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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

With South Asia’s notoriously hot, muggy summers come the fruit of the season, mangoes. Here, this delicious drupe is also known as ‘the king of fruits.’ The cultivation of mangoes is believed to have originated in South Asia. According to Mango: Botany, Production and Uses, the mango has been cultivated in the South Asian region for over 4,000 years. In the book Historical Geography of Crop Plants, Jonathan Sauer writes that the mango was first ‘domesticated’ in India in 2000 BCE. From here it made its way to East Asia. In the 16th century, it was introduced in various African and South American regions by European traders travelling from India. By 1860, it had made its way into North America.

During my recent visit to the US, a Pakistani-American lady told me that Mexican have flooded the US market and they were as good as Indian and Pakistani mangoes which mangoes most mango connoisseurs would find hard to believe. According to the 2018 brochure of Mexico’s ‘Champaign Mango’ brand, mangoes were first introduced in Mexico in the early 19th century by travellers from India.

Mangoes are now cultivated across South and East Asia, South and Central America, and even in China, where — according to an April 27, 2016 report in the Japan-based news magazine The Diplomat — the fruit was virtually unknown till it was brought there as a gift by Pakistani diplomats in the late 1960s.

Through political history the mango has often been a sweet diplomatic mediator

One essay in Mango: Botany, Production and Uses narrates that the mango entered East Asian regions from India with the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism. By the eighth century, the mango had also reached Baghdad, the centre of the powerful Abbasid caliphate.

The first Europeans to come across this fruit were the Portuguese. They arrived in India in the 15th century and found mangoes being cultivated and enjoyed with great relish. Garcia de Orta, a Portuguese physician and naturalist, who settled in Goa, India, in the 16th century, first wrote about mangoes in 1563. Since mangoes require a hot and humid climate to grow, the Portuguese took the fruit to Brazil. From there it began to spread to the rest of South and Central America. So, basically, the origin of almost each and every mango tree and fruit found anywhere in the world today is South Asia — especially the regions now known as the republics of India and Pakistan.

But nowhere else is the mango held in as much reverence as it is in India and Pakistan. Take for example how the self-professed love for mangoes by one of South Asia’s greatest Urdu/Persian poets, Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), is celebrated over and over again. But even before that, there was the often repeated tale of the sixth century Hindu saint Karaikal Ammaiyar. According to Hindu legend, Karaikal’s husband sent her two mangoes to keep till he came back home. But when a yogi appeared and said he was hungry, she gave him one of the mangoes. After he finished eating it, another mango miraculously appeared. The legend claims that the yogi was the manifestation of the Hindu deity Shiva.

Indian food historian Vickram Doctor, in a June 10, 2017, article in the Economic Times, writes that mangoes in South Asia have also often been used as tools of diplomacy. According to Doctor, this was mainly the doing of India’s Mughal kings who, during their reign between the 16th and mid-19th centuries, greatly encouraged the plantation of mango trees across India. Nobles and growers would often gift Mughal kings crates of mangoes and expect favours in return.

Doctor writes that, by the 1930s, Muslim and Hindu growers, maharajas and nawabs were shipping mangoes as gifts to countries such as Sweden and Holland. In 1937, India’s British colonial government shipped crates of Indian mangoes for the coronation ceremony of King George VI. Growers in Pakistan’s Mirpurkhas area in Sindh gifted crates of mangoes to Queen Elizabeth when she became the new British monarch in 1952. Sindh is home to some of the best variety of Pakistani mangoes, as is the Multan district in southern Punjab.

The influential pirs and landed elite of Sindh quickly adopted the Mughal art of ‘mango diplomacy’ when the British conquered Sindh after the fall of the Mughal empire. They often gifted the British crates of mangoes. The Pirs of Pagara did so too until the sixth pir rebelled against the British in the 1930s. The pir was declared a ‘terrorist’ and executed in 1943. When his son succeeded him as the seventh pir, Pakistan had come into being, and the practice of gifting Sindh’s mangoes to government officials was reinstated by him.

Over 250 varieties of mangoes are grown in Pakistan. Some have rather interesting stories. For example, according to K. Budhwar’s book Romancing the Mango, the delicious Chaunsa or Chausa, which is mostly grown in Pakistan’s southern Punjab area (and also in India), was named by the founder of India’s Suri Dynasty, Sher Shah Suri, after he defeated Mughal Emperor Humayun, at Chausa in Bihar, in 1539.

Sindh’s most popular mango, the large Sindhrri, is believed to have been named by the father of the country’s 10th prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo (1985-88). According to organisers of the 2018 Sindh Mango Festival held in Mirpurkhas, the former PM’s father had brought back some mango seeds from Bombay in the 1920s. He cross-bred the mangoes from these seeds with some other mango species in Sindh’s Tharparkar region, and named the mangoes Sindhrri.

Then there is the curiously named Langrra mango (langrra in Urdu/Hindi means lame). It is grown in both India and Pakistan. According to an essay by Indian food journalist Sarika Rana, the Langrra originated “two to three hundred years ago” in the Indian region of Banaras, from a tree planted by a lame farmer.

The Anwar Ratol is another popular mango of Pakistan. Even though it is not so widely grown in India, its roots lie in the Indian village of Rataul. According to a May 13, 2015, article in Dawn, a Muslim from Rataul migrated to what is now Pakistan’s Punjab with the seeds of an obscure mango species. He named the mangoes that he grew after his father, Anwar. Another source claims, however, that the Pakistan Agricultural Research Department is the one that actually developed the species from a graft from the Rataul trees and it was named Anwar meaning ’better.’ In August 1988, the plane carrying Pakistan’s third military ruler, Gen Zia, crashed over Bahawalpur, killing him. According to the UK’s The Time newspaper, investigators had found chemicals that are used to make small explosives on the mangoes which were stored on the plane. It was also reported that the mangoes were Anwar Ratole.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 21st, 2019