Forgotten Cereals

Dr. P. Sudhakar

Millets were first cultivated in Asia, Africa and Europe, in pre-historic times. Being rich in carbohydrates, proteins and minerals, they were the staple food for the poor of Rome and Europe during the middle ages. Though crops like rice, wheat, maize, etc., have gained importance; some regions in India still cultivate millets.

Millets, also called small seeded cereal or coarse grain, belong to the grass family comprising 10 genera and 20 species altogether. The most commonly cultivated varieties of millets in India are sorghum (jowar / cholam), pearl millet (bajra / kambu), finger millet (ragi) and foxtail millet (thinai). Most of these species have a short cycle   of three to four months and are mainly cultivated    in the areas that are too dry and hot or are unsuitable for cultivating rice, wheat and other crops.

Sorghum (jowar)

Sorghum is a native of northeastern Africa. It was brought to India through the Middle East during 1500 B.C., from where it traveled to China. It is cultivated in the dry lands of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamilnadu and Uttar Pradesh. The annual production of 70 million tonnes is second only to the United States of America.

Pearl millet (bajra)

This is also a native of Africa, predominantly grown in the regions of Abyssinia and Sudan. Bajra has been cultivated in India since pre-historic times. It is the most important millet in India, next to sorghum. Nearly 10 million tonnes are produced every year. It is cultivated as a rainfed or irrigated crop in almost all states except Assam, Kerala, Tripura, Manipur and Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

Finger millet (ragi)

Finger millet, a tropical crop of Africa, was brought into India nearly 3000 years ago. The combined annual production of ragi in India and Africa accounts for about 4.5 million tonnes. 75% of ragi cultivated in India comes from the dry regions of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu and also happens to be the major staple food of the people living there. Ragi is also cultivated and consumed in the hilly areas of North India.

Foxtail millet (Thinai)

This is native to Eastern Asia particularly China and was one of the five plants that was considered sacred during 2700 B.C. This is an important dryland crop cultivated in certain parts of the lower Deccan plains and the highlands of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamilnadu.  Thinai  is  prescribed  as a  regular  diet  for  invalids  and  pregnant  women.

Millets are rich in nutritive value. They can be broken into rice or ground into flour to make dosas, rotis, chapathis, porridge, etc. Flour of ragi and bajra are cooked in water till it becomes a thick paste, which is called sanghati or kali. The agricultural workers in the fields prefer to consume this kali mixed with buttermilk, as it provides good nutrition and extra strength to work all day long in the field.

Cereals are still being consumed by certain groups of people, especially tribals, and will probably fade away with our generation. We have in fact started consuming more of rice, wheat, etc. The present generation of children are only aware of fast foods like burgers, pizzas, puffs, rolls, cheese balls, and several non-nutritious foods, plentifully available in the city and rural areas.

An interesting fact about the health content (nutritional value for 100g) of cereals is given below for you to think over!!!


  • Samba Murty A.V.S.S. and Subrahmanyam N.S., A Textbook of Economic Botany, Willey Eastern Ltd., 1989
  • The Hindu Survey of  Indian Agriculture,  2001
  • The Hindu Survey of  Indian Agriculture,  2002

Source: Eco News, Vol 9, No 3, October to December 2003.

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7 Responses to “Forgotten Cereals”

  1. Umadevi says:

    Seemingly ‘cheap’ the millets mentioned (like Thinai) are actually far costlier ; cd be due to rarity,sudden spurt in demand due to hyped up gourmont or health columns, or perhaps insufficient production. Most names mentioned in the article are still available and popular too among ntrition buffs but no knowing the genuineness of the products sold in the mushrooming Organic shops,quality and price et al

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