How Bengal won the prestige issue of rasgulla from Odisha
The syrupy sweet is synonymous with Bengalis, for whom it was hardly a debate.
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It is hard to separate Bengalis from the rasgulla or the "roshogolla" as they call it. But after the November 14 proclamation by the ministry of commerce's GI registry, it is difficult to separate the “sweet, syrupy, soft cheese balls” from Bengal.
Though Chennai-based registry concluded the two-year-long battle between West Bengal and Odisha, the two neighbouring states, by declaring that rasgulla is a Bengali creation, it was never an actual debate or a real question for the Bengalis.
Origin of Bengali rasgulla
West Bengal is the hub of most chhena-based sweets and according to history, rasgulla, the most famous of all the chhena-based syrupy sweets, was "invented by Nobin Chandra Das in 1868" in an attempt to do something off the beaten track, but with the same ingredient- chhena.
Following the invention, he came to be known as “the Columbus of roshogolla”. His eponymous sweet shop standing tall and thriving in Bagbazar, in north Kolkata, is living proof of the creation.
According to the official website of the iconic KC Das sweet shop, named after a descendant of Nobin Chandra Das, was looking for a break from sandesh which has a dry and hard texture, and to create something soft, succulent and sweet.
“It was at this opportune moment that he struggled towards this end, but every time he tries to boil the casein balls in sugar syrup they disintegrated. At last, he discovered the presence of an enzyme in the casein to which he ascribed a vernacular terminology that played the trick. Nobin Chandra finally succeeded in creating the soft, spongy and syrupy ‘rossogolla’ for the discerning Bengali plate,” says the website.
It is believed that he used reetha (soapnut) to solve the disintegration problem.
Apart from numerous mentions of rasgulla in history and literature, there is a book by Haripada Bhowmik on how it was invented by Das.
According to reports, noted food historian KT Acharya also pointed out the fact that making chhena from milk was a taboo in India. Bengal learnt it first from the Portugese and there began the journey of the rasgulla.
Where the debate started
Given such documented history, there was no dispute in Bengal’s sweet saga before 2015. The battle started after the West Bengal government applied for a GI recognition from rasgulla. It quoted the history of Nobin Chandra Das to claim the GI tag.
In 2015, Odisha, famous for its chhena poda, contested the 150-year-old history and said it has a 600-year-old history of rasgulla.
Origin of Odisha rasgulla
The Odisha government said rasgulla originated in Puri some 600 years ago in form of kheer mohana, the name referring to the milk-white colour of the delicacy. According to mythology, the deity synonymous with Puri's famous Jagannath temple, (from which the English word "juggernaut" originates) - Lord Jagannath - had offered kheer mohana to an angry Goddess Lakshmi in order to appease her so that she lets him enter his home after the nine-day rath yatra.
This kheer mohana later became Pahala rasgulla, named after the village Pahala, which, according to the government, became the rasgulla village of Odisha, owing to the abundant production of milk.
To contest the claims of the West Bengal government, the Odisha government set up a number of research committees. A 150-page report by Jagannath cult researcher Asit Mohanty said that Dandi Ramayan has the first documented presence of rasgulla in Odisha history. Dandi Ramayan, an Odia adaptation of the Valmiki Ramayan, was written in the 15th century.
In an interview, BJD MLA Priyadarshi Mishra claimed that he had raised the issue in the Assembly after coming to know that the West Bengal government was applying for a GI tag. He said rasgulla is definitely an Odia sweet, as many ingredients required to make rasgulla come from the state.
A prestige issue
It became a prestige issue for West Bengal as rasgulla is something Bengalis are identified with in other parts of India and abroad; such is the popularity of the sweet dish. And many Bengalis, if not all, are quite happy with the identity as the rich history of sweets back home makes them believe that they have rightful share in “sweetness”.
So, rasgulla was never just another dessert. To be more specific, it is not a dessert for Bengalis; they can have it any time of the day. And when West Bengal has well-documented history of its origin, why would it not take pride and cross swords with Odisha?
On the other hand, rasgulla was never a forgone battle for Odisha. Apart from chhena-poda, rasgulla is the second delicacy Odisha sweets are famous for. And unlike the Bengali rasgulla, the ones from Odisha are oblong and often larger, sometimes compared to the eyes of Lord Jagannath. Once the tussle intensified, Odisha started celebrating July 30 as "Rasgulla Divas".
Odisha even has a rasgulla training institute, BK Industrial Training Centre, named after Bikalananda Kar, a renowned confectioner from Pahala village.
With the debate now "resolved" and West Bengal having got the official historical credit of having "invented" its favourite roshogolla, the ending, as they say, has been bittersweet. As the issue rose above the GI tag and the impact it would have had on business prospects to become — in the course of time — largely a matter of prestige, Bengalis and Odias, it seems, have lost a raging topic for dinner table debate.
No Bengali would ever criticise the West Bengal government for its committed fight against culinary rival Odisha over the "contested" origin of rasgulla.
No Odia, on the other hand, would be able to shrug the defeat off as “good riddance” on World Diabetes Day.