India’s Passionate Love Affair With Mangoes
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The mango has always been a sensuous, passionate fruit. Mahatma Gandhi, that famous advocate for celibacy and austerity, is believed to have gorged so much on mangoes that he complained that the "mango is a cursed fruit; we must not get used to treating it with so much affection." And the passions that are evoked come mango season are only too well-known. "Which region has the best mango?" is a perennial hot topic on Twitter, and the discussions can get quite mean quite quickly.

Mangoes are native to India. It finds mention in the Vedic and Buddhist texts and the Ashokan inscriptions. The Buddha is believed to have been presented with a mango grove so he could rest under the shady trees. Megasthenes and Hieun Tsang speak about it; Alexander carried it back. Mangoes and the mango tree are widely described in Hindu puranas and folklore. Another fascinated traveler, Ibn Battuta, made copious notes on the fruit on his travels within the country. So pervasive has the love for the fruit been that it features as a motif in art, craft, design, jewelry, and literature. Take the 18th-century Deccan miniature housed at the National Museum in New Delhi, for example. It shows the 14th-century legendary poet Amir Khusrau in conversation with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, sitting under a mango tree bursting with fruit. Khusrau had clearly tasted the fruit, even going so far as to call it naghza tarin mewa Hindustan, "the fairest fruit of Hindustan."

The Mughals had a unique love affair with the king of fruits. The first of them, Babur, with his abiding love for all foods Persian, did not think much of the mango, although he did concede that it may be the best fruit available in Hindustan, which was not saying much considering how he loathed all things culinarily Hindustani. His descendants, however, were sworn lovers of the fruit. In the Ain-i-Akbari, Abu’l Fazl makes detailed accounts of the fruit, noting that "the mango is unrivalled in color, smell, and taste." It comes as no surprise that Akbar ordered an orchard built in the Darbhanga region of Bihar that contained a hundred thousand trees, called Lakhi Bagh. Jahangir – all Hindustani – declared, "notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them, to my taste, has the flavor of the mango." Noor Jahan ensured that her husband received a regular supply of wine blended with roses and mangoes, which she procured from the Konkan region. Shah Jahan was so fond of the fruit that one of the things he was deprived of when placed under arrest by Aurangzeb was access to his favorite fruit. Ironically enough, it was the mango that Aurangzeb is believed to have sent Shah Abbas of Persia to support him in his fight for the throne. The Mughals’ enjoyment of the fruit extended to including it in such new dishes as aam panna, aam ka lauz, and aam ka meetha pulao, among others. As Maria Graham’s 1813 Journal of a Residence notes, "courtiers were stationed between Delhi and the Mahratta coast to secure an abundant and fresh supply for the royal table. The "Mazagaon mango," which came from a specific tree in Mazagaon, even finds mention in James Forbes' Oriental Memoirs, where he calls the mango "deservedly esteemed one of the greatest blessings in India." The "parent tree" was part of the dowry settlement in the wedding of Catherine of Braganza and Charles II, along with, of course, the island of Bombay.

It was the Portuguese who established the first European foothold in India that truly revolutionized the mango. The mango may have been native to India, but the sheer variety we see now is in large part due to the Portuguese introducing grafting techniques to the tree. Mexico, which is now the world’s largest exporter of mangoes, got its start with Afonsos, Fernandinas, and Malgoa. Akbar in fact encouraged these Portuguese scientific experiments in grafting in his Lakhi Bagh, from which came the Rataul, Langra, Dasheri, Totapuri, and Chausa, among others.

The mango has infiltrated design in such pervasive ways that we do not stop to think about it. Ambi or kairi or paisley designs—patterned after the mango—are everywhere, from Kashmiri pashminas to Andhra kalamkari, Maharashtrian Paithanis, South Indian Kanjeevarams, and Lucknowichikankari. Paisley pattern is essentially the mango motif brought to the Scottish textile town of Paisley by the British for mass production. 

Ghalib, a true mangohead, regretted in his old age that he could no longer eat the ten to twelve mangoes he could eat in his youth and that "the days of life itself have come to an end." In his Dar Sifat-e-Ambaah (On the Attributes of Mangoes), he starts:

Mujhse mat poochho, tumhen khabar kyahai/

Aam keaageneyshakarkya hain?

Or, as Mustansir Dalvi translated it,

If you were to ask me, what do I know—sugarcane barely compares with ambrosial mango?

Whatever your political affiliation may be, it is safe to say we are all aamaadmis.