KFB members were recently found sampling delectable mangoes at the Mango Haat that was organised by ITC Sonar in association with Murshidabad Heritage Development Society (MHDS) and iLead. Numerous varieties of the fruit from Murshidabad were on display, in their original form and also as part of finger food and desserts. Guests sampled a variety of bruschettas, canapes, chutneys, cakes, desserts and even sushi made with mango as the core ingredient. The evening, however, was much more than sampling mangoes. It was an evening all of us took back a captivating history lesson. It was also the first time I heard of the ‘Sheherwali’ community.

A highly engaging talk by Mr Pradip Chopra, President of MHDS and Chairman, iLead, ensued and transported us back in time – about 400 years back – when Jain families from Rajasthan took to the fertile terrains of Murshidabad, where they eventually settled and prospered. This community, comprising mainly of Jains of Jiaganj and Azimganj, came to be known as the ‘Sheherwalis’ and evolved a distinct cuisine of its own amalgamating Jain, Bengali and Mughal influences in their style of cooking. Luckily for us, a few samples of Sheherwali cuisine were laid down for the guests – the kacche aam ki kheer (kheer made with raw mangoes) and aam ki launji (a tangy raw mango chutney) were part of this delectable fare. A pocket book on ‘Mangoes from Murshidabad’ designed and compiled by Mr Chopra and the iLead team captures the history of Mangoes in the region and presents some of the Sheherwali recipes with mangoes. We were also informed a coffee table book is in order.

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There was an interesting video on the art of cutting mangoes the Sheherwali way, delicately to ensure the juices do not flow out, and the presentation is aesthetically pleasing. There was also live demonstration where Sheherwali ladies cut mangoes with utmost precision and kept the guests captivated. Talking of delicate handling, we got to see and savour the enigmatic ‘Kohitur’ mangoes which were kept in cotton and turned around from time to time to ensure even ripening. We were told there are only about 50-60 Kohitur producing trees left in the region, and suddenly we felt lucky to have seen and sampled it.  The Kohitur was high on the aroma whereas a variety called Bimli was the sweetest I had tasted that evening.

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I have always been in awe of the work MHDS is doing in preserving the rich heritage of the region that is home to some of the oldest Jain temples in the country, the baluchari saree and the finest muslins on the planet. I also appreciate the good work iLead has been doing in terms of skill development, and in this case preservation of local livelihoods. I have always wanted to go to Murshidabad and explore the history of the place; only this time I’m going to make a plan and make it happen. As a child I have been there several times, since one of my aunts was married into one of the more prosperous and reputed zamindar families in the region. I have faint memories of the grandeur and benevolence, and the huge mango garden (aam bagaan) in the backyard of a size so huge it makes backyard an understatement. My mom mentions they had a room full of cash, and kilos of jewellery was hidden between sheets of bedding. I remember the grand Durga Puja that had almost the entire population of the place and neighboring villages attending. I also remember the slavery where we city kids couldn’t fathom the reason for deployment of one servant per kid, to function as an extra pair of hands, as candle-bearers after sunset and even as company if the kid has to visit the loo. Our vacations abruptly ended following an event that involved treachery and bloodshed, but then that’s a story for another time and place.

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