By Asit Mohanty
From the influences on Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to the origins of ‘Gita Gobinda’ author Jaydev, Odisha and West Bengal have fought over many things. And the latest bone of contention between the two neighbours is the syrupy, mouth-watering sweet ‘rasagola’, voted India’s National Dessert in a nationwide survey done by MUDRA for ‘Outlook’ magazine in 2010.
The fresh round of the battle over rasagola, which had gone dormant for some time, began after the Odisha government initiated the process for obtaining Geographical Identification (GI) status for the famous Pahala rasagola about eight weeks ago. Samabalpuri saree, Berhampuri pata, the appliqué work of Pipili and the pattachitra of Puri are some of the products that have already received the GI norm, which recognises a product as belonging or originating from a particular area.
The history of the tug-of-war over rasagola, however, is pretty long. Bengalis have claimed ‘rasogolla’ as their very own for ages now. Books on Bengali cuisine have proudly proclaimed it as a creation of Bengal. They credit Nobin Chandra Das, whose famous shop in Kolkata has a legacy of a century and half, as the father of the syrupy sweet.
Recorded history has it that Nobin Chandra first prepared rasogolla at his sweet shop in Kolkata’s Sutanati in the year 1868. There is also historical proof that a Marwari timber merchant named Bhagwan Das Bagla facilitated the marketing of Nobin Chandra’s product in other areas of the city.
Nobin Chandra’s son Krushna Chandra Das, better known as KC Das, carried the legacy further with his own innovations. The emergence of vacuum packing technology in the 1930s made it possible for him to preserve his rasogolla longer, vacuum pack it in air-tight tin containers and export it outside Kolkata. It was essentially the efforts of this father-son duo that made the ‘Bengali Rasogolla’ famous inside and outside India.
But in the light of fresh evidence that has emerged in the recent past, most experts, including some in Bengal, have now conceded that rasagola indeed originated from Odisha. Researchers have unearthed sufficient evidence to prove that the tradition of offering rasagola to Lord Jagannath and 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 years’ history of the Bengali rasogolla.
It is difficult to assign the origin of rasagola an exact date. But those who believe it originated in Bengal bank on a curious legend from the times of Lord Cornwalis to make their case. If this story is to be believed, the first rasagola was made purely by accident!
The story goes somewhat like this. Lord Cornwalis, then the Governor General of India, arranged a huge banquet for zamindars in a bid to wrest more revenue out of them. As per the prevailing tradition, bigwigs had to be served sweet pudding at the end of a banquet. But the Bengali chef who was to have prepared the pudding fell sick at the last minute and the job was assigned to someone else. But this new man did not know how to make pudding and unwittingly got the milk kept for making of the dessert fermented. Unable to decide what to do with the fermented milk, this man apparently wrapped it in a dhoti and hung it.
As luck would have it, the knot on the dhoti somehow got opened and the cheese, its water content now drained out, fell into a kadahi (large pan) full of sugar syrup. The next morning, the stand-in chef found the cheese floating in the syrup. He tried a bit of the stuff and found it very tasty. The taste emboldened him to serve this accidental dish to the guests, none of whom had tasted anything like this before. Everyone went gaga over it.
If this story is to be believed, rasagola was first made sometime between 1786 and 1793, the period when Lord Cornwalis was the Governor General. But according to the recorded history of this popular sweet dish, it was first made by Nobin Chandra Das at least 80-90 years after that.
Rasogolla made Nobin Chandra Das immortal for Bengalis. He was dubbed ‘Nobin Moira’ and anointed the ‘Columbus of Rasogolla’. But unfortunately for Bengalis, just as Columbus, credited for ‘discovering’ America, never actually discovered it, Nobin Chandra never really invented the rasogolla though he has been widely accepted as its inventor.
It is not just writers and researchers of Odisha who are saying this. Some of the best known historians and researchers have now openly conceded that rasagola did originate in Odisha.
In an interesting observation in his article “Ektu Janoon, Ektu Bhaboon” (“Know a Little, Think a Little”) published in the April, 2011 edition of popular Bengali weekly magazine ‘Saptahik Bartamaan’, Samrat Nandi has this to say about the origins of rasogolla:
“Rasogolla. The name itself gets people salivating. This sweet is considered an integral part of the Bengali identity. But no matter how loudly Bengalis proclaim rasogolla as their own, is 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.”
Echoing Nandi’s theory, 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.”
It is also worth noting what another researcher, Prof Utpal Raychoudhury, Professor of the Food Technology and Biochemical department of Jadavpur University, has to say on the issue. Speaking at a function organised by the a trust formed in the name of Bikalananda Kar, the famous rasagola maker of Salepur, in August 2011, Prof Raychoudhury had said rasagola has been in use at the Jagannath temple since the 13th century, which makes it seven centuries old! His statement was published in many local and national newspapers in their August 5, 2011 edition.
More recently, the views of Nandi and Prof Raychoudhury have been corroborated by Bengali journalist Biswabijay Mitra. In his article ‘Who invented rasogolla?’ in the July 6 edition of The Times of India, he talks about the dispute between Odisha and Bengal on the issue and then goes on to say the sweet was in use at the Jagannath temple for much longer. He quotes Prutha Sen, a Bengali woman who has done extensive research on Bengali cuisine, to say; “In the mid 18th century, many cooks employed in large Bengali homes were Odias. It is possible they brought Rasagulla with them.”
There is plenty of other academic research work that can be cited to prove that the tradition of offering rasagola to Lord Jagannath and Goddess Laxmi in the Puri temple is much older than the supposed invention of the dish by Nobin Chandra Das in 1868.
In the face of the overwhelming body of evidence that has now emerged through research, it is perhaps time Bengalis accepted that their pride rasogolla was born in Odisha.
* Asit Mohanty is Editor of ‘Paurusha’ and Editor (Publications) at Eastern Media Limited. He is an acclaimed literary critic and has written extensively on issues of language, literature and culture.