Oh emperor, the wise say that each morsel has the name of the person who will eat it
I am seeing if any of the trees have the name of my fathers or forefathers etched on them.
These words were reportedly recited in the mid-19th century by the poet Mirza Ghalib to the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, as the sovereign paused to gaze up at a mango tree laden with ripening fruit. The emperor’s grateful response was to gift Ghalib a basket of mangos the very next day. Whether this is folklore or fact, it shows that the Mughal Empire ended much as it started: conquest wrapped in a love of poetry, painting—and mangos. As their own royal diaries reveal, this was a dynasty that for more than three centuries, from 1526 to 1858, loved mangos like they loved their own children.
It began with Babur. After years of back-and-forth campaigns in Afghanistan, Persia and what is now Uzbekistan, in 1526 Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur, a descendant of Mongolian leader Genghis Khan and Central Asian conquerer Amir Timur, gave up on his late father’s dream of reclaiming Samarkand and set his eyes, reluctantly, on India. As charming and as cultured as he was determined, Babur and his followers first took control of Kabul and then occupied key points all the way to Delhi, where he dethroned Sultan Ibrahim Lodi and, in so doing, founded what became the Mughal Empire.
“We have no historical evidence of it, but as the legend goes, when Babur was called to defeat Ibrahim Lodi by an Afghan warlord, he was promised a crate of mangos if he completed this feat,” says Ruchika Sharma, who teaches history at the University of Delhi and is a doctoral scholar of medieval Indian history at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It’s very far-fetched that Babur was lured to the subcontinent for the opportunity to taste mangos. But mangos and Mughals have become inseparable, so when far-fetched stories like this come up, no one really questions them. Some of it is legend, and some of it we have written records for.”
Praise for the mango was one of few kind words Babur had for his new domain. In Central Asia the tradition of gifting fruits was a sign of wealth and status. The gifting fruit of choice, and the one Babur would miss most from the Mughal throne in Delhi, was the Central Asian melon. “Taking it altogether, the mango is the best fruit of Hindūstān,” he wrote in his autobiographical Baburnama. “Some so praise it as to give it preference over all fruits except the musk-melon. Such praise outmatches it. It resembles the kārdī peach. It ripens in the rains. It is eaten in two ways: one is to squeeze it to a pulp, make a hole in it, and suck out the juice, the other, to peel and eat it like the kārdī peach,” he wrote.
No place has played a bigger part in making the mango India’s beloved national fruit more than the country’s smallest state, Goa. Today still in Goa, boys and girls looking for adventure can be seen roving in cliques, gathering fallen mangos or climbing the tall, leafy trees, shaking branches to loosen mangos before the owners of the trees catch them. If they are lucky, and they don’t have to run away empty-handed, they eat them much as Babur described, poking holes in them or peeling them. Meanwhile, mango vendors sit on the sides of the streets with baskets of the fruits, cleanly slicing the mangos into wedges and sprinkling them with chili powder for waiting customers while calling out for new customers from among the passersby.
Mango trees are thus integral to both real and imagined landscapes. “If you look at the Mughal miniature paintings and illustrations, which are quite renowned, you will often see a mango or mango tree in the painting,” says Sonia Wigh, a postdoctoral fellow in history at the University of Edinburgh whose research focuses on early modern India. “It might not be the focus of the painting. But the mango was so much a part of life that it would be there somewhere.”
It was Babur’s descendants who took the mango tree, Mangifera indica, which botanists estimate developed in the wild about 4,000 years ago, to iconic status. Babur’s son Humayun, who as Mughal-era diaries suggest spent much of his life on the run, developed a system whereby mangos could be delivered to him in secret wherever he was hiding: The Humayun Pasand mango was named for him (and may even have been named by him, though in time its name became Iman Pasand). It was also in this era that, when Humayun was defeated at the Battle of Chausa by Sher Shah Sur, that the victor reportedly celebrated by naming a variety of mango “Chausa,” and today it is still grown, mostly in Pakistan.
It was Humayun’s son and successor, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (commonly known as Akbar the Great), who changed the course of mango history more than anyone else with a contribution that went back to the Moors. In 1510 the Portuguese fleet had landed in Goa under the leadership of Afonso de Albuquerque. They had sailed around Africa from western Iberia, which under Arab rule had developed agricultural practices still unknown to the rest of Europe.
“It is evident even from his name, Albuquerque, an Arabic-derived one, that Albuquerque’s family was, at least culturally, influenced by the rule of the Moors in Iberia,” says R. Benedito Ferrão, who studies transoceanic connections in his native Goa as Asian Centennial Faculty Fellow at the College of William and Mary and Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies. “Because the Portuguese were ruled by the Moors for some 700 years—rulers who had only been ousted a short period before the Iberians began to explore the sea routes to Africa and Asia—they brought fresh Moorish knowledge with them.”
It had been in the 12th century that horticulturist Abu Zakariya’s Kitab al-filahah (Book of Agriculture) had put into writing the science of plant grafting, the process by which two plants are joined to create a single new plant. When the Jesuit missionaries sent to Goa by the Portuguese tasted mangos, the Jesuits set about grafting the trees to create more of these fruits so new and delicious to them.
By the mid-16th century, Akbar became sufficiently intrigued by their successes to summon the Jesuits to his court in Agra to pass along their skills in mango-tree grafting. Akbar then commissioned the 100,000-tree Lakhi Bagh orchards, about 1,200 kilometers from Delhi, where grafting led to hundreds of mango varieties. While this historic orchard has fallen into ruin, its horticultural legacy can be tasted in the different mangos’ level of tartness, sweetness, texture and endurance. It was a victory for mango science and palette diversity that continues today, much as it does for other fruits and crops throughout the world, such as apples, olives and grapes.
By 1556, the year Akbar came to power, Portugal held control of the major ports in western India, including Goa. Although the Portuguese had either killed or forced Christian conversion upon most Muslims in Goa, they were not much interested in the Muslim-majority interior. For their part, the Mughals were a largely land-based and land-focused empire, one that even viewed the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah, as one to be taken by land. Thus while the Mughals spread the grafting of mangos across South Asia, Portuguese and Arab traders spread mango seeds to Yemen, Egypt, East Africa and the tropics of the Americas.
Today, there are more than 1,000 varieties of mango trees worldwide, and in Goa alone there are 106. Most begin bearing fruit when they are four years old, and they produce anywhere from 40 to 300 mangos a year for about 40 years.
Today, there are more than 1,000 varieties of mango trees worldwide, and in Goa alone there are 106.
During mango season, Goa’s markets and streets are overtaken with shades of yellow, green, orange or red, depending on the variety of the mango. Along roads, people can be seen looking up at trees speckled with orange and yellow, assessing whether the mangos are ready to pluck.
It is a brief and magical season that begins in late March and ends with the monsoon rains of early June. “In their obsession, Mughals kept records of who had gifted them mangos, the condition of those mangos, and notations about them,” says Wigh. She cites a ledger of Akbar’s son Jahangir, who marveled at a ruler who gifted him fresh mangos on October 4, 1617. “Even today that would be hard to imagine, so I understand,” she laughs. “If I got fresh mangos in October, I would be so excited.”
That may become more common through global trade as mango production continues to be industrialized to meet demand that is growing 3.3 percent a year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO also estimates that by 2030 global production will reach 84 million metric tons, half of which will come from India, with Thailand and Indonesia also ranking as leading South Asian exporters. Indians will also still eat more mangos than any other national population—28.4 kilograms per capita per year.
“In their obsession, Mughals kept records of who had gifted them mangos, the condition of those mangos, and notations about them.”
This means that mangos today remain much like they were in the Mughal era—a part of family heritages and culture. “We can’t be in India during the season,” says Noora Jabir, a student born in the Indian state of Kerala who grew up in Abu Dhabi, “so my grandparents have a freezer just for mangos, so that we can eat them when we get there. I dream about that freezer.”
For the Mughals, says Wigh, mangos were also a form of flattering one’s father. When Prince Azam wanted to please his father, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled from 1658 to 1707, “he sent him two baskets of mango varieties that had no names and gave his father the honor of naming them.” Aurangzeb wrote to his son and said, “Exalted son, the delicious mangos (sent by you) sweetened the palate of the old father. May the happiness and fortune of the young son be augmented.” Aurangzeb named these mangos Sudhara and Rasnavilas.
But such mango diplomacy also proved tricky for Aurangzeb. On one occasion when he was young and ambitious, Aurangzeb’s father, Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal for Aurangzeb’s mother, Mumtaz Mahal), expressed his displeasure with Aurangzeb when he received from him a basket of mangos that proved poor. He even told Aurangzeb’s sister Jahanara that he was perplexed that his son could show such disrespect. Jahanara took it upon herself to quell Shah Jahan’s distress by writing to her brother, knowing an apology was in order. “Shah Jahan had even commanded that Aurangzeb send men to stand watch over the tree after it flowered, waiting for it to bear fruit,” says Wigh. For Aurangzeb’s part, however, he “blamed the courier service for not handling the mangos well.”
India’s most famous mango variety today is the Alphonso (also nicknamed Hapoo), and it originates in Goa. While it is often assumed to have been named for Portuguese seaman Afonso de Albuquerque, more likely it was named for Jesuit Nicolau Alfonso, the horticulturist who grafted it around 1550.
“It’s quite normal for people to eat two or three mangos a day during the season.”
The Alphonso is now the most widely grown mango in India. Goa and its neighboring state to the north, Maharashtra, produce the most. Cultivated for its exceptionally complex sweetness and non-fibrous pulp, the Alphonso is also abundantly cultivated in the state south of Goa, Karnataka. But despite the Alphonso’s renown, within Goa it is considered a pedestrian variety, and more niche varieties are upheld as the true crown jewels of mangos: Fernandin, Xavier, Monserrate, Hilario, Malgues and the bright yellow Mankurad. Of these, it is the latter that is of all the most prized, and it has dominated local markets since its development in the years since the Mughals began grafting.
“It’s quite normal for people to eat two or three mangos a day during the season,” says Vasco Alvares, owner and chef of Miski Bar in Panaji, which promotes Goan local fare. “My brother went for 10 a day as a kid, but then he started to get boils. So there are limits.”
Wigh points out that in the traditions of the Ayurvedic medicine widely practiced in the region, the mango is considered as a food that heats the body, not one that cools it. This shows up also in Mughal-era medical records that speak of the heat the fruit ignites when consumed to excess.
The 19th-century poet Ghalib, in a story that goes around, wrote to a caretaker in Kolkata that mangos are so delicious that they require extraordinary self-control: “Not only am I a slave to my stomach, I am a weak person as well. I desire that my table be adorned and that my soul be comforted. The wise ones know that both of these cravings can be satisfied by mangos.”
“Mangos were considered a source of pleasure,” says Wigh, “but in moderation.”
While there may be limits to the number of mangos a person can eat, there seems to be none to the stories and myths about them. Some may be overheated, but only some have been shared here, in keeping with sensible moderation.
The author extends her thanks to Goa College of Architecture Associate Professor Vishesh Kandolkar for his many valuable insights.