On The Trail Of Nolen Gur, & The Men Who Tap It
Image Credit: Nolen Gur/Credits: Satwik Paul

“A SHIULI'S EXCELLENCE is determined by his hands,” says Aamir Sekh, a resident of Puraton Kella in Diamond Harbour. “The more experienced the shiuli is, the sweeter the sap [he collects].”

Aamir is standing outside the 4 by 10 ft plastic sheet-and-bamboo structure he calls home, which he shares with his father and son. He works as a shiuli, or a gachia — the names for those whose profession it is to care for date palms (khejur) and collect their sap in winter to prepare concentrated jaggery or gur.

Aamir is a full-time gachia. In winter, he taps the date palm; in summer, he collects the sap from palm trees. During the colder months, gachias like Aamir climb to the top of the khejur tree, secured by a chain or rope. In a masterful display of dexterity, they curve and scrape the outer layer of the bark with their trusty sickles, revealing the kernel beneath. A clay pot affixed to a bamboo stick is arranged at the lower end of this kernel, collecting overnight — drop by drop — the sap that flows from the tree.

 Image credits: Shiuli climbing all the way up to the top of the palm/Satwik Paul

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, the gachia climbs back up the tree and retrieves the pot. The sap at this time is transparent, and sweet. It quenches thirst and provides an energy boost if you have it now. Stored in a cool place for a few days, the same sap turns into “tari”, a homemade liquor. But this isn’t its main use. 

Instead, the precious sap is poured into a large container and set to boil on a stove fashioned out of the ground and fired with hay. An hour of boiling turns the colour of the sap to reddish black, and this concentrate is now known as “nolen gur” or “jhola gur”. The liquid nolen gur stays fresh for several months.

About a third of the gur is set aside at this point, while the rest is boiled further, until it turns thick and sticky. This is “dana gur”, which is poured into half spherical clay pots and allowed to rest. As it cools, the dana gur hardens into a half-dome shape and is called “gurer patali”. It is used in the preparation of sweets such as pithe sapta, sondesh, rosogolla, payesh etc.

                 Image: dana gur is poured into moulds to set/Satwik Paul

HAVING NO TREE RINGS, it is very hard to determine the age of a date palm. Aamir says at least six years are needed from birth for a tree to become fruitful. Gachias count the number of curves the khejur has on its trunk, then add 5 to 7 years to reach an approximation of its age. However, this knowledge, like the skill of the gachias, may soon be a thing of the past. “The younger generation is not interested in this. They are driven by technology, they stay far away from nature,” Aamir muses, thinking perhaps of his own son’s future.

Some interventions aim to keep the culture of the gachias, and that of nolen gur, alive. Artist Sarfuddin Ahamed, a frequent visitor to Puraton Kella, founded the Rasamotee [aka Rasmati] International Arts Festival, in a bid to promote a better life for the shiulis. The hope is that such events will keep the shiulis’ traditions vibrant and thriving, by cementing their place in Bengal’s stories, poems and cultural life.