Sugarcane

Sugar has become a dreaded word in the modern world. The term is used for the diabetes disease which is acquiring the epidemic proportions in the world. Although sugar alone cannot be blamed for this disease. Sugar is the major energy source along with fats on which our body runs. Even the carbohydrates which we take in the form of bread and rice are ultimately broken down to simpler sucrose and then glucose compounds and are assimilated by our bodies. It is a matter of living style like stressful life, overeating and sedentary habits. So let us not blame sugar and know about it.

sugarcane!

Sugar cane is a grass and the source of 70% of the world’s sugar which is extracted from the sweet, juicy stems. In many South Asian countries like India and Pakistan, when the stalks of sugarcane mature, they are chewed for their sugary syrup. The stalk is divided into pieces like the bamboo stalk and sweetness of the stalks decreases from bottom towards upper stalks. Of course, green portion at the top is only grassy. It is eaten as small pieces by the children. This was the original use of sugar cane. Afterwards the sugar extraction processes began and it became the most important source of sugar followed by the beetroots and palms. The juice is extracted by pressing the sugarcane in a press consisting of rollers of steel and operated by bullocks or nowadays with engines. Area of West Maharashtra near Nashik are famous for the sugarcane production. Uttar Pradesh also produced lots of sugarcane. There are many mills for large scale production of sugar and molasses.

English: Sugarcane juice vendors, Dhaka.

Sugar cane originated in New Guinea where it has been known since about 6000 BC. From about 1000 BC its cultivation gradually spread along human migration routes to Southeast Asia and India and east into the Pacific. It is thought to have hybridised with wild sugar canes of India and China, to produce the ‘thin’ canes. It spread westwards to the Mediterranean between 600-1400 AD.

Arabs were responsible for much of its spread as they took it to Egypt around 640 AD, during their conquests. They carried it with them as they advanced around the Mediterranean. Sugar cane spread by this means to Syria, Cyprus, and Crete, eventually reaching Spain around 715 AD.

Around 1420 the Portuguese introduced sugar cane into Madeira, from where it soon reached the Canary Islands, the Azores, and West Africa. Columbus transported sugar cane from the Canary Islands to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1493. The crop was taken to Central and South America from the 1520s onwards, and later to the British and French West Indies.

Indian Subcontinent

Sugar cane has a very long history of cultivation in the Indian sub-continent. The earliest reference to it is in the Atharva Veda (c. 1500-800 BC) where it is called ikshu and mentioned as an offering in sacrificial rites. The Atharva Veda uses it as a symbol of sweet attractiveness.

The word ‘sugar’ is thought to derive from the ancient Sanskrit sharkara. By the 6th century BC sharkara was frequently referred to in Sanskrit texts which even distinguished superior and inferior varieties of sugarcane. The Susrutha Samhita listed 12 varieties; the best types were supposed to be the vamshika with thin reeds and the paundraka of Bengal. It was also being called guda, a term which is still used in India to denote jaggery. A Persian account from the 6th century BC gives the first account of solid sugar and describes it as coming from the Indus Valley. This early sugar would have resembled what is known as ‘raw’ sugar: Indian dark brown sugar or gur.

At this time honey was the only sweetener in the countries beyond Asia and all visitors to India were much taken with the ‘reed which produced honey without bees’. The Greek historian Herodotus knew of the sugarcane in the 5th century BC and Alexander is said to have sent some home when he came to the Punjab region in 326 BC. Practically every traveler to India over the centuries mentions sugarcane; the Moroccan Ibn Battuta wrote of the sugarcanes of Kerala which excelled every other in the 14th century; Francois Bernier, in India from 1658-59, wrote of the extensive fields of sugarcane in Bengal.

Raw and refined sugars in simple terms are produced by heating, removing impurities and crystallizing sugar cane juice. Sucrose is the main constituent in this juice. Raw and refined sugars are exported all over the world for use in pretty much everything from sweet and savoury dishes to processed foods and drinks and preserving fruits and meat. These sugars are also compressed into sugar cubes or made into syrup. White sugar can be further processed into icing sugar to be used in desserts, baking and confectionery. It is a dark, syrupy product and is used for the preparation of edible syrups and for numerous industrial products. In Brazil alcohol is prepared from the sugarcane juice and is used as a fuel for the automobiles. Its end products after burning are carbondioxide and water which are completely pollution free.

As the sugar cane juice contains energy giving sugar as well many minerals, it is used in the treatment of certain illnesses. Both the roots and stems of sugar cane are used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat skin and urinary tract infections, as well as for bronchitis, heart conditions, loss of milk production, cough, anaemia, constipation as well as general debility. Some texts advise its use for jaundice and low blood pressure.

A very surprising use of sugar is for removing body hair. A warm paste of sugar, water and lemon juice is applied to the skin. Strips of cloth are then pressed over the paste and are then quickly torn off, taking the hair with them. Enthusiasts claim that this procedure becomes less painful with time. The practice of sugaring may date to ancient times in South Asia.

Sugar is also used to exfoliate skin and in soap-making. It has been claimed that application of sugar cane extracts can benefit the skin, but there is no evidence for this.

In Indian Literature

Indian literature abounds in references to the sugarcane: early Tamil literature describes sugarcane along the banks of the River Kaveri, and indeed sugarcane was usually cultivated in river valleys. Early Indian kings set aside land for pleasure gardens, groves and public parks, and gardens were attached to palaces and grand mansions. The Kamasutra, an early erotic treatise written by Vatsyayana (c. 2nd century AD – c.4th century AD), recommended that a cultivated and wealthy man should surround his house with a garden.

The garden would be under the care of his wife who would dictate the layout of the garden and its planting, while the physical labour was left to professional gardeners. The Kamasutra spoke of pleasure gardens and practical gardens and was specific about what should be planted in the gardens. The practical garden had to include beds of green vegetables, sugarcane, fig trees, mustard, parsley and fennel. The great goddess Kamakshi of Tamil Nadu is portrayed in art holding in her four hands lotus blossom, sugar cane stalks, elephant goad and noose.

Turmeric: Versatile Spice

India produces so many spices from Black pepper, Cardamom, Ginger and Turmeric. Many expedition in the Europe were taken for establishing a foothold in India particularly Kerala for procuring its fabled spices. Vasco da Gama was first to reach India in pursuit of the spices. Turmeric is one spice which is an integral part of Indian cooking. It is given as a suspension in the hot milk to persons who have sustained beatings and internal injuries to relieve pain and swelling because of its powerful antibacterial properties. It contains yellow pigments called curcuminoids. One example of a curcuminoid is curcumin. It has been suggested that curcuminoids may have a beneficial effect in some cancerous conditions, when applied externally. Other experimental studies suggest curcumin may have protective effects on the liver.

Some studies suggest that components of the essential oil, such as ar-tumerone, have anti-snake venom activity. The essential oil is also reported to have some insect repellent and insecticidal activity.

India alone produces about 94% of the world’s turmeric. It belongs to the ginger family. Its rhizomes are the source of a bright yellow spice and dye.  Turmeric is only known as a domesticated plant and not found in the wild. Its origin is in South and Southeast Asia, and prior to being used a s a popular spice may have been first used as a dye.

As a dye. its colour varies depending on how it is processed. If mixed with alkaline fluids it turns bright red, but when mixed with acid it produces yellow.

Turmeric has traditionally been used to counteract many conditions including the aging process in Ayurvedic medicine. In India, turmeric is associated with fertility and prosperity, and brings good luck if applied to a bride’s face and body, as part of the ritual purification before a wedding. Turmeric roots may be given as a present on special occasions, such as a visit to a pregnant woman. Turmeric powder is also sprinkled on sacred images. The use of turmeric is prohibited in a house of mourning.Yellow and orange are both special colours in Hinduism, yellow being associated with Vishnu, and as the colour of the space between chastity and sensuality. Orange signifies sacrifice and renunciation and courage. Originally associated with the sun and as part of solar symbolism, the colours were absorbed into the mythology of Hinduism.

Extracts have been added to creams for use as a colouring agent and traditionally women would rub turmeric into their cheeks to produce a golden glow. The yellow pigment in turmeric is a compound called curcumin.

In Hindu wedding ceremonies brides would rub turmeric over their bodies. Newborn babies had turmeric rubbed on to their forehead for good luck and they would be given a turmeric necklace to wear to keep away evil spirits. Pieces of the rhizomes are added to water to make an infusion that is used in baths. It is reported that washing in turmeric improves skin tone and reduces hair growth.

Arsenic Poison in Drinking Water

Drinking water is hardly available to most of the poor population in the developing or under-developed countries. Water contaminated with bacteria, virus and dissolved ions in excessive amounts causes so many disease. Contamination of water can be natural or man induced. The reason for the contamination of water is that water is a universal solvent. It leaches so many chemical compounds when rocks are exposed to it. Secondly, water makes up more than 70% of the area available on the Earth surface. Life began in the water. So many reactions necessary for the growth and reproduction of life use water as the medium. So it is host to so many bacteria and viruses responsible for diseases.

Countries like Bangladesh and many parts of India where lots of water becomes stagnant in ponds and shallow wells face the problems caused by water contamination. Due to poverty and lack of resources, people are forced to drink the water from open ponds and contract the life threatening diseases. Administration then dug deep wells in search of germ free water. But this gave rise to another even more serious problem: the problem of arsenic poisoning. In the Bangladesh and parts of West Bengal adjacent to Bangladesh, there is lot of arsenic dissolved in water.

Similarly when such water is used to irrigate the paddy, the rice is contaminated with arsenic and finds its way to the stomachs because the rice is the staple food of Asia. When Hussam discovered that his own relatives—who live in a district of more than half a million people in a part of Bangladesh called kushtia—had been drinking arsenic laced water, he decided to find a solution. in 1997, he started measuring the water’s arsenic content and developing a filtration system that could remove the toxic arsenic species pumped from tube wells. Hussam and colleagues made a prototype filter that uses two buckets piled on top of each other. Water is first poured into the topmost bucket, and then it passes through a special material called a  composite iron matrix, which is a mixture of iron and iron hydroxide. Manganese in the matrix catalyzes the transformation of the more toxic arsenite to arsenate ions. these ions bind to the surface of iron hydroxide particles.

Now this contraption has been made into a filter which is placed on the tuebwell and the output water is free from arsenic. The arsenic poisoning cases have reduced and many patients been cured and regained the health by eating more protein rich food along with arsenic free water.

Chemistry Behind Cleopatra’s Beauty Products

Everyone has heard about Cleopatra. She is said to be most charming seductress and willy woman who became the queen of Egypt. She was very conscious of her looks and knew the value of being beautiful and always looking young and alluring. It was Cleopatra, who popularized skin care treatments in her book titled “Cleopatra Gynaeciarum Libri”. There, she recorded recipes for making cosmetics and perfumed ointments. She was so interested in spa treatments and perfumes that her lover, Mark Antony, gave her the gift of a spa and perfume factory that had been built by Herod the Great at the south end of the Dead Sea.

Although Egyptians may not be knowing the chemistry behind the ingredients used in the spa treatments but still to date many ingredients used at that time are in use but in the synthetic forms. Synthetic ingredients have low manufacturing cost and avoid lots of labor involved in extracting these from natural sources which only a royal person can afford. For example, Indole is a organic compound present in the jasmine flowers as well as the feces of crocodiles and other animals. In high concentrations, this has a repulsing odor but at very concentrations it exudes fragrance. If you extract the chemical from the Jasmine flowers, you require millions of flowers for obtaining 1 Kg of oil costing approximately $10000. So these days synthetic oil is prepared from Indole and other ingredients at a low cost. Cleopatra used the excrement of crocodiles to clean and embellish her complexion.

She bathed in the milk of asses to keep her skin soft and supple. This milk has an important ingredient Lactic acid which being an alpha hydroxy acid breaks down the dead cells of the skin. Even today’s many skin care products contain lactic acid. Cleopatra painted her eyes with green and black pigments to protect her eyes from those ever-present flies and to enhance her appearance. On special occasions, she may have added glitter made from
crushed beetle shells mixed with her eye paint. And she would have cleaned her teeth with natron, a natural form of baking soda, and freshened her breath with spearmint.

Egypt is an hot country and there is lots of perspiration which imparts body odors. So for Cleopatra, perfumes were important not just for masking the smells of skin treatments but to cover offensive body odors. Cleopatra would have carried small containers of her perfumed ointments and powdered perfumes that she would have reapplied several times a day to keep her complexion looking fresh and her skin sweet smelling. Chemists have reconstructed a number of ancient perfumes using Cleopatra’s own recipes and analysis of perfume residues found in jars from Cleopatra’s spa. They discovered that Cleopatra favored perfumed ointments made from Moringa oil or horseradish oil (Moringa pterygosperma or M. aptera). Those ointments would have disappeared into her skin quickly and left no greasy feeling behind. Moringa oil is still used in Persian perfumes today, and chemists at L’Oreal have recreated ancient Egyptian perfumes using Moringa oil.

Chitosan: A multi utility chemical

Gone are the days when an oil well was drilled with drilling fluid composed of simple ingredients like Bentonite, viscosifier and fluid loss agents, dispersant and fluid loss controlling agent and water. In those days, only vertical wells were drilled and it took months for a well to be drilled and start producing hydrocarbons. Subsequently many repair jobs had to be done for undoing the damage done to permeability of the producing formations which hampered the optimum flow of liquids from the well. These incurred large amounts of money.

As the demand for hydrocarbons knows no limits, technologies have been developed to reach at the places in the reservoir where earlier it was not possible to reach. Technologies have made the horizontal penetration of the producing formations to expose large area to production. These are called drain-holes. Thrust is also nowadays on exploiting oil shales, coal bed methane and the latest hot cake is the methane trapped as hydrates in the frozen water.

To match these technologies, drilling fluids chemistry has undergone a revolutionary change. The drilling fluids of the old days are now passé. Nowadays drilling fluids use polymers of organic types. Also for various repair jobs many exotic chemicals are being tried. Interestingly many of these chemicals are consumed by humans in one form or the other. Examples are Carboxy Methyl Cellulose (CMC) which is used in ice creams, Linseed oils, Chitosan which is used as a sliming diet.  One of the technologies to coax the oil sitting tightly in the reservoirs is called secondary recovery in which the in-place unproductive oil is pushed out by water injection, conformance control in which the more permeable zones are temporarily plugged with polymers so that oil trapped in the tighter zones comes out. Similarly to enhance the production stimulation with acids is done. Acid is diverted to the zones of interest by plugging off the zones of no interest with polymers.

One such chemical which is used to make the thick gel to divert the acids is called Chitosan. It is derived from Chitin which is obtained from the shells of prawns. Many groups of amide are reduced selectively to amine groups to tailor made the required chemical.

Chitosan1

This chemical has the beauty of yielding a very thick gel in water in acidic conditions and loses all the viscosity when the mixture is made alkaline.

I read another wonderful use of this chemical. It is being used to make the bandages for the wounded personnel in the battleground. Most of deaths occur due to excessive bleeding. Chitosan has the quality to clotting the blood very fast. Secondly it is a strong antibacterial agent. This is also very much desired to ward off the infections in the unhygienic conditions prevailing in the battleground.

These bandages were used in Iraq for the first time. I wonder how many uses a chemical can have. In the sixth episode of “Brave New World” hosted by the great mathematician Stephan Hawking, the use of this chemical to clot the blood immediately was shown. The name of the episode was “Hyper Connections“.

Recycling for a Living

Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia. It is situated near Bandra in Mumbai, the economic capital of India. Mumbai was once upon a group of disjointed islands and one had to take the boat to reach an island from another. British got the island in dowry from Portuguese and saw its strategic importance chose to develop the place because it has the finest natural harbor in the world.  They encouraged the Parsees to come and open industries and develop the city. Soon the city began to expand and people flocked to it in search of better future.

The islands were abridged by reclaiming the land from the sea and continuity was achieved. The city as such has no chance of expanding in all directions like Delhi because of its shape and detached location from the rest of India. It soon became over crowded. Those who work for creation of wealth for this city, found it difficult to find a place to live in. The slums sprouted everywhere which have very cramped places to live in. Hygiene is virtually non existent. But even then millions live here.

One such area is Dharavi. It has been depicted in many movies like Salaam Bombay by Mira Nair and Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle. The area consists of labyrinth of very narrow lanes. I think one can get lost and never come out. Economically, the people work here to collect the waste materials and recycle them.

One such material is recycling of Aluminum which is found in the form of cans of beverages. Unknowingly these people are shielding the city from the pollution that this metal can do. Aluminum is very difficult to obtain from its ore because of the lengthy processes like dissolving it in alkali solution, then precipitating it in the form of Alumina and then carrying out electricity consuming process of electrolysis to obtain the pure metal.

The process here is to dip the cans in mild acid to remove the coverings and then after washing and drying melt the individual mass of cans into one solid ingot in a hearth which is a hole in the earth where coals are burnt with the help of  air conveyed through a pipe. The cans are put on a silicon carbide crucible. This way the metal is melted and is ready to use in making utensils and other articles. These people work for hours to earn a living.

Sanjhi: Almost forgotten Festival of North India

When we were small boys, every year ten days before the festival Dussehra, our mother would choose a small area on one of the mud walls and make a crude image of a woman, stars and moon and bullocks with the cow dung. We lived in the village. Almost everyone has some land on which agriculture was done. Also there were plenty of animals like cows and buffaloes. Houses were made of mud and walls and floors were plastered with wet cow dung. We did not understand all this and thought this as some folk art. It was called Sanjhi. Now this ritual has almost vanished like many other rituals which were observed in the rural parts of the country. The images slightly resembled the Warli art. Both were drawn almost in the straight lines meeting to form triangles and squares.

Sanjhi
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Sanjhi images in my sisters home at a village in chandigarh

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The image is called Sanjhi and established on the first day of the nine days of   Durga Puja or Navratras. In fact, a common thread runs throughout India and festivals have the similar philosophy behind them. Only the style varies from place to place. Even days coincide. The images of Sanjhi are suggestive of Durga, Uma and Katyayani. And just like Durga Puja in which the idols of the deity are immersed in the river waters, Sanjhi festival also ends with the immersion of Sanjhi on the day of Dussehra.

The festival is observed mainly in Haryana and Punjab. The girls offer prayers and food to the goddess everyday.

These shapes including stars, moon, sun, face of the goddess etc are given different colors. The star-studded collage is fixed on the wall of a dwelling, facing south, in the later half of the early October or late September months. In some places, the image of Sanjhi is painted on the wall. The art of Sanjhi is quite native and simple.

Apart from the various forms of Sanjhi created on the first day of the moon in Kartika, there are some other rituals observed by girls during the Navaratras. Devotional songs are sung just after dusk. Lighted earthen lamps are held by adolescent girls who assemble around Sanjhi. They sing chorus songs, that are centuries old, to please the goddess. The girls, who sing these songs are rewarded by their elders with token money.

Sanjhi on Wall

The girls believe that by appeasing Sanjhi they will get a good husband. In one of the songs, Sanjhi is asked about her basic needs — what would she like to wear or eat. In another song, the girls promise to appease her by offering presents. This low key group activity is held every evening for nine days in front of the Sanjhi image put up on walls. On the tenth day of Dussehra, the images from the walls, along with the cow dung used as an adhesive, are scratched and removed. Only the head of the figure is securely contained inside a small earthen vessel whose belly has been ridden with several holes. In the evening, the girls with their respective earthen vessels float their lighted pots in the village pond.

The vessels are hit with cudgels by the village youth to stop the bowls from reaching the other end. A legend says that none of the bowls should float across the pond and touch the other end, otherwise misfortune would fall on the village.