Till the Oriyas brought the sweetmeat into dispute, it was the hallmark of Bangla cuisine and one that was a kind of a “must” on the menu
Mispronounce Rohsogolla or call the sweetmeat rasgulla as north Indians are prone to and chances are that people from the state of West Bengal will squirm. This is primarily because sensitivities of those belonging to Rabindranath Tagore’s land are rather high and for them language as well as taste are of equal importance. Therefore, even if one relishes the taste of thespongy ball of cottage cheese dunked in sugar syrup, one must know how to pronounce it. That for sure is the unwritten rule and were the Bangla people to have their way they would cast this in stone. Till the Oriyas brought the sweetmeat into dispute, it was the hallmark of Bangla cuisine and one that was a kind of a “must” on the menu.
The state of Odisha and its people locked horns with the state of West Bengal over the ownership of the rosogolla, definitely pronounced differently from the way the Bangla people do. The Oriyas are not adept in rolling their tongues over the “o”: the three that the rosogolla has. They call it rasagolla substituting the “o” with an “a”.
As things stand, West Bengal has had a victory of sorts in the battle that has been on for some years now. It won the first round by bagging the Geographical Identification or GI tag for the rosogolla, that they claim is “ours and ours alone”.
A GI is a sign used on products that have specific geographical origin. It also provides an assurance of quality and uniqueness that can be attributed to its place of origin.
The fight goes back some years when Odisha claimed to have “invented” the sweet by linking its origin to Lord Jagannath: revered all over the state.
The tussle escalated some two years ago when Odisha government set up committees to trace the origin of the rosogolla. They even celebrated the Rasagolla Dibasa orRasagolla festival to stake their claim. They went ahead and launched an awareness campaign and involved confectioners of Odisha to claim ownership of the sweet in dispute.
Claims and counterclaims by both states may have muddied the waters but the tale of the rosogolla as they say in Bangla or rasagolla as the Oriyas call it, has interesting nuggets.
Oriyas claim that the sweet was part of a ritual that goes back to some seven centuries. Legend has it that Lord Jagannath offered it to his consort Lakshmi as “compensation” for not being taken on the rath yatra or chariot ride. It also became customary to offer this as prasada to Goddess Mahalakshmi on the last day of the rath yatra.
Another story is that the rasagolla was born to save wastage. It started in a hamlet in the outskrits of Bhubaneshwar, a home to cows, where milk was in excess. It was a priest who taught the villagers how to curdle milk and make the rasagolla. The villagers were quick to learn and soon the hamlet, Pahala, became Odisha’s rasagolla hub. The rasagolla produced here is brown in colour, distinct from the softer and creamier white one done in some hamlets near Cuttack in the state of Odisha.
The Oriyas also say that their literature has enough evidence of rasagolla being theirs. The sweet they say is mentioned in several works written well before 1868. An ancient Odia dictionary, for instance, does mention the cheese sweet in jaggery syrup. Pundit Suryanarayan Dash’s Sahitya Akademi award winning Odia Sahitya ka Itihasa mentions the rasagolla as part of Odia food.
In this battle where Odisha takes the lead can West Bengal be far behind? They came forth with their own set of claims stating that the origin of the rosogolla was thanks to Nabin Chandra Das and his successive generations: contrary to the claim by Odias that it was developed by Bikalananda Kar, a local confectioner. Listen to Das’s great great grandson and he has an interesting story about the origin of the rosogolla.
Nabin Chandra Das’s first set up was in Jorashanko but the sweet shop that he had established soon went out of business. When he set up another in Bagbazar he decided to invent a sweet that he would take pride in as “his own creation”. But it was easier said than done because tried as he did, the cheeseballs in sugar syrup would disintegrate. He got around it and used an ingredient to hold the cheese balls together. And thus was born the rosogolla. It was an invention that became a huge success and a taste that was its own: almost impossible to replicate. Credence is lent to this by another tale of Pashupati Bhattacharya, well known medical practitioner, who often visited Tagore. Every time he went he carried Das’s rosogollas for Gurudeb. Once the shop ran out of rosogollas and Bhattacharya was unable to take Das’s creation for Tagore.
He decided to buy them from a neighbouring shop and take them. When Tagore ate them, he immediately knew the difference and told the doctor to always get his rosogollas from Das and only Das’s shop. It is said that even the British had a fondness for the spongy sweet and often carried a few boxes back home.
Rasgullas are a must in a traditional Bengali wedding feast. Till some years ago, competitions were held to see who could eat the maximum number of rasgullas. There was a technique to winning these competitions. Seasoned rasgulla eating champs would squeeze out the syrup and this would help them pack in more.
Both tradition and history are the hallmark of this modest sweet. Therefore, governments taking ownership is not surprising. Both Odisha and West Bengal moved to seek Geographical Identification or GI tag for rosogolla or rasagolla.
If the West Bengal government was hell bent on not letting Odisha get away with claiming credit for the creation of the rosogolla, Odisha was equally willing to fight it out. West Bengal moved for the GI tag and it was a victory of sorts when the tag was granted to it though with a rider: it was for Banglar Rasogolla or Rasogolla of Bengal and not for Rasogolla in general. This leaves a window for Odisha to use the GI route and maybe get an identification for its version of the rasagolla.
Once news broke that West Bengal had been given the GI tag it went viral. Even Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pitched in with a tweet: “Sweet news for us all. We are very happy and proud that #Bengal has been granted GI ( Geographical Indication) status for Rosogolla,” according to her official handle. In Odisha there was disappointment with some going to the extent of calling it “grave injustice”.
But the people in West Bengal are sitting smug and are flagging the GI tag to claim that the rosogolla is their and theirs alone. It was a battle their Bangla pride could not afford to lose.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (firstname.lastname@example.org)