financial support from the government to improve the infrastructure and also solve financial problems, says Kamakshi, who also runs a jaggery unit.