The 15th and 16th centuries marked a sort of culinary turning point for the world. The discovery of the ‘New’ world i.e. North and South America, opened up a whole new universe of vegetables and fruits , that was quick to come, on the plate, and as this new food got shipped to the ‘old’ world – Europe and Asia, it transformed cuisines. Known as the ‘Columbian Exchange’ this period saw the introduction of the potato, tomato and maize in India. But this was not a one way street. It was during this time, that the popular Indian fruit mango, loved and prized by people across the Indian subcontinent, was introduced to Europe. In fact, the very name for the fruit – ‘Mango’ comes from the Malayalam word for it – Maanga, which Portuguese traders picked up as they transported the lush fruit , back home from the ports of Kerala.
The earliest evidence of the mango in India comes from sixty million year old fossils found in Damalgiri in Meghalaya. The mango was a wild fruit which grew in the thick forests of India at that point. In her research paper the ‘History of mango’ Dr Indu Mehta, Professor of History from the University of Kumaon, points out that the mango took its current form around 2000 BCE, when through the grafting process, the wild variety was developed so that it could be grown in orchards. The earliest literary reference to the mango comes from one of the oldest Upanishads, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, dated to around 700 BCE There is a reference to ‘Amra’ there.
Subsequently, there are numerous references to the mango through literature – proving that not only was the mango a favorite, it was also holy. Like the Hindu texts, Jain and Buddhist texts also mention the greatness and ‘sacredness’ of the mango trees and fruit. There are references to Buddha meditating and performing miracles under the mango tree. For instance in one such tale, Buddha is said to have made a white mango tree appear out of thin air. As a result, Buddhists still consider the mango as a beacon of knowledge and peace. Planting mango trees, for them, is a necessary act of faith. Even in Jain tradition, the Goddess Ambika , the harbinger of wealth and prosperity, holds a bunch of mangoes in her hand. In this case the mango represents fertility.
This theme persisted. Through history, there are many references to local kings planting mango trees as a mark of their prosperity. Even King Ashoka proudly mentions it in his pillar edict at Feroze Shah Kotla in Delhi.
While the Portuguese are credited with taking the mango to Europe in the 15th century CE, the mango began its journey outside India way before the Europeans arrived. It was the Indian Buddhist monks who introduced the Indian variety of mango to South East Asia in the 4th – 5th centuries BCE. Through India and perhaps South East Asia, it reached China in 7th century CE, where it grew abundantly. In the West, traders would take the fruit to Persia, from where it would reach East Africa in the 10th century CE.
It is intriguing to consider if the many different names of the mango, indicate different waves of its travel, out of India. Take for example the Persian word for the mango ‘Anba’ which is quite similar to the Marathi word for it ‘Amba’.
Within India itself the mango was always popular. Ibn Batutta , the noted 14th century Moroccan traveler wrote about how Indians were fond of their mango pickles. Interestingly, he also mentions that mango trees were present around Mogadishu in Somalia.
But even though the mango has been around for so long, it took the Portuguese travelers to come and take it to the western world. In 1498 the Portuguese came to Calicut and took this fruit to Europe. They called it ‘Mango’ after the Malayalam word for it ‘Maanga’. The earliest reference to the name ‘Mango’ in a European language appears in a text by Ludovico di Varthema in Italian in 1510. It is also mentioned by Hendrik Van Rheede, the Dutch commander of Malabar in his book Hortus Malabaricus, a compilation of the plants of economic and medical value in the Malabar region. This work, the only one of its kind, was published in 1678.
The journey of mango continued. It reached Brazil in 1700, and in 1796 CE, it travelled from there to Florida in present day United States. There is a funny story of how Mango was introduced to Jamaica. In 1782, a French ship with mango saplings was heading from Reunion islands in the Indian Ocean to the French West Indies, when a group of pirates captured the ship and dumped them in Jamaica. The rest as they say is history!
Interestingly, the mango seems to have reached Egypt, surprisingly late. In 1826 , the King of Egypt Mohammad Ali Pasha ordered mango trees from India and planted them in his palace at Shubra. The mango would be introduced from India to places like Bermuda and Bahamas as late as 1970s.
In India, the popularity of mango continued as dynasties rose and fell. Perhaps, the most fervent Mango lovers were the Mughals. Memoirs and historical records of Mughal emperors like the Babur Nama, Ain-e-Akbari and Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri talk extensively about mangoes. Akbar is said to have planted around one lakh mango trees near Darbhanga, in North Bihar in a place that is even today called Lakhia Bagh’.
With the love for mangoes , the royal patronage extended to horticulture and grafting of mangoes. Various mango varieties were grafted, including the popular local varieties like the famous Totapuri, which was the first variety to be exported to Persia and other kingdoms. The Mughals relished their favourite addiction, with Emperors like Jahangir and Shah Jahan even handsomely rewarding their Khansamahs or cooks for their unique creations like Aam panna, which is still popular and aam ka meetha pulao.
According to the noted food historian K T Achaya, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to use the grafting technique on mangoes. This led to the creation of some unique mango species which were also later named after the Portuguese! One such is the famed Alphonso mango. It is named after Afonso de Alberquerque, a Portuguese general and military expert who helped establish Portuguese colonies in India.
The experimentation with Mango seemed to have been an obsession all along. The famed Dussehri or Dasheri mango which today sports a geographical indicator status is a brand in itself! This mango species is said to have been first grafted in the gardens of the Nawab of Lucknow in the 18th Century at Dussehri village, near Lucknow. The first fruit of the season was always presented to the Nawab.
Today, the mango is cultivated across the world and it gives succor to many a weary soul in the blistering heat of the Indian summers. It is hard to find a person who doesn’t like the rich taste of the mango. Poets and bards have written about, emperors have lusted after it and it is often said, that even a pauper feels like a king, when he eats it.
It is only apt that we Indians should have a deep connect with the mango… after all it is ours!
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