Seeing her bent over a pile of grass and a needle in hand triggers my curious mind; does needle and grass go hand in hand? There she is, dragging a single blade of golden grass with a big needle, weaving away with full concentration. Vaishali Panda is one among several women in a remote village, Antia, near Jajpur in Odisha, a state in India. After completing all her household chores, she grabs a bundle of grass and gets on to her hobby of basket weaving.

But what is special about this basket weaving, you may wonder. Well, the grass itself is a wonder!

It is the Golden Grass of Odisha, scientific name: Vetiveria Zizanioides, a perennial bunchgrass of the family Poaceae. They call it Kaincha in the Odiya language. The colour of the dry grass, a bright golden yellow, and its metallic sheen lent the name – Golden Grass.

So where do they grow this gold?

As you sow, so shall you reap - goes the popular saying. However, here the case is different. “It is not grown, they just grow,” said Kishore Mohanty. “When the grass grows in excess, we just uproot them. It is easy, as the soil is moist.” This family of wild grass grows in abundance in the swampy and marshy riverside areas. It is interesting how the locals have developed their own ways of using this excess to their benefit – a classic case of excess material management.

Believed to have originated in India, this family of bunch grass can be found in Haiti, Indonesia and Reunion too. These genotypes are non-invasive. Farmers can easily control their growth by cultivation of the soil at the boundary of the hedge. But invasive fertile genotypes of vetiver too are welcome as they prove to be of use to farm owners.

The plant helps to stabilise soil and protects it against sheet erosion. Excess of these bunch grass turn up as fodder for animals.

Being resistant to pests and weeds has proved to be the added reason for weaving them into baskets. The contents in the baskets woven out of these grasses remain pest free. Villagers find them useful as containers for their grains.

No part of the grass goes to waste. Oil is extracted from its roots that are used for cosmetics, aromatherapy, herbal skincare, and ayurvedic soap. Finally, it is its fibrous properties that make it useful for handicrafts, ropes and more.

After the grass has attained their full growth, these are cut and dried. When fully dried, the grass would have attained a shine and bright yellow colour. These are heaped up at a place where women plan to meet and work on them.

At Antia village near Jajpur in Odisha, I happened to witness this scene. Around thirty women, all draped in colourful cotton ikkat sarees, and armed with small tool kits that had scissors, knives and needles, sat with their bundles of grass; they looked thoroughly professional. It was a sight to behold!

Womenfolk of many parts of Odisha have taken up this art form to create wonders. Vaishali says, “I learned the art from my mother, who was taught by her mother. Earlier it was just baskets and containers, but we make different kinds of products now.” She showed me trays, wall hangings, centrepieces, hats and more.

They use homemade colours to dye the grass. The colourful specks in the golden grass décor items make the finished product look stunning. Craft items are used both for traditional use in socio-religious rituals and as modern lifestyle accessories. Though they may have a common theme, no two products are the same. Each uses their own creativity to create different patterns.

Bipin Kumar Raut, member of Adi Shakti group, who plays a major role in the Self-Help Group of Jajpur district, said, “We have taken the services of the senior women in the village to train the other women in the village. We help them sell their works to online shops and other markets outside the village.”

He is excited that the Government has applied for the ‘Geographical Indication’ (GI) tag for this Golden Grass craft. This will help brand promotion of the golden grass products in the international market, besides increasing awareness on an international level.

Several self-help groups take the initiative to display their products in exhibitions, shows and fairs. Sixteen out of thirty districts in the state have golden grass clusters and more than 3000 artisans are involved in creating this handicraft.

Government has stepped in to save and promote this unique art of golden grass weaving with the Skill Acquisition and Knowledge Awareness for Livelihood Promotion (SANKALP) scheme. Both trainees and trainers are paid, that helps keep them motivated.

Vaishali’s daughter tries to imitate her. I get goosebumps seeing the mother gently handhold her little one to weave correctly. With the world getting filled with more and more junk plastic products, it is time we adapt ourselves to eco-friendly products. Golden grass décor products seem to fit the bill well.