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How Mango Rules Over the Hearts of Emperors, Poets and Mortals

I detest all fruits. Even the most Pinterest-ey pictures with brightly coloured fruits glistening with dew drops, evince nothing but revulsion. I’ve been a victim of fructophobia (fear or hatred of fruits) long before I even knew the word for it.

It’s bad enough that I can’t be in the same room as fruits because of their odour or bear, that someone munching on said fruit is in the same room with me, while I shoot them increasingly hostile looks. If you’re looking for a rational reason for my bewildering shunning of fruits, suffice to say, that I’ve hated them before formulating a rational reason for the same and if you really push me for one, I rattle off reasons like texture, seeds, stringiness, smell, and peel.

After countless attempts by my parents where they coaxed, threatened, and yelled at me to get me to try, just try eating fruits; it elicited hysterical responses like scream-crying and throwing up. My mother finally put an end to the ordeal by saying this is clearly doing more harm than good.

And yet, one hot July afternoon in Hyderabad a family friend spent three hours pleading with me to try a small taste of the mangoes that were sliced open that I agreed reluctantly. These mangoes in India with the taste of summer lured me into making it my only glowing exception in my stubborn war on fruits.

This 5000-year-old golden-skinned treat of nature is like the summertime holy grail that is pursued in bustling markets, their skins glinting under the bulbs strung up by vendors on thelas, through supermarkets with its brightly marketed wares, and on online portals with appealing pictures. 

It’s not difficult to understand why the mango which coyly beckons to all and sundry is so popular. Mangoes in India are a sensory experience through and through: their supple skin glistens gold, their fragrance whispers promises of the sweet treat inside, sweeter than its smell, and their firm bright yellow flesh brims with sweet juice when it is scooped up.

Of course, it is said that the best way to eat a mango is to devour it like a barbarian, make a hole on the top and suck out all the syrupy pulp from there as the juice drips down our chins and elbows. This is popular with the kids in the summer, of course, they didn’t have to deal with the sticky clothes and hand stains on surfaces. A bite as adults, has us reeling back in the same feeling of bliss and free abandon we had as kids under the hot summer sun. Shady mango orchards on hot days with leaves that catch at the faintest breeze carry with them the languor of long afternoons spent reading in the shade or the romanticism of Ruskin Bond’s books.

Though I don’t own an orchard, I do have a mango tree that stands lush in front of my window, its foliage shielding my room from the summer heat. The green of the leaves gradually gives way to yellow blossoms that burst into bloom. As the tree would get laden with the growing fruits, everyone who would pass by on the road from under it would keep their eyes fixed upwards instead of on the road. The mangoes hang tantalisingly as if baiting passersby and often, destination forgotten, they would with sticks or stones try to get the mangoes. My father comes marching to the verandah harrumphing through his moustache, glares at the culprits, and does a fair bit of yelling. Overprotective of our precious mangoes, we would always keep a wary eye on the tree and sometimes, our neighbor would join in, yelling away errant thieves.

For me, it’s not so much about people stealing away mangoes that I would otherwise devour but watching them grow bigger every morning that I checked on them. I loved watching the mangoes ripen and grow heavy on the branches which would droop with the weight of its juicy golden prize. Until finally, unable to bear the burden, the branches would give way, the mangoes would fall with a surprisingly loud splat on the concrete below. If it fell on the road, it would be fair game to the people coming and going. That’s why, it wasn’t a surprising sight to see clusters of people gathered under the tree when it would storm, ready to catch any mangoes that would fall.

Then comes the feasting.

The 90s kids had the luxury of endless time, we spent peering into glass jars sunning themselves, full of unripe mango cubes coated in myriad mysterious spices. Unlike the smartphone-toting Gen Z, we would watch mothers and grandmothers patiently make goodies like aam ki chutney or in my case, the Bengali kasundi which is tangy-sweet and goes brilliantly with rice and dal. There is a mind-boggling number of delicious regional dishes made out of mangoes which would make any self-professed foodie or chef rub their hands and giggle with glee.

Buying mangoes in Indian bazaars is serious business. You’ll spot the uncles, proud mango connoisseurs, inspecting mangoes studiously to observe whether they’re ripe enough for consumption. 

Mango memes Bollywood

Mangoes in India have a delightful variety to offer. As the summer months swing in and edge out spring in late March, the Ratnagiri comes out to indulge with its sweet goodness. The silky, golden Alphonsos make an appearance by early April and when the mid-July heat becomes unforgiving, the Chausa and Dashera come and offer a sweet moment of respite. Of course, there are many more magnificent varieties I have not named for the sake of brevity and I beseech mango fanatics to forgive me this cardinal offense.

Divided by borders, united by mangoes

Sinful gluttony isn’t the only thing that the fruit enables. The mango is so revered that both India and Pakistan have placed it on the pedestal of being the national fruit for their respective countries. Though divided by borders, the squabbling neighbours are united by mangoes. 

India Pakistan, Mango history in India and Pakistan

In fact, Bangladesh has also declared the Mangifera Indica as its national tree and also finds the alluring fruit a place for its mention in its national anthem.

O ma,

Phagune tor amer bone

Ghrane pagol kore,

In Spring, Oh mother mine, the fragrance from

your mango groves make me wild with joy.

Interestingly, the author who penned the above lines is the same erudite figure who wrote our national anthem – Rabindranath Tagore. 

Smitten by the charm of saccharine mangoes in India, it isn’t hard to imagine the author indulging in a mango or two, juice dripping into his stately beard.

Ghalib’s tryst with mangoes in India

Another who fell for the charisma of the wondrous fruit is none other than the famous poet Mirza Ghalib. The letters he exchanged with his friends are rife with longing for the golden fruit and as he grew older, his appetite dwindled. He lamented that he could no longer eat 10-12 mangoes in one sitting as he once used to in the spring of his youth. 

This inability pained him so, that he goes on to write,

“Alas, the days of youth have come to an end, indeed, the days of life itself have come to an end.”

There’s a colourful anecdote in Yaadgaar-e Ghalib, where Hakeem Raziuddin Khan while visiting Ghalib spots a donkey who sniffs at a discarded mango peel and then moves along. “Look, even donkeys don’t eat mangoes.”, said the Hakeem. To this Ghalib replied, “True indeed, donkeys alone don’t eat mangoes.”

Mangoes in Indian history, Indian culture

The Urdu poet’s muse in the form of mango inspired him to pen down his famous masnawi, Dar Sifat-e-ambah (In Praise of Mango). 

mujhse poochho, tumheñ khabar kya hai

aam ke aage neyshakar kya hai…

ya ye hoga ke fart-e rafa’at se

baagh-baanoñ ne baagh-e jannat se

angabeeñ ke, ba hukm-e rabb-in-naas

bhar ke bheje haiñ sar-ba-mohr gilaas

ask me! for what do you know?

a mango is far sweeter than sugarcane…

perhaps from the great heights above

the gardeners of heaven’s orchards

have sent, by the order of God

wine filled in sealed glasses

The kings bow down before the king of fruits

Akbar Mangoes | Indian history | Mangoes in India

If you thought that only eloquent poets fell prey to the syrupy fruit, think again. The Mughal rulers, craving for muskmelons and pears from their homeland, found their diversion in the juicy mangoes in India. The Ain-i-Akbari written by the emperor’s court historian, Abu Fazl mentions mango as,

“…unrivalled in colour, smell, and taste; and some of the gourmands of Turan and Iran place it above muskmelons and grapes. The flower opens in spring, resembles that of the vine, has a good smell and looks very curious.”

So taken was Akbar with the joy of mangoes, that he set up an orchard full of ten lakh mango trees in Darbhanga in modern-day Bihar. It is said that he loved mango slices preserved in honey which would keep him happy through the hot Dilli summers.

Akbar Mangoes | Indian history | Mangoes in India

Such is the power of mangoes that crates were used as gifts in political negotiations and as diplomatic gifts. 

Kings, poets, and historians were all in the thrall of the mango and I am but a mere mortal, who didn’t stand a chance.

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