With a history of over 4000 years, the mango remains the undisputed king of fruits, inspiring poets, musicians, architects and designers for centuries. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY indulge in a bit of mangolomania…
It is with good reason that the gold-skinned mango is regarded as the fruit of the gods. According to Puranic lore, goddess Parvati playfully covered Lord Shiva’s eyes one day, plunging the universe into absolute darkness. To atone for her transgression, she performed great austerities. She fashioned a lingam out of sand under a mango tree and worshipped Lord Shiva ardently. Pleased by her unwavering devotion, Shiva relented and Kamakshi, the lovelorn goddess was reunited with her lord under the same mango tree. The temple that commemorates this incident is called Ekambaranath – after ekya (united), amra (mango), nath (Lord) – and a mango tree still stands in the compound of the Shiva shrine in Kanchipuram.
Though the original 3,500-year-old tree has withered and a portion of its trunk is on display behind a glass case in the temple hallway, its offshoot in the central courtyard is unique. Its four branches bear fruits of four different shapes and tastes, which supposedly represent the four Vedas. This legend highlights not only the significance of the mango since antiquity, but also suggests the art of grafting was known in ancient India.
The mango has been around for over 4000 years in India with nearly as many varieties. The mango is to Indians what chocolate was to the Aztecs. Associated with Kama the god of love, the heavenly mango is hailed as the messenger of spring, a poetic perch for cuckoos and the eternal fruit of seduction. From Kalidasa to Khusrau, poets and writers have waxed eloquent about it. In Ritu Samharam (An Account of Seasons), Kalidasa describes spring thus, ‘Intoxicated by the nectar of mango blossoms, the cuckoo kisses his mate happily in love, the lovely mango shoot is his choicest arrow, the swarm of bees is his bow string. ‘Ambua ki daari se bole re koyaliya’, is the most popular bandish (set of words tied together in a raga) in Raag Bageshwari.
Revered in scriptures and lauded in literature, music and poetry, the mango’s resonating imprint can be found everywhere. From leaf to seed, the mango has been celebrated in textiles, jewelry and architecture across India –the gold zari borders of Kanjeevaram saris, the block prints of Rajasthan, the paisley motifs of Kashmir or Kantha embroidery in Bengal. As an auspicious symbol, mango leaves are hung outside homes and temples during festivals and around a kalasha (urn) for ceremonies. The sacrificial fire is not complete without dry twigs and branches of the sacred mango tree.
Since Vedic times, raw boiled mangos, cumin, sugar and salt was a remedy for dehydration and combating heatstroke. Ironically, a product of summer, it is also an antidote for it. In Ayurveda, tender mangoes with salt and honey helps aid digestion. However, it wasn’t until the middle of last century that the mango was taken to another level by its connoisseurs.
If the mango is the undisputed king of fruits, it is an irrefutable fact that it was the kings who elevated the mango to what it is today, offering it royal patronage across the country. Chausa, originally produced in Sindh and Multan, was popularized by Sher Shah Suri after his victory over Humayun at the Battle of Chausa in 1539. To commemorate the event, he named his favorite mango ‘Chausa’ and helped propagate it throughout the subcontinent.
In 1704, Murshid Quli Jafar Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal, transferred his capital from Dacca to Murshidabad in West Bengal. Until the British defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, many hybrid varieties were developed under the patronage of the Nawabs. Even today, Murshidabad is home to over a hundred varieties of mangoes – Dilpasand, Mirzapasand, Gulabbhog and Kohitoor to name a few.
In Bihar, the Maharaja of Darbhanga got a German botanist Charles Maries to develop exclusive hybrids. Varieties like Durga Bhog, Sundar Prasad and Shah Pasand can still be found in the private orchard of the Maharani’s residence in Darbhanga – Kalyani Niwas. 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 unpublished treatise ‘Cultivated Mangoes of India’ and a volume of his drawings are kept at the Royal Botanic Garden archives at Kew, London.
Andhra Pradesh’s large golden yellow mango Baiganpalli, popular across South India, hails from Banganapalle, the capital of a princely state from 1790-1948. The success of the Dussehri or Dashehari can be traced to the Nawabs of Lucknow and a 300-year-old tree in 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 incidentally stay in ‘Dusseheri House’.
Legend has it that Mirza Ghalib had tried all of 4000 varieties of mango prevalent in India during his time. ‘Aam aur Ghalib’, a literary circle dedicated to the appreciation of mangoes and Mirza has met in Lucknow annually for the last 30 years. The mango has inspired many a tale. If the Neelam featured extensively in David Davidar’s ‘The House of Blue Mangoes’, across the border Mohammed Hanif found inspiration for his political satire ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’. In Nagarjun’s gripping book ‘Balchanwa’, a child recalls his father trespassing into a private orchard in Darbhanga to take two kishenbhogs and is ultimately lynched by the feudal owner. To think an army officer could shoot a child for pilfering mangoes a few years ago goes to prove how little things have changed…
In the story ‘Gulab Khas’, famous Urdu writer Abul Fazal Siddiqi describes a mango contest held every five years in which the northern aristocracy judges the best new cultivar. When a dispute breaks out between two leading mango growers of the region, the arbitrator feels that “the eyes of the whole subcontinent were riveted on him,” and that his task is “fraught with historical import.” In the end, the cultivar grown by a humble female gardener—the gulab khas—wins the prize, leaving the landowners outraged and baffled. While touching upon the prevalent feudal tensions in India at the time, Siddiqi masterfully describes the taste, blush and textures of various mangoes.
When Urdu poet Akbar Hussain Rizvi, better known by his pen name Akbar Allahabadi, sent a box of the legendary langda mangoes to Muhammad Allama Iqbal in Lahore, Iqbal acknowledged it with a couplet. “Asar hai teri aijaz-e-masihaee ka ay Akbar, Allahabad se langda chale Lahore tak pahunche.” ‘Akbar, this is the miracle of your healing powers like a Messiah, langda the lame travelled from Allahabad to Lahore!’ Last year, it was the turn of Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif to send crates of chausa to Indian PM Narendra Modi!
India’s legendary mango belt of Lucknow-Allahabad has varieties people swear by – from Dussehri, Fazli, Lucknowa, Jauhari, Safeda, Amrapali to Husnara. Malihabad alone produces 1.5 lakh tonnes of mangoes every year worth Rs.150 crores, earning a mention in the Hrithik Roshan movie ‘Lakshya’. After nearly half a millennia of innovation, mango farmer and Padmashri Awardee Haji Kaleemullah Khan of Malihabad continues his relentless exploration and experimentation with his beloved fruit. Though growing dussehri mangoes had been a family tradition for three hundred years, his fascination for mango grafting started when he heard about cross-bred roses as a child. 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 while Aamin Lamba is so long it almost touches the ground. His nomenclature is a barometer for the fluctuating fortunes of Indian cinema, sports and politics where each new variety is named after a celebrity who’s the flavor of the season. So there’s Aishwarya, Sonia, Sachin (a unique hybrid of Gudshah and Chausa) and Akhilesh– like UP’s young CM, the tree bore fruit at a tender age of five! Predictably enough, now there’s a Modi aam too. A cross between Lucknow’s dussehri and Kolkata’s Husn-e-aara, it has crimson streaks that give it a rare and appealing hue!
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, an industry worth $360 million. With the onset of summer, the heady procession of various varieties of mangos begins. The season starts in April with early varieties like Bambaiyya, Pairi and Banganapalli, Alphonso and Dussehri in mid-June and late-maturing Fazli, Neelam and Chausa in July-August. The list of regional stalwarts is impressive – Kesar and Valsad of Gujarat, Fernandina and Malcorada (Mankurad) of Goa, Malda, Himsagar and Kishenbhog of Bengal, Gulabkhas of Bihar, Langda of Banaras, Totapuri from Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, Raspuri from Mysuru, the small green kaad mangay (wild mangoes) of Kodagu’s forests and the king of mangoes, the Alphonso or Hapoos of Ratnagiri.
The legendary Alphonso is named after Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), the second governor of Portuguese India. Enamoured 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. Locals mispronounced it as Aphoos in Konkani and by the time it spread from Goa to Maharashtra and Gujarat, it was called Hapoos.
Astute Gujaratis know that as summer ends, so will the supply of mangoes, so they bottle it up in various forms – from marmalade, preserves, pickles to bell jars of aam ras, consumed with puris, parathas or as is. The mango mania is most apparent at Valsad and Navsari districts. Each variety has its uses. Totapuri, shaped like the beak of the parrot, makes for a great snack with salt and chili. The small but fleshy Sindura, named after its striking red rouged skin, is perfect for milk shakes. Chausa is good as it is – usually rolled between the palms to loosen the pulp, nipped, squeezed and sucked straight from the fruit.
Atithi Parinay at Kotawde, a charming homestay run by Medha Sahasrabuddhe midway between Ratnagiri and Ganpatipule, offers mango tourism – unlimited mangoes during summer. The orchard of 25 trees has mostly hapoos besides Kesar, Neelam, Dudh peda and Vanraj. Follow the mango trail down the Konkan coast to homestays like Pitruchaya near Devgad and Dwarka Farms near Malvan.
In Bangalore vendors line the wide footpath of Palace Road as commuters stop to pick up the season’s catch. In Mumbai, mango aficionados are ready to travel to the wholesale APMC Market at Vashi in Navi Mumbai (if not all the way to Ratnagiri) to buy them by the crate. All of Delhi eagerly waits for the International Mango Festival in July to have all wonderful varieties under one roof.
With a long hot summer and over a thousand recipes waiting to be prepared, it won’t be long before every fruit that dangles like a luscious golden bauble from its leafy branches is harvested and devoured. The mangophiles are already swarming the marketplace like mango flies around a fruit basket…
FACT FILE: A-Z of Mangoes
Origin: Ratnagiri, Maharashtra
Golden yellow when ripe with firm, fibreless orange pulp, not very fragrant
Origin: Uttar Pradesh
Hybrid of Neelam and Dussehri with reddish orange skin and pulp
Origin: Andhra Pradesh
Large sized, sweet, also called safeda, because of the whitish colour of the pulp
Origin: Pakistan/North India
Small golden yellow when ripe, rich aroma with sweet, juicy pulp, great sucking mango
Origin: Malihabad, UP
Medium sized fruit, with pleasant flavour, sweet, firm fibreless pulp, thin stone
Origin: Bangladesh/East India
Sweet juicy pulp, low fibre, large fruit (almost a kilo), late maturing variety
Rosy flavor, gorgeous blush, non-fibrous pulp great for mango desserts
Thin-skinned with smooth, extremely sweet silky flesh and sugary pulp
Small green variety that’s so delicate it’s kept on a cushion of leaves
Green-skinned, irregular shaped with intense aroma, bright orange flesh and very sweet and tart.
Medium to large sized, with pleasant sweet flavour and firm, fibrous flesh
Origin: Varanasi, UP
Mildly fibrous with a distinct pine taste of turpenoline
Origin: Tamil Nadu
Large green fruit with crimson blush, very fleshy with spicy sweet yellow pulp and small stone
Newer hybrid of Neelam and Dussehri named after its beautiful appearance, honey sweet with notes of citrus and melon
Derived from Malcorada, large fruit with fibreless, firm flesh
Late maturing variety, large, juicy and very aromatic, bright orange pulp but named after its blue-green skin
Origin: Goa/Coastal Maharashtra
Oval-shaped with fibreless texture and spicy aroma, great for juicing
Origin: Mysore, Karnataka
Oval-shaped, reddish yellow skin, excellent flavour and juicy, hence the name
Small, yellow, kidney-shaped
Origin: Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu
Curvaceous mango with typical parrot-beak shape, crunchy and tangy, often pickled or eaten raw, along with its skin
Origin: Vadodara, Gujarat
Oblong with blush of jasper red
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2016 issue of Discover India magazine.