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The unkindest cut: 'Rasagolas' are not Bengali after all

Bengalis have had to endure many losses since Independence: the loss of their pre-eminent status in the politics, industry and culture in India, the loss of Kolkata’s exalted status as the No 1 metropolis in the country and more recently the captaincy of the Indian cricket team. But what they are about to lose now would perhaps hurt them more than the accumulated losses over the years: the loss of Bengal’s status as the birthplace of that syrupy sweet called whose very sight gets Bengalis salivating: ‘rasogolla’.

Historical evidence unearthed by researchers and scholars in the recent past leave very little room for doubt that the sweet voted India’s National Dessert in a nationwide survey done by MUDRA for Outlook magazine in 2010 had its origins in neighbouring Odisha at least a century and half before 1868 when Nobin Chandra Das is supposed to have ‘invented’ it in his sweetmeat shop in Kolkata’s Sutanati.

 The unkindest cut: Rasagolas are not Bengali after all

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Researchers have unearthed sufficient evidence to prove that the tradition of offering rasagola (that is how it is spelt and pronounced in Odisha) by Lord Jagannath to Goddess Laxmi on the day of Niladri Bije (the day when the deities return to their abode after the annual Rath Yatra) is at least 300 years old and thus much older than the 150-year history of the Bengali rasogolla.

The unkindest cut for Bengalis is that several Bengali authors and researchers have now accepted that the sweet dish made famous the world over by KC Das, Nobin Chandra’s son, and his descendants originated in Odisha.

Cultural historian Asit Mohanty quotes from an article ‘Ektu Janoon, Ektu Bhaboon’ (‘Know a little, Think a Little”) written by Samrat Nandi and published in the April, 2011 edition of popular Bengali magazine ‘Saptahik Bartamaan’ to make the point that rasogolla was indeed Odisha’s gift to the world.

“No matter how loudly Bengalis proclaim rasogolla as their own, its origin lies in Odisha. It has been an essentially Odia sweet for ages. This sweet is served to Lord Jagannath and Goddess Laxmi in the Jagannath temple in Puri. Many Brahmin Odia cooks (whom we call ‘Thakur’) came to Bengal in search of work in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was through them that many recipes from that state, including ‘rasogolla’, landed in Bengal,” Mohanty quoted Nandi as saying in an article in leading news portal recently.

In an article titled “Who invented rasgulla?” in the July 6, 2015 edition of The Times of India, Biswabijoy Mitra quotes Pritha Sen, who has extensively researched the culinary traditions of Bengal, to corroborate this theory. “In the mid 18th century, many cooks employed in large Bengali homes were Odias. It is possible they brought Rasagulla with them.”

Echoing this theory of rasogolla originating in Odisha and reaching Bengal later, a chapter titled “Odisha: Feeding the Divine” in the “The Penguin Food Guide to India” concluded that; “The most likely story is that the Rasagulla came into Bengal from Odisha but was commercially produced and popularised in Calcutta.”

Prof Utpal Raychoudhury, Professor of the Food Technology and Biochemical department of Jadavpur University, goes a step further and says rasagola has been in use in the Jagannath temple since 13th century, which makes it seven hundred years old!

The battle between the two estranged neighbours over the spongy sweet is not new. But it got a fresh lease of life after the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) department of the Odisha government initiated a move to get Geographical Indication (GI) status, (which identifies a product as originating from a certain location and assures its distinctive quality) for the famous Pahala Rasagola, the stuff made at Pahala village located midway between Bhubaneswar and Cuttack on the National Highway No 5.

A group of youngsters from Odisha followed it up with an initiative on the social media, mainly Twitter, to celebrate the first-ever ‘Rasagola Dibas’ on July 30, Niladri Bije day. Odias bombarded Twitter with hundreds of tweets, many of them posting selfies with rasagola. At one point, the hashtag #RasagolaDibasa was trending at No. 2 nationally.

On the ground, ‘Pahala Kelu Behera Mitha Byabasayi Mahasangha’, an association of rasagola makers of Pahala tied up with leading media house Eastern Media Limited, Reliance Food Court and sweet outlets in Bhubaneswar and elsewhere to celebrate ‘Rasagola Divas’.

But Bengalis are not giving up their claim on something that has become part of their cultural identity without a fight. The descendants of Nobin Chandra Das, credited by Bengalis as the ‘inventor’ of rasogolla are planning to challenge the Odisha government’s move with documentary evidence. They have roped in historian Haripada Bhowmick to prepare a booklet, which they propose to send to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for necessary action at her end.

As things start, there is a long and bitter battle ahead as the Odisha government pursues the move to get GI status for rasagola. Claims and counter-claims would be made by both the contending parties. But if the Odisha government has its way, which looks more than likely, it would mark the fall of another Bengali bastion.

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Updated Date: Aug 03, 2015 13:24:27 IST