ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY embark on a mango trail across mythology and folklore to showcase the best varieties of India’s most loved fruit
Revered in scriptures, praised in poetry and celebrated in textiles, jewelry and architecture, the mango’s resonating imprint can be found everywhere in India. Associated with Kama the god of love, considered the messenger of spring and the abode of cuckoos, the fragrant mango is the eternal fruit of seduction, its succulent ripeness often likened to a woman’s breasts. To British actor Terence Stamp ‘Eating a mango is like having sex, it has to be dirty to be good’. Which explains why he enjoys eating them in the bath! From gun-toting army officers ready to kill for the sake of a mango to Quick Gun Murugan’s girlfriend Mango Dolly, no other fruit has captured the imagination of so many.
As per legend, once Parvati playfully covered Lord Shiva’s eyes, plunging the universe into complete darkness. To atone, she performed great austerities and worshipped Lord Shiva by fashioning a sand lingam under a mango tree. Pleased by her devotion, Shiva relented and Kamakshi, the love-lorn goddess was united (ekya) with her Lord (nath) under the same mango (amram) tree. The trunk of the original 3,500-year-old mango tree lies in the temple corridor but a graft version still stands in the compound of the Ekambaranath temple in Kanchipuram. Its four branches bear fruits of four different shapes and tastes, which represent the four Vedas. This little lore highlights not only the significance of the mango since antiquity, but also suggests that the ancients knew the art of grafting.
Take mango evangelist and Padmashri Awardee Haji Kaleemullah Khan of Malihabad for instance. Though growing dussehri mangoes had been a three-century-old family tradition, his fascination with mango grafting began as a child when he first heard of cross-bred roses. In the 20-acre Abdullah Nursery he inherited from his father, Kaleemullah’s legendary tree Al Muqarrar has borne over 300 varieties on its branches. From Glass, Prince and Anarkali to the heart-shaped Asroor Mukarar, each specimen has a story – Karela looks like a bitter gourd, Aamin Lamba is so long it almost touches the ground while Aishwarya is as dainty as the actress! There’s Sonia aam, Sachin aam (a unique hybrid of Gudshah and Chausa) and the latest offering – Akhilesh aam. Like UP’s young CM, the tree bore fruit at a tender age of five.
Equally delightful is the tale of the 300-year-old tree named after the village of Dussehri. The property of the Nawabs of Lucknow, the mangoes of this tree are never auctioned or sold. The fruits are handpicked and taken to the Nawab’s family who interestingly stay in the Dusseheri House. Besides Dussehri, Lucknow’s mango belt is known for varieties like Chausa, Fazli, Lucknowa, Jauhari, Safeda, Amrapali and Husnara. Malihabad alone produces 1.5 lakh tonnes of mangoes every year worth Rs.150 crores, earning a mention in the Hrithik Roshan starrer ‘Lakshya’.
As the king of fruits, the mango has always enjoyed royal patronage across the length and breadth of the land. From Andhra’s Baiganpalli, a large golden yellow mango from Banganapalle, capital of a princely state from 1790-1948 to the Maharaja of Darbhanga who got a German botanist, Charles Maries to develop exclusive varieties. Species like Durga Bhog, Sundar Prasad and Shah Pasand can still be found in the private orchard at Kalyani Niwas, the Maharani’s residence in Darbhanga. Maries stayed in Darbhanga from 1882 till the death of Maharaja Lakshmeshwar Singh in 1898 and even named a mango after his patron –Lakshmeshwar Bhog. Maries’s seminal work ‘Cultivated Mangoes of India’ was never published but his manuscripts and a volume of his drawings lie preserved at the Royal Botanic Garden archives at Kew, London.
There are other quirky tales in India – like a mango-themed farmstay in a region synonymous with coffee! Scarcely a stone’s throw from Cauvery Nisargadhama near Kushalnagar in Coorg is Mango Moments, a farm that was started in a huff. In 1929, KC Devaiah, a Mercara-based planter, saw a heap of mangoes at his brother’s farm and asked for a handful but was refused. Rebuffed, he swore to grow his own mangoes. After acquiring land at Madapatna, an abandoned village near Kushalnagar, he planted mango saplings and got donkeys to ferry water from the Cauvery half a kilometer away, riding 29km everyday on horseback to supervise the work from Madikeri. Sadly he died in 1934, unable to taste the sweet fruits of his toil. Today, his grandson KM Thimmaiah runs the 15-acre farm of 55 trees of Raspuri, Malgoa and Totapuri, with a sprawling farmhouse perfect for a summer break. On the banks of the placid Cauvery, tall trees of kaad mangay or wild mango are laden with egg-sized fruit that ooze a distinct sweetness.
Of the 23 million tonnes of mango produced globally every year, nearly 56% comes from India, making it the largest mango producer in the world. The season starts in March-April with early varieties like Bambaiyya, Pairi and Banganapalli, Alphonso and Dashehri in mid-season and late-maturing Fazli, Neelam and Chausa coming towards July-August. The list of regional stalwarts is impressive – Kesar and Valsad of Gujarat, Fernandina and Malcorada (Mankhurad) of Goa, Malda, Himsagar and Kishenbhog of Bengal, Gulabkhas of Bihar, Langda of Banaras, Totapuri from Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu and the king of mangoes the Alphonso or Hapoos of Ratnagiri.
Alphonso is allegedly named after Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), second governor of Portuguese India. Impressed by this tropical fruit, the Portuguese experimented with mango grafting using European methods. On the many forays between their colonies, they took some saplings to Brazil and one of the grafts provided a perfect fruit. The variety was baptized Affonse and came back to India in the 16th century as Alphonso. The locals mispronounced it as Aphoos in Konkani and by the time it spread from Goa to Maharashtra and Gujarat, it was called Hapoos.
Atithi Parinay at Kotawde, a small homestay equidistant from Ratnagiri and Ganpatipule, has opened its doors to mango tourism – unlimited mangoes for breakfast during the summer season. Medha Sahasrabuddhe has an orchard of 25 trees, mostly hapoos with a few each of Kesar, Neelam, the small-sized Dudh peda and Vanraj. ‘There are so many varieties, each with its distinct taste, shape, size and smell’, gushes Medha, ‘The tiny Bitki aam rarely sees a knife and is consumed whole or made into Kharaat la amba, a sweet-sour pickle with mustard seeds. Bhopali amba, the size of a small pumpkin is good for aam ras. Pairi is sweet but has a slight khataas (tang) to it, which is why for every 10 hapoos, we add a pairi to give the aam-ras some bite.’
‘A dash of pepper powder and ghee cuts all the heat and heaviness’, adds Medha’s mother. She elaborates on the various preparations in a Brahmin Maharashtrian household. ‘There’s aam panna, which can be of kachcha (unripe) or pakka (ripe) mangoes. Aam poli is mango pulp made into chapattis that can be consumed all year round. There’s ambochi cha lonche or cut raw mangoes dried in the sun mixed with jaggery and made into a sweet pickle.’
To enjoy mangos in the sweet aroma of an orchard laden with fruits, head down the Konkan Coast to Pitruchhaya Homestay near Devgadh or Nandan Farms and Dwarka Farmstay near Sawantwadi for a slice of heaven. Buy mangoes by the crate at wholesale prices from the APMC Market at Vashi in Navi Mumbai. Or catch all wonderful varieties under one roof at the International Mango Festival in Delhi in July.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 28 May 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online.