Mangoes and International Diplomacy

Ashok Ogra
The major and most delicious component in our recipes, everyone’s first pick of fruit in the summer, is mango. It can be savoured in various forms, be it mango smoothie, mango mousse, mango ice cream or mango pie.
In 2015, Haji Kalimullah, a Padma Shri awardee, named a royal variety of mango after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mangoes have delighted people’s taste buds with their sweet fragrance and flavour for ages. However, while Indians have been cultivating this juicy fruit for more than 4000 years, the Western world has savoured it only for the last 400!
Mangoes find mention in the Vedic and Buddhist texts and the Ashokan inscriptions and the records of foreign travellers like Hiuen Tsang.
The earliest name given to the mango was Amra-Phal. It is also referred to in early Vedic literature as Rasala and Sahakara, and is written about in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and the Puranas, which condemn the felling of mango trees.
In South India, the name translated to Aam-Kaay in Tamil, which gradually became Maamkaay due to differences in pronunciation. The Malayali people further changed this to Maanga.
Legend has it that the Buddha was presented with a mango grove so he could rest under the shady trees. Mangoes in fact were much a part of the ruling class and were held in high esteem since ancient times.
Alexander the Great arrived in India and fought the famous battle with King Porus. When it was time for him to return to Greece, It is believed that he carried the mango back to Macedonia from the court of Porus.
Megasthenes and Hsiun-Tsang, the earliest writer-travellers to ancient India, wrote about how the ancient Indian kings, notably the Mauryas, planted mango trees along roadsides and highways as a symbol of prosperity.
In the medieval period, Alauddin Khilji was the first patron of the mango and his feast in Sivama Fort was a real mango extravaganza with nothing but mangoes in different forms on the lavish menu. Next came the Mughal Emperors, whose fondness for the mango is legendary. The obsessive love for mango was, in fact, the only legacy that flowed untouched from one generation to another in the Mughal dynasty.
It is interesting to note the vivid and extraordinarily detailed picture of the mango found in Mughal testimonies. The Babur Nama considered the first autobiography in Muslim literature written by the Mughal emperor, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur presents a thorough narrative of the fruit:
“When the mango is good it is really good…, few are first-rate…They are usually plucked unripe and ripened in the house.”
Emperor Jahangir in his memoirs the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri says about the mango, “Of all fruits I am very fond of mangoes.
The Mughals relished their favourite addiction, with Jahangir and Shah Jahan awarding their khansamahs for their unique creations like Aam Panna, Aamka Lauz and Aam Ka Meetha Pulao, a delicate mango dessert sold all through the summer in Shahjahanabad.
There are beautiful Mughal miniature paintings that dwell exclusively on the mango fruit. These paintings displays lush green mango trees laden with mangoes on which are perched birds while a peacock and a peahen stroll leisurely beneath.
The Peshwa of the Marathas, Raghunath Peshwa, planted 10 million mango trees as a sign of Maratha supremacy. Folklore has it that it was a fruit from these trees that eventually turned into the famous Alphonso, the king of mangoes.
Mango has not escaped the attention of writers and poets- of couplets and stories about mango.
The famous Persian poet Amir Khusrau called the mango NaghzaTarin Mewa Hindustan, the fairest fruit of Hindustan.
There are several stories about Ghalib related to mangoes. It is said that once Ghalib was eating (rather gorging) mangoes. Along with him was sitting a Doctor friend Hakim Raziuddin Khan. Hakim Sahib saw a donkey sifting through garbage. The donkey did not touch a heap of mangoes which was in the garbage. Hakim Sahib immediately pointed that “Look Mirza, even the donkey does not like mangoes”. Not the one to go let an opportunity, Ghalib replied in his imitable style “True, Hakim Sahib, only a donkey would not like a mango”.
It is not without reason that Ghalib even composed a masnavi (poem in rhythmic couplets) on mangoes. The masnavi is entitled “darsifat e ambaah”
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore too was extremely fond of mangoes and has written several poems about the fragrant flowers of mangoes, including the very famous aamermonjori.
Whether it was the Moghul Emperors, Indian Maharajas or the European Kings, they all loved mangoes. Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj was well aware of this and used a large empty basket of mangoes to escape along with his son, Sambhaji, from ‘house arrest’ by Emperor Aurangzeb, in Agra, during the summer of 1666 AD. If not for mangoes, Shivaji Bhosale might have been exiled to Khandahar in Afghanistan, instead of being crowned Chhatrapati at age 44 years. Just imagine the value of mangoes to the history of India!
Taking a cue from the Mughals, India’s first colonial traders, the Portuguese, sent crates of Alphonso mangoes to the Muslim kingdoms in the Deccan and the Marathas on the Konkan coast as part of diplomatic protocol. The astute Portuguese created a lucrative opportunity for trade by carrying the different varieties of mango from India to Africa, Brazil, and other parts of the world. Thus, the mango became a global fruit in a deglobalised world.
In 1937, mangoes were the obvious present from the government for the coronation of George VI.
But the really big gifter of mangoes would be Jawaharlal Nehru. The Prime Minister was partial to the guavas that famously grew in his hometown of Allahabad, but he must have known that mangoes would make more of a diplomatic impact. Foreign dignitaries visiting India were plied with mangoes in season, and visits abroad were accompanied by mangoes, or even mango saplings.
Part of the mystique of the gifted mangoes lay in learning how to eat them. Foreigners didn’t know how to tackle the fruit, a fact happily taken advantage of by one Indian diplomat living in Geneva. He once met Dag Hammarskjold, the UN secretary-general, whom he knew from an earlier posting to Sweden. Hammarskjold told him he kept getting mangoes from Indians which he didn’t know how to eat. The diplomat was happy to relieve him of such troublesome gifts and take them for his own family.
Pandit Nehru would give lessons in mango eating as part of his presentation of the fruit. The earthy Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev enthusiastically adopted the squeezing and sucking style of eating mangoes, but Chinese premier Chou En-Lai was shown the more formal slicing and spooning method. Chou ate his mango “his beetling brow relaxed, his lips rippled into a smile… He had entered a new world of sweetness and goodwill. Thereafter, he ate out of Mr. Nehru’s hand and signed the famous joint declaration.”
US President George Bush during visit to New Delhi in 2006 was treated to mangoes that he thoroughly relished. Can we credit the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal to King of Fruits?
If China prefers gifting Pandas to foreign dignitaries, can Narendra Modi think of deploying mango diplomacy to repair the damage caused to our relations with the Gulf nations and other Arab countries because of the recent remarks by a BJP spokesperson? Remember, for so many centuries, the exchange of gifts has held us together. It has made it possible to bridge the abyss where language struggles.
(The author works for reputed Apeejay Education Society, New Delhi)