Yum for Mango

From queens & kings to poets to farmers to the common man, everyone has been fond of the king of fruits at one time or another. There’s no escaping this product of summer

From Kalidasa to Khusrau and Ghalib to Iqbal, poets and writers have waxed eloquent about it.

Nobody really remembers or cares how they ate an apple or peeled a banana or sliced a watermelon, but everybody has a mango story to tell and a cache of vivid memories.

The mango was undoubtedly the star of summer vacations when trees laden with fruit would be targeted, entire baskets would be procured and patiently ripened on hay or covered in clay, dunked in buckets of water to cool down, and consumed with glee — sliced, diced, pulped or whole. The fleshy mango stone or seed called guthli or aandi (goratu in Kannada) was accorded the status of a ‘leg piece’ with much table conversation devoted to who should get it. As children, we would be warned not to overeat and risk getting heat boils, but who cared in the face of mango madness…

Of the 50 million tonnes of mango produced globally each year, nearly half of it comes from India, making it the largest mango producer in the world, a $360 million industry.

India’s love affair with mango is not new; the fruit has been around for over 4,000 years and there are perhaps as many varieties of it, if not more. Revered in scriptures and lauded in literature, poetry and music, the mango’s delicious imprint is everywhere.

Associated with Kama, the god of love, it is the eternal fruit of seduction, a perch for cuckoos and a harbinger of spring, when the first mango blossoms appear.

In Raag Bageshri, Ambua ki daali pe bole re koyaliya is the most popular bandish or set of words held together in a raga in Hindustani classical music.

From Kalidasa to Khusrau and Ghalib to Iqbal, poets and writers have waxed eloquent about it.

In legends

There is a legend about how Goddess Parvati once playfully covered Lord Shiva’s eyes, plunging the universe into darkness. As atonement, she shaped a linga out of mud under a mango tree and undertook a penance to win him over. She was reunited with him under the mango tree and the shrine in Kanchipuram is called Ekambaranath — ekya (united), amra (mango), nath (Lord).

Though the original 3,500-year-old tree has withered and its trunk is displayed in the temple corridor, an offshoot still stands in the central courtyard. Its four branches bear fruits of four different shapes and tastes, which supposedly represent the four Vedas. Besides proving the mango’s historic antecedents, it also suggests that ancient India had the knowledge of grafting.

A product of summer, it is also an antidote for it. Since Vedic times, raw boiled mangoes, cumin, sugar and salt have been an age-old remedy for dehydration and heatstroke.

In Ayurveda, tender mangoes with salt and honey aid digestion. It’s auspicious to hang a toran of mango leaves outside homes during festivals.

Mango leaves are placed in a kalasha (urn) during ceremonies; even the sacrificial fire is incomplete without the dry twigs of the sacred mango tree.

From leaf, fruit to seed, the mango motif has been widely interpreted in jewellery design, ancient architecture and textiles across India — evident in the gold zari borders of Kanjeevaram saris, the ajrakh block prints of Rajasthan, the paisley motifs of Kashmir or Kantha embroidery in Bengal.

The king of fruits

If the mango is the king of fruits, it prospered largely due to patronage from kings.

Unwittingly, the mango has played a silent part in the machinations of Indian history. Be it conquerors like Alexander and Alauddin Khilji to Mughal emperors, all readily surrendered to the mango’s charms.

If Daulat Khan Lodi baited Babur with the lure of mangoes to invade India, the exiled Humayun developed an efficient courier system to transport the fruit to Kabul. While Akbar planted thousands of mango trees in Lakhi Bagh in Darbhanga, Shah Jahan created a special delivery channel from the Konkan coast to his court in Delhi.

Shah Jahan even placed his son Aurangzeb, then the Deccan Viceroy, under house arrest for hoarding mangoes for himself. Shah Jahan had a soft corner for Dara Shikoh, who was a keen horticulturist and compiled the Nuskha Dar Fanni Falahat, a treatise on grafting mangoes and cultivars in the royal orchards.

It is said Aurangzeb offered the choicest mangoes to Shah Abbas of Persia to support his claim to the throne. Abul Fazal’s Ain-i-Akbari and Tuzuk-e-Jehangiri contain detailed chronicles of the Mughal obsession with the fruit, fanciful preparations and ‘mango diplomacy’ — still in practice today!

To commemorate his victory over Humayun at the Battle of Chausa in 1539, Sher Shah Suri named his favourite mango Chausa. Originally produced in Multan and Sindh, he helped propagate it across the entire subcontinent. Small and golden yellow when ripe, it has a rich aroma and sweet, juicy pulp.

Best consumed by gently rolling the mango between the palms to loosen the pulp, it is nipped, squeezed and sucked straight. In 1704, Murshid Quli Jafar Khan, the first Nawab of Bengal, transferred his capital from Dhaka to Murshidabad in West Bengal. For half a century, many hybrid varieties were developed under the patronage of the Nawabs. Murshidabad continues to be home to over a hundred exquisite varieties of mangoes with intriguing names like Dilpasand, Mirzapasand, Gulabbhog and Kohinoor.

Andhra Pradesh’s large golden yellow mango, Baiganpalli, popular across India, hails from Banganapalle, the capital of a princely state from 1790 to 1948. It is also called Safeda due to its pale-coloured pulp. Neelam, a late maturing variety from Hyderabad, gets its name from its blue-green skin, and the large, juicy aromatic fruit has a bright orange pulp.

Another lesser-known treat from Andhra is Himayat or Imampasand (The Favourite of Imams), apparently derived from Humayun-pasand, who was supposedly really fond of it. The large pale mango is deliciously sweet with notes of melon and lime, with soft skin that one easily bites through!

In Bihar, mango flourished under the Nandas and Mauryas, who lined their avenues with mango trees. The Maharaja of Darbhanga Lakshmeshwar Singh got German botanist Charles Maries to develop exclusive hybrids. Maries stayed in Darbhanga from 1882 till the maharaja’s death in 1898, and even named a mango after his patron as Lakshmeshwar Bhog.

His unpublished work Cultivated Mangoes of India and detailed drawings are part of the Royal Botanic Garden archives at Kew, London. Varieties like Durgabhog, Sundarprasad and the small, yellow, kidney-shaped Shahpasand are still found in Kalyani Niwas, the private orchard of the Maharani’s residence in Darbhanga.

Gulabkhas has a rosy flavour and a gorgeous blush with a non-fibrous pulp. Amrapali is sweet as honey with notes of citrus and melon with reddish orange skin and pulp. A hybrid between the exquisite Dussehri and Neelam, Amrapali was named after a royal courtesan in the ancient republic of Vaishali renowned for her beauty.

Incidentally, Amrapali was born in a mango grove and on hearing Buddha’s sermon, she donated her wealth and mango orchards to the Buddhist order. Another Dussehri-Neelam hybrid, Mallika, too, is named after its ‘beautiful’ appearance.

Dussehri (or Dashehari) is a medium-sized fruit with a thin stone, pleasant flavour and sweet, firm fibreless pulp. Its origins can be traced to Rohilla chieftains and the Nawabs of Lucknow. A 300-year-old tree in the village of Dussehri belongs to the erstwhile Nawabs of Lucknow — its yield is never auctioned or sold, but handpicked and taken to the Nawab’s family, who incidentally stay in Dusseheri House. Maratha ruler Raghunath Peshwa planted millions of mango trees across Maharashtra, while Kesar was first cultivated by the Nawabs of Junagadh in 1931.

Literary inspiration

The mango inspired many a tale. In Ritusamharam (An Account of Seasons), Kalidasa wrote: ‘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...’ Amir Khusrau called the mango ‘naghza tarin mewa Hindustan’ or ‘the fairest fruit of India’!

In Nagarjun’s book Balchanwa, a child recalls his father’s trespass into a private orchard in Darbhanga to steal two Kishenbhogs and his lynching by the landlord.

In Gulabkhas, Urdu writer Abul Fazal Siddiqi describes a mango contest held every five years in which the best new cultivar is judged by a patriarchal aristocracy of landowners, who are outraged that the winning Gulabkhas was grafted by a female gardener! A commentary on the feudal mindset and social tensions at the time, Siddiqi also describes the taste, blush and textures of various mangoes.

The Neelam featured extensively in David Davidar’s The House of Blue Mangoes, while Mohammed Hanif found inspiration for his political satire A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Urdu poet Akbar Hussain Rizvi, better known by his pen name Akbar Allahabadi, sent a box of Langra mangoes to Muhammad Allama Iqbal in Lahore. Iqbal acknowledged it with the following 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,
Langra the lame walked from Allahabad to Lahore!’

It is believed the mango was named after a lame farmer from Banaras (Varanasi), nicknamed Langda, who planted the variety around 300 years ago. Mildly fibrous, the sweet mango has a distinct pine taste of turpenoline.

Local variants galore

In India’s legendary mango belt of Lucknow-Allahabad-Varanasi, people swear by regional varieties like Lucknowa, Jauhari, Husnara, Langra and of course the Dussehri from Malihabad. The town produces 1.5 lakh tonnes of mangoes every year worth Rs 150 crore, even acknowledged in the movie Lakshya.

For mango farmer and Padma Shri-winner Haji Kaleemullah Khan of Malihabad, growing Dussehri mangoes has been a family tradition for 300 years. His fascination with mango grafting began as a kid when he first heard about cross-bred roses. In the 20-acre Abdullah Nursery that he inherited from his father, Kaleemullah’s legendary tree Al Muqarrar has borne over 300 varieties. From Prince Anarkali and Glass to the heart-shaped Asroor Mukarrar, each species is unique — Karela looks like a bitter gourd while Aamin Lamba is so long it almost touches the ground.

His nomenclature is like a barometer of fame with each new variety named after a celebrity from Indian cinema, sports and politics who’s the flavour of the season.

So there’s Aishwarya, Sonia, Abdul Kalam, Amitabh, Sachin (a hybrid of Gudshah and Chausa) and Akhilesh (Yadav), the tree bore fruit at a tender age of five! Sure enough, there’s a Modi aam as well. A cross between Lucknow’s Dussehri and Kolkata’s Husn-e-aara, it has crimson streaks that gives it a rare, appealing hue!

Each region has its special varieties and the eastern belt is no different, be it Dudhia Malda from Patna and Jardalu from Bhagalpur in Bihar or the Fazli from Bengal.

The late maturing Fazli is a large fruit with a sweet juicy pulp and low fibre; a single fruit can weigh up to a kilo!

In contrast, Kalapahar is a small green variety that’s so delicate it has to be kept on a cushion of leaves. The thin-skinned Himsagar has smooth, silky flesh that’s extremely sweet with a sugary pulp. Kishenbhog is medium to large sized, with pleasantly honeyed flavour and firm, fibrous flesh.

In other forms

In Gujarat, the key mango-growing areas are Valsad, Navsari and Gir. Enterprising Gujaratis know that as summer ends, so will the supply of mangoes, so they bottle it up as preserves, pickles, marmalades and aam ras (mango pulp), to be consumed with puris, parathas or as is. During mango season, it’s pulped diligently at homes on an industrial scale so that aam ras is available all year round. The oblong Vanraj comes with a blush of jasper red while the green-skinned, irregular Kesar is sweet and tart with an intense aroma; its bright saffron flesh inspires its name.

Goa is known for its Fernandina and Malcorada (Mankurad).

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 a foray between their colonies, they took some saplings to Brazil and one of the grafts yielded a perfect fruit — golden yellow when ripe with firm, fibreless orange pulp. The variety was baptised 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. Today, the coastal tract of Ratnagiri and Devgad is the premier mango-growing region in Maharashtra.

State-wise

In Karnataka, the Alphonso is known as Badami, perhaps due to its yellowish appearance and almond-hued pulp rather than the orange of its more famous relative.

In Tamil Nadu, the Salem-Dharmapuri-Krishnagiri belt is famous for its Malgova (or Mulgoba), a large fleshy green fruit with crimson blush, spicy sweet yellow pulp and relatively small stone. Each variety has a particular distinguishing feature and designated use. Totapuri from Krishnagiri is a curvaceous mango shaped like a parrot’s beak.

Crunchy and tangy, it is often pickled or eaten raw as a snack with salt and chilli along with its skin; when ripe, it is perfect for chitranna or mango rice. The oval-shaped Pairi, with fibreless texture and spicy aroma, is great for juicing or directly sucking it whole. The small but fleshy Sindura, named after its striking rouged skin the colour of vermillion, is perfect for milkshakes. 

So is the oval-shaped Raspuri from Mysuru, with reddish-yellow skin and excellent flavour, and as the name suggests, full of juice! The tiny green sakkarekatti (literally ‘lump of sugar’) and kaad mangay (wild mangoes) from Kodagu and Malnad are ideal for pachadis and mangay curry.
With the onset of summer, the heady procession of numerous varieties of mangoes begins. The season starts in April with early varieties like Bambaiyya, Pairi and Baiganpalli, with Langra, Alphonso and Dussehri coming mid-season in June and late-maturing Fazli, Neelam and Chausa in July-August. Wherever you go, you can’t escape the sight of mangoes with hotels and restaurants vying with each other to spike their menus with tasty mango-based treats.

Legend has it that Mirza Ghalib had tried all of 4,000 varieties of mango prevalent in India during his time and was quite suspicious of anyone who didn’t share his love for the fruit.

Aam aur Ghalib, a literary circle dedicated to the appreciation of Mirza Ghalib and mangoes, has met in Lucknow each year for the last three decades.

For the aam aadmi or common man, holidays could turn into a delicious treat — a mango-picking trail to Malihabad or down the Konkan coast to homestays like Pitruchaya near Devgad, Dwarka Farms near Sawantwadi and Atithi Parinay, midway between Ratnagiri and Ganpatipule to enjoy the summer harvest straight from the trees.

Restaurants and hotels offer limited-edition chef specials and mango festivals. Be it Palace Road in Bengaluru, the APMC Fruit Market in Vashi or Delhi’s International Mango Festival in July, the big wide world of mangoes, with all its diverse offerings, is always ripe for the picking.

 

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