Finger millet crossed the Indian Ocean more than 1,000 years ago and since then has become extremely important in South Asia. In India, where it is generally called "ragi," this native African grain is now grown on more than 2 million hectares.
In its new home, scientists and farmers have created numerous ragi races. There are, for instance, plants that are purple; seedheads that are short, long, "open," "curved," or "fisty"; seeds that range from almost black to orange-red; and there is also a popular type whose seeds are pure white. Some ragi varieties are dwarfs (less than 50 cm), some tiller profusely, some are slow to mature and are grown mainly under irrigation, while others mature quickly and lend themselves to dryland production.
Ragi is considered one of India's best dryland crops, and most of it is produced without supplemental water. The plant is both adaptable and resilient: it survives on lateritic soils, it withstands some salinity, and it has few serious diseases or pests. Ragi also yields well at elevations above those suitable for most other tropical cereals. In the Himalaya foothills, for example, it is cultivated up to slightly over 2,000 m above sea level.
Despite its importance in the Himalayas, about 75 percent of the ragi area lies in South India, particularly in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. In parts of this vast region farmers can get two crops a year; in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh three are not unknown. Wherever the rains at sowing time are uncertain, the farmers often transplant ragi like rice. In fact, the two crops are commonly grown in a "relay'' that is good for both. For instance, in May a farmer may start out by sowing ragi seeds in the nursery; in June, he (or she) transplants the seedlings to the field and replants the nursery with rice seeds; in August, the ragi crop is harvested and the rice seedlings are put out into the just vacated fields. This process is efficient, highly productive, and a good insurance against the vagaries of the weather.
Ragi yields as much as 5,000 kg of grain per hectare. Because the seed can be stored for decades (some say 50 years), it is highly valued as a reserve against famines.
However, ragi is much more than just a famine food. In certain regions it is an everyday staple. It is, for instance, a principal cereal of the farming classes in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, as well as in the Himalaya hill tracts (including those of Nepal). The grain is mainly processed into flour, from which is made a variety of cakes, puddings, porridges, and other