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History of Bengali Sweets

Bengal had always been the land of sweet lovers. It is commonly believed that this region, which once was known as Gour Banga, got its name from the production of 'Gur' (molasses). The creativity in sweet making and its artistic presentation was something that undoubtedly brought fame to Bengal in those days.

It was the best of times for Bengal in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the height of the golden age of Bengal's resurgence. From fine arts to commerce, from culture to industry, from literature to science, in all things there was a glorious flowering of exuberant excellence. The spirit of this era touched the world of confectionery too.

'Chanar was an invention that was driven by sheer necessity. In those days the milkmen, after the day's selling, were left with plenty of unsold milk which used to be converted into butter cream or other milk products.

But many a time the unsold milk used to get sour and form 'Chanar' which apparently was useless & used to go for a waste. To counter this daily wastage and to make this Chanar palatable, it used to be mixed with sugar or molasses to make into a paste. This uneven paste used to be known as 'makha' or 'makha sandesh'. It was only in latter part of 19th century when Rasogolla made its debut in the Calcutta market.

There are interesting stories associated with eminent people of Bengal and sweets.

According to a member of the Bhim Nag's family, Rani Rashmoni of Janbajar Zamindari of Kolkata used to buy large amount of sweets from Bhim Nag’s shop. It is said that whenever Rani Rashmoni went to Dakshineswar Temple, she always used to carry two big packets of sweets. One for Goddess Kali & another for the priest Sri Ramkrishna Paramahansa, who was very fond of Bhim Nag sweets.

Another eminent personality, like Sri Ramakrishna, who was specially associated with Bhim Nag's sweet was Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee. It was a daily routine for him to stop his horse-driven carriage in front of Bowbajar Street Bhim Nag’s shop on his way to Calcutta University from High Court. A pack of sandesh used to be kept ready for him. In fact, so close were his links with Bhim Nag that a variety of sandesh ‘Ashu Bhog’ was named after him by the Nags.

Many may not know that the famous Bengali sweet 'Ledikeni' was yet again a Bhim Nag discovery . It is a golden-brown sweet dipped in sugar syrup, which apparently may resemble gulab jamun but IS characteristically quite different. The story goes that during the birth celebration of Lady Canning, wife of the then governor general Lord Canning, a special dish was ordered to be made in her honor. After a much thought & hard work, a new product came up resembling Rasogolla, only that it was deep fried in ghee to attain the color. The name Ledikeni was given in honor of Lady Canning.

After Sandesh, the confectioners of Calcutta turned to the invention of some syrupy sweets. The year 1868 ushered in a revolution in the realm of sweets of Calcutta. A tiny shop in the northern fringes of Kolkata, presented Rasogolla and its creator was a poor Bengali named Nabin Chandra Das. People in the locality used to call him Rasogolla’r Columbus (Columbus of Rosogolla) because of his unique discovery.

The story of rasogolla discovery is yet again interesting. The sweet shop that Nabin Chandra Das ran was not doing good business. In those days the business of sweets depended a lot on credit sales. But Das could not afford to do that, which is why his shop had to run into trouble. However, his shop otherwise became a place of adda for local retired old & unemployed youth. Their main attraction used to be the booty at the end of the day. Nabin used to distribute all the unsold sweets to these people before closing his shop.

The generosity of Nabin Das gave birth to new demands of the people, who were so far enjoying the free sweet treat. They felt that tasting the same sweets day after day was a monotonous affair and it was high time that Nabin should be trying to innovate something new. A lot of hard work went in and finally Nabin Das gave birth to his innovation Rasogolla.

If Bhim Nag was famous for sandesh and Nabin Das for rasogolla, then it was the 140 years old sweetshop of Dwarik Ghosh, popularly known as Dwarik’s, which created a deep impression among the Calcuttans. Dwarik's, which came into existence twenty years after Rabindranath Tagore was born, became a household name within a very short period. Their business strategy was to create a brand name for themselves instead of promoting only sandesh & rasogolla. They opened their first shop in the year 1885 at Shyampukur and by 1938 they had eight more branches in and around North Calcutta. By 1940 with additional six shops there were 15 shops which did a roaring business in the city. They were the first to introduce table service in their shops and were the first to introduce catering services as well in Calcutta, serving the likes of Maharajas of Lalgola & Burdwan. They were famous for their luchi daal, ice-cream sharbat & ice-cream sandesh.

Another contemporary to Dwarik Ghosh was Ganguram Chaurasia who, in the year 1885 had opened a small sweet shop on a piece of of land in Maniktala, given by Raja Kamalaprasad Mukherji. The same shop today is the main branch of the organization named Ganguram & Sons.

Ganguram used to prepare excellent curd and it is this product which brought fame to his business. Ganguram & Son's, yet again would go down into the pages of history for the fact that they had the privilege of catering to Bulganin Krushchev & Chou en lai, during their visit to Calcutta. Bulganin was simply charmed by Ganguram's cham cham & subsequently the item was re-christened as 'Bulganin's cham cham'.

There goes another interesting story related to Ganguram's famous item called Indrani. Once Ganguram decided to add essence to the curd he was famous for. The result was a preparation of 2500 cups of essence curd. But it was for a regular customer and a renowned artist named Satyen Roy who pointed that since people love Ganguram's curd for its unique taste, adding essence might give an impression that the curd was adulterated. What could be done to the odd 2000 cups of essence curd then? Well… that's how Indrani was born.

The sweetmeat industry has come a long way which evolved through the hands of Bhim Nag, Nabin Das, Dwarik Ghosh & Ganguram Chaurasia. It had its ups & downs but braved the odds and survived for more than a century & a half and is perhaps heading for the next centurion leap.

In an age where Bengali entrepreneurs are rare, businesses can surely take inspiration from this sector that has established a brand name around India and abroad as the 'Bengali Sweet' industry. However it does have newer competitions in the hands of chocolate industries nowadays but as long as Bengali (and Indian) sweet bud keeps patronizing sweets, sandesh, rasogolla, mishti doi are here to stay.