Whose Rasagolla is it anyway?


Bengal has got the GI tag for ‘Bengal’ Rasagolla. A GI or geographical indication is a registration of a product as having originated in a geographical area. By Bengal Rasagolla what is meant is the white spongy rasagolla, which is supposed to be different from other rasagollas in colour, texture and composition.

I am not sure that there are many types of rasagollas and that there exists adequate intelligible differentia to distinguish between Bengal Rasagolla and other forms of Rasagolla. Rasagolla is rasagolla, whatever adjective you add. So, may be this GI tag will become a subject matter of interesting litigation. The GI Act is part of TRIPS and TRIMS and was legislated in 1999 and notified in 2003. So, the jurisprudence on the subject is still developing.

Odias are not very happy about this GI tag because at some point in our history a group of  Bengal intellectuals had unnecessarily opposed creation of a separate state of Odisha claiming that ‘Odia ek Bhasha noi’. This was rejected by linguists of those times and in effect, Odisha became the first state to be created on linguistic basis. By now Odia has been recognised as a classical language in India along with Tamil, Kannad, Sanskrit, Telugu and Malayalam since Odisha has uninterrupted and proven literary tradition of 1500 years that is used as a benchmark to give a language the ‘classical’ tag.

Therefore, the sweet rasagolla has become a bitter battle and will be fought with vehemence. I am not sure that Bengal really needed the GI tag for rasagolla. The contribution of Bengal to India’s renaissance, reform movements, culture, religion, philosophy, science, thinking etc. have been so phenomenal. They could have been a little gracious rather than rekindle old memories of hostility to the cultural identity of a friendly neighbour. Of course, Bengalees will always remain our friends. But, this could have been avoided.

Rasagolla is used in rituals of Puri temple. Generally temple rituals around India are most resistant to change. The specific ritual in which rasagolla is used is called ‘Niladri Bije’ that takes place when after the car festival Lord Jagannath offers rasagolla to calm down his consort Goddess Laxmi angry at the Lord going on a soujourn without taking her along. The ritual ‘Niladri Bije’ is mentioned in the record of rights compiled by Laxman Panda in 1955-56. The record of rights was prepared much before the issue of GI tag was raised. Given that temple priests rarely agree to change traditions, current traditions are a reasonable ground to believe that rsagolla has been used in Puri temple for a long time.

But, more importantly rasagolla is mentioned in Odia Ramayan of Balaram Das, often called ‘Dandi Ramayan”. This was written in late 15th or early 16th century. In 1921 it was first printed out of palm leaf manuscript by Calcutta University, edited by B.C.Mazumdar, compiled by Sri Gobinda Rath of Banki with preface from Sir Asutosh Mukerjee. The project was financed by Raja Bir Mitrodaya Singh Deo Dharmanidhi of Sonepur State. Important to note that this publication could not have anticipated any controversy regarding geographical origin of rasagolla. The document, as published in 1921, is available in the Indian e-book library and can be accessed by clicking https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.343954

At Page 84 of Dandi Ramayan of Balaram Das the following can be found:

“Kora Rasagolla Je Amruta Rasabali I
Manda nanaman amrutapani kadali II

These are lines from a text written in late 15th and early 16th century. So, the claim that Rasagolla was invented in 1868 by one Nabin Chandra Das cannot be true, unless of course it is found that someone edited the 15th century text written by Balaram Das after 1868. This kind of editing is not impossible. But, in terms of preponderance of evidence one can safely say that Rasagolla actually originated in Odisha, may be a thousand years back, though improvisation may have taken place over the years.

My point is, given the bitter memory that Odias have because their very identity was once questioned by a few Bengal intellectuals it was possibly unnecessary for Bengal with such a rich and respected cultural tradition of her own to claim GI tag for the so called ‘Bengal’ Rasagolla. Bengal should have let it go even if there are strong feelings, just as a way of atonement for the past mistake of opposing the creation of the separate state of Odisha and denying the very existence of Odia language, which is now a recognised classical language.

Of course, as in many aspects of history, there will always be many versions about rasagolla. I have given one version or my version.

Incidentally, I left all sweets way back in 1989. So, this is just by the bye, random reflections. Anyway, rasagolla is banned from my life since long.

(The author is a senior IPS Officer and views are personal)

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