Like Mahabaleshwar Strawberries? They Have A Colonial History

There are many reasons why Mahabaleswar is referred to as the ‘Strawberry Garden of India.’ Some of the finest strawberry specimens are mainly grown in the Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani belt in western Maharashtra, which also accounts for 85 per cent of total strawberries grown in India. The unique climate, fertile soil, and careful cultivation practices in this region by local farmers have contributed to the exceptional quality of Mahabaleshwar strawberries. 

However, the strawberry farming in Mahabaleshwar has its roots in British India and besides favourable natural conditions, the British Raj was a driving force behind the farming. The British brought strawberries to India in the early 19th century and Lord Auckland, the governor-general during 1836-42, was behind the farming of the first modern strawberries in India. 

In case you didn't know, Strawberry plants are easier to maintain than other fruit trees because they grow quite fast and close to the ground, provided there’s enough labour. Local historical data from 1907 suggests that Bombay’s British escaped Bombay’s sweaty summer and moved to Mahabaleswar and spent their mornings with badminton and strawberry 'chota hazris', the latter being a term for early tea service. 

So strawberry cultivation along the Konkan belt was something that was happening full-fledgedly in the early 1900s. A report on strawberry cultivation in India printed in the Times of India in September 1884, says, “the success of the experiment at the Tanna Jail gardens under the able superintendence of Mr SS Smith.” It makes sense too since a prison offers more consistent manual labour performed by the inmates

In the early 1900, strawberries were grown across Mahabaleswar almost annually. Some news reports from the time mention ‘strawberry parties’ which the rich Britishers would throw every now and then, around winter. Sir Jamsetji Tata had a large estate at Panchgani near Mahabaleshwar and his nephew Sir Sorab Saklatvala, had shared on several occasions that Tata once considered building a jam factory and thought about growing strawberries on the slopes of the plateau which fell under his estate, although it never happened.

Another newspaper report from 1936 reports that over 50,000 pounds or 22 tonnes of strawberries were being harvested annually in Mahabaleshwar, with almost 50% consumed in Mahabaleshwar itself. Over the last few years, Mahabaleshwar's popularity as a tourist destination has led to increased demand for its strawberries. 

The awareness and demand for locally grown, fresh produce have encouraged farmers to maintain high standards in cultivation, ensuring that the strawberries meet the expectations of both locals and visitors. The success of strawberry farming has created employment opportunities, improved livelihoods, and stimulated economic growth in the region.