India's Mango Belt

After the mango festival, Rob and I found ourselves in New Delhi with not that much of fruit interest to do. So we headed east to the state of Uttar Pradesh, the historical home of the mango.  Mango has been cultivated there for more than 4,000 years, the coveted edible gem of mystic poets and Mughal emperors. If we were really going to find out how much the mango deserves the title, "King of Fruit," this would be the place.

 In the great Hindu epic the Ramayana, the poet Valmiki writes of forests of mango trees spread across the land of Rama and his forebears. This land is Uttar Pradesh,  the center of mango production in India. Although the old orchards are beginning to dwindle, Uttar Pradesh still produces nearly 24% of the mangoes in all of India, or 3.6 million tonnes, more than any other state in India.

Mango production in Uttar Pradesh centers around Lucknow, which according to legend was founded by Rama's younger brother Lakshmana. It's current capitol of Uttar Pradesh and the former capitol of the Mughal and Nawab emperors, who are responsible for breeding the popular mango varieties of today.  So although it is not usually a tourist destination, that's where Rob and I decided to go on our quest for mangoes. 

It was the right destination. More than anywhere else we visited, Lucknow was swamped with mangoes of all different varieties selling at 20-30 rupees per kilogram, or no more than $0.25 USD per kilogram. Just wandering a short distance from our hotel, we passed streets lined with wooden carts of boys and men selling mangoes.

Our goal in Lucknow was to visit a commercial scale mango orchard to see where all these mangoes were coming from. Since we were smack dab in the "mango belt," the 50 kilometers stretching east and west of Lucknow, we figured it would be easy.  One of the most popular varieties of mango, the Deshahari, originates in a small village there, where the 185 year old mother tree still drops fruit every year.

As luck would have it, the owner of our hotel knew someone who not only owned a mango orchard, but who recently organized the first mango festival in Lucknow. She put us in touch with Jyotsna, who kindly invited us out to her 20 acre orchard the next day.

It was hard to imagine over 3,000 people tromping through the peaceful green rows of mango trees, turned swampy in the monsoon rains. It was quiet, inhabited only by the 15 or so workers who had stopped to have a mid-day meal of mangoes. Apparently, each man had his favorite variety. As one slurped at a Chausa, another gently peeled a Deshahari.

As I stared up at the mangoes swinging docilely like Christmas ornaments above our heads, I felt a strange absence, like something was missing. While prowling around durian orchards, I had become accustomed a mild level of adrenaline, a low-level fear of death striking from above. I was not at all afraid of mangoes falling on me.

After we'd been shown around, and Jyotsna graciously shared some mangoes with us, slicing off rounded cheeks dripping juice that shimmered in the dappled sunlight of the orchard.

Most exciting were these tiny little juice pockets, called Beeji or Seed Mango. There are actually many varieties of Beejis, but all are so tiny and fiberless that the only way to eat them is to nick a small hole in the skin and slurp out the sweet liquid. They are a favorite among children, and me too.

Jyotsna hopes that increased attention to mangoes in Uttar Pradesh will help the many poor and rural people who work with mangoes, in particular the large number of women who labor unseen on mango orchards but who receive little of the pay.  She will be putting together another mango festival next year, even bigger and better than the last.

Thanks for showing us your orchard, Jyotsna!