Wine in Sealed Glasses: In Praise of Mangoes by H.N. Bali SignUp

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Wine in Sealed Glasses: In Praise of Mangoes
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

Do you know of a fruit that has pride of place in the national anthem of a country? Difficult to surmise! Indeed. There’s no mention of apple in the star Spangled Banner of the United States, of Kiwi in New Zealand’s God of Nations at Thy Feet or cherry blossoms in Japan’s Kimigayo. Yes, my poser is pretty difficult. So let me give you a clue. None other than what I’m writing about. Yes, the mango. And that figures in the national anthem of the country we have had a hand in creating. Indeed I’m referring to Bangladesh.

O ma,
Phagune tor amer bone
Ghrane pagol kore,

In Spring, Oh mother mine, the fragrance from
your mango-groves makes me wild with joy.

And the above lines immortalize both the land, its people and, of course, the unique fruit.

The author of the above was the same who penned the national anthem of India - Rabindranath Tagore.


One thing common to all the countries of South Asia is Mango, and perhaps most predominantly in case of India, where the summers are painfully oppressive. And till the dark monsoon clouds arrive, the only silver lining is the mango season. The plump, juicy fruit is a real gift of the gods for humans. Let’s learn to count our blessings. If you have any doubt - any possible misgiving - go back to Ghalib’s famous masnawi - Dar Sifat-e-ambah (In Praise of Mango).

And inseparably associated with mango is Koel and its enchantingly melodious calls.

Koel is a singing bird with a green bill and long tail. She is of dark green color spotted with white bands - difficult to spot in rich green foliage. And the Koel’s association as a herald of the mango season is as old as the snow-capped Himalayas.

One of the joys of childhood in India is to play a competitor to Koel. The bird sings and you imitate the call. Invariably, Koel responds in a trifle higher pitch. It goes on till you are forced to give up.

You have indeed missed something in life if you didn’t hear the first calls of Koel at the beginning of the spring reminding you to get ready for the mango season

In Ritu Samhara Kalidasa compares the mango blossoms to the arrows of Manmatha the Hindu God of love, and that’s the time Koel sings irresistibly.

Intoxicated by the nectar of mango blossoms ,
the koel kisses his mate happily in love,....

The lovely mango shoot is his choicest arrow,
the swarm of bees is his bow string,
May the world-conquering Manmatha,
Accompanied by Vasanta,
Grant you more and more joy.

The association of Koel with mango season is immortalized in the following Punjabi folk song:

ambian dey booteyaan noo lag gya boor nee
ambva phootey, tesu phule

mango buds snap open
the tesu blooms,
koel boley dar dar,
the koel sings from every branch,
gori kare shingar
beautiful women do the make-up.


There are around thousand mouth-watering varieties of mango available all over the world. There’s endless debate as to which of these five varieties have the pride of place as the best in flavor and richness:

Alphonso is the most exquisite variety of mango and is the best when it comes to flavor, appearance and richness. It has a very limited season, namely, from the end of March to mid-May. It is the most expensive variety of mango which is grown in the western parts of India mainly in parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat because of favorable climatic conditions obtained in those regions.

Alphonso variety is so unique in itself that even by planting the seed of Alphonso, the tree that will be grow will not bear Alphonso variety but will be fruited by a different variety of mango. A completely different technique is acquired to grow Alphonso which makes it all the more costly and rare and thus the best of all types of mangoes.

A word about the Portuguese name of a fruit so quintessentially Indian. By no means did the Portuguese bring this variety of mango to India. It was growing in Goa when they arrived. The variety is named after Afonso de Albuquerque, a Portuguese general and military expert who helped establish Portuguese colonies in India. It was during his tenure that the Indian mango growers learned the techniques of grafting the fruit that the Jesuit priests excelled in. Grateful mango growers named the fruit after the General.

Badami mango is grown in southern India in the months of May, June and July. It is eaten both raw and is also consumed in the form of mango shakes. It is able to retain its freshness for longer time periods and is thus easily stored and exported. It has a soft flesh and it is often said that it when eaten cold, it is extraordinarily delicious.

Chausa which is grown in Multan districts of Punjab in Pakistan is the fourth most popular breed of mango as it has a unique fragrance and extremely delicious taste. The flesh of this mango contains minimal amount of fiber and is exceptionally soft. This variety can be grown from early June to early September.

Sindhri which is also the national fruit of Pakistan is grown in Sindh. This mango is sharply elongated in shape and has a pointed curve. Because of its extreme sweetness and flavor it is also known as Honey Mango. The flesh of this mango is really soft and melts very quickly and due to this reason it cannot be stored for long and have to be eaten within a few days whenever purchased.

Dashehari is one of the most popular mango varieties of North India, widely acclaimed for its exquisite taste and pleasant aroma. It is believed that the trees on 80% of the area covered by mango in northern India can be genetically traced back to a few original trees. Almost all orchards in Malihabad are dominated by Dashehari.

Consider for a while what qualities does a mango have to possess to be called Naazuk-Pasand (one preferred by the delicate)? Or Rahmat-e-Khaas (a special grace)?

How to Eat

We learned in early childhood how to eat mangoes with gay abandon. However, the frigid foreigners, particularly the Brits and their Indian followers found it difficult to manage it. Woe betide people who cannot figure out the joy of eating a mango gustily - with the juice trickling down one’s cheeks.

Let me illustrate this by an apocryphal story.

During one of the round table conferences in London convened by the British in 1930’s to resolve - delay perhaps would be a more appropriate word – India’s constitutional demands, the ruler of a leading princely state presented adequate supply of the choicest mangoes to be served as desert.

Looking at the tempting fruit the Prime Minister turned to the Secretary of State for India - the cabinet minister in charge of affairs in the India subcontinent and asked: “You’re our expert on India. How on earth do you deal with the fruit?”

“Haven’t an idea. I took charge of the portfolio before the mango season arrived. However, let me ask the Viceroy.”

So he turned to the Viceroy and Governor General of India. “How do you tackle this fruit?”

The Viceroy too had assumed his Office that winter at the end of mango season. So he quickly consulted a real old hand on India - the seasoned UP Governor.

Taken by surprise how to advise His Majesty’s Government he looked in the eye of his boss and said with all honesty he could muster: “Tell you the truth, Sir, I eat it in the bathroom sucking and chewing with my hands and then washing my face and hands.”

I imagine all the participants of the State banquet didn’t go to the bathroom one by one. The ingenious Brits find out solutions to problems that look intractable.

Mango Aficionados

Mango-lovers impatiently wait for the mango season - the maddening blossoms, Koel’s calls and then ultimately the fruit. The records of Hieun Tsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who visited India during Harshavardhan’s reign in the 6th century B.C., contain references to the attentive cultivation of the mango in the country. The Mughal emperors also evinced keen interest in the mango’s cultivation. Emperor Akbar is credited with having planted 10 lakh mango trees in an orchard known as Lakh Bakhsh, in Darbanga.

There’re mango lovers and mango lovers. However, the great Urdu poet Ghalib has a well-deserved reputation as a mango-lover extraordinaire.

One only has to go through his letters – by the way, a superb example of Urdu prose at its best - to realize that his passion for mangoes crossed the line into obsession. I have often looked up longingly at the names of mangoes mentioned by him in his missives to his friends, and tried to imagine what many of the unfamiliar ones would have tasted like.

Ghalib indeed had a voracious appetite for the fruit. At 60 he laments in a letter that he can no longer eat “more than ten or twelve at a sitting... and if they are large ones, then a mere six or seven. Alas, the days of youth have come to an end, indeed, the days of life itself have come to an end.”

Altaf Hussain Hali, Ghalib’s shagird and biographer, records several stories about Ghalib and mangoes in his book Yaadgaar-e Ghalib, that have found their way into popular folklore. The best-known is the one of Hakeem Raziuddin Khan, who while visiting Ghalib noted that a passing donkey had just sniffed at a mango peel and kept moving along. “Look,” said the Hakeem, “even donkeys don’t eat mangoes.” “True indeed”, replied the poet, “donkeys alone don’t eat mangoes.”

Then there is the one about Ghalib accompanying Bahadur Shah Zafar, in the orchard of Baagh-e Hayaat Bakhsh, whose fruit was reserved for the nobility. Ghalib peered at the mangoes with sufficient intent for Zafar to ask what he was looking for. Ghalib replied in a calculated fashion:

I have heard the elders say:

bar sar-e har daana ba-navishta ayaan
ka-een fulaan ibn-e fulaan ibn-e fulaan

(On every piece one can see written quite clearly
That this is for so-and-so, son of so-and-so, son of so-and-so)

Perhaps, said the canny old man, I can spot the names of my ancestors on these fruits. Zafar got the message and Ghalib his case of mangoes.

The long list of mango-connoisseur included Rabindranath Tagore who wrote a poem about the mango blossom ‘Aamer Manjari’. Even Sufi poet Amir Khusro had praised the mango in his Persian poetry and called it Fakhr-e-Gulshan, that is the pride of the garden.

My Choice

May I conclude my personal tribute to the fruit with the mention of mango lunch that, in good old days, a five star hotel in Delhi used to organize? Yes, mango lunch where the entire menu from appetizers to desserts consisted of mangoes and mangoes alone. It was worth going in for even if you had to borrow money to pay for.

And, finally, here’s a passage from Ghalib’s masnavi Dar sifat-e ambaah (On the Attributes of Mangoes) to mull over:

ya ye hoga ke fart-e rafa’at se
baagh-baanon ne baagh-e jannat se
angabeen ke, ba hukm-e rabb-in-naas
bhar ke bheje hain sar-ba-mohr gilaas

Perhaps from the great heights above
The gardeners of heaven’s orchards
Have sent, by the order of God
Wine filled in sealed glasses

Images (c)

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