We have all read the great poem of Rabindranath Tagore where he wrote,
আমসত্ত্ব দুধে ফেলি, তাহাতে কদলী দলি,
সন্দেশ মাখিয়া দিয়া তাতে–
হাপুস হুপুস শব্দ চারিদিক নিস্তব্ধ,
পিঁপিড়া কাঁদিয়া যায় পাতে।
(Milk and dried mango pieces were mixed together and then banana was mashed and added to the mix followed by sandesh. Everyone lapped up the delicious preparation promptly, reducing the ants to tears because nothing was left on the plate for them.)
Sandesh is a sweet, known as the enhancer of tastes. In India, especially in Bengal, people love to eat sweets. Celebration of any good news ends with mishtimukh (eating of sweets). This has become a long standing custom. Enormous production of milk and sugar cane encouraged the practice of making sweets with chhana (cottage cheese) and sugar. Especially Bengal often saw certain changes and intermingling of tastes and preferences. Urbanization in Bengal in 18th century, rise of different cities, development of old cities into new ones contributed to the flourishing of the confectionery industry. Advent of Vaishnava cult was also an important factor. Famous historian Atul Sur opined that in 1756 there were sweet shops at Sutanuti area of Town Calcutta. The report of Fever Committee also mentioned the buying and selling of sweets in Calcutta. But by early 19th century sweet shops and sweet trading became very common in Calcutta. During this time sandesh, a special kind of sweet with cottage cheese as its chief ingredient, became popular. In early 19th century various kinds of sandesh were available. Sandesh found acceptance among the Bhadralok class who found it convenient to carry a box of these sweets when they visited friends or relatives. I wonder if these visits enabled the exchange of news between families about their well beings and the visitor handed over the syrup-less and the convenient-to-carry sweets. Sandesh most likely owed the origin of its name to this practice.
Earlier, sweets without syrups were common. Later, in the second part of 19th century the sweets dipped in syrup became popular with rosogollah and pantua gaining prominence.
Now we should trace the background of the emergence of “ sweets-making” while keeping aside the molasses and indigenous sugar made from sugar cane. India, especially Bengal has often gone through certain changes and inter-mingling of tastes and preferences. Bengal was the preferred destination of people across the world and they left their mark not only in its history but also on cuisine. Among various changes and transition, the arrival of Portuguese and the influence of Mughals and Vaishnavites are key factors contributing to the emergence of Bengali sweets. There are also instances where we see that Bengali sweets were baptised with innovative and creative names like – labongo lotika, kheer kadam, rosho madhuri, and so on. Bengal had always been the land of sweet lovers and in all probability it might be that these names were a result of a certain degree of commercialization. The sweet makers were desperate to sell their products and wanted to lure their customers with such creative names.
According to certain sources of oral history and also from the references of Panini, it is believed that Bengal which was once known as ‘Gour Banga” got its name from the production of gur (molasses). According to K. T. Achaya, Bengal has long been the home of sugar cane cultivation. From the Pundra area (Modern West Bengal) superior variety of sugar cane was procured. Another was the jaggery which was extracted from the palmyra and often used in sweet curd (misthti doi).
According to food historians like KT Achaya and Chitrita Banerjee, in India prior to 17th century there was no reference of cottage cheese (chhana). Probably, the Portuguese were responsible for bringing in the concept of cheese or chhana. Though there are other views which speak of the Vaishnavas who knew the techniques of extracting cheese. Even before the Portuguese the Vaishnavas used various methods to make sweets that were different in terms of taste and ingredients. These innovations were probably because they were vegetarians. A particular dessert, sandesh was mentioned several times in Krittibas’s Ramayana and lyrics of Chaitanya. However, many food historians believed that this sandesh was different from the chhana-based one as it was made of solidified kheer.
In ancient India there were references to mithai which required gur in its preparation. Sugar cane played a significant role in the ancient period and this is very much evident from the references in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as molasses cannot be produced without sugar cane. The origin of sweets in Bengal is proved by these references. But the confusion arises due to the different names of sweets. Some mention it as sandesh, others refer it as mithai or as modak but whether all of these refer to the same kind of sweet is a matter of dispute. The name modak has its mention in Devanagari script. Modak is popular in many parts of India and quite surprisingly in Rajasthan there is an area called modak. Is the sweet named after its place of origin or was it associated with the Hindu deity, Lord Ganesha, mentioned in ancient Hindu mythology ? In Japan, a sweet similar to modak and locally known as Kangidan is offered to the Japanese version of Ganesha. Again, modak in Bengali, happens to identify with a sweet maker or a moira. Modak in most cases in shaped in the form of momos (a popular dish in South Asia) with the outer covering made with flour and filling it with coconut and jaggery.
Another word mithai has a ‘Hindi’ origin and is very popular among the non-Bengali speaking people of India. The very name also signifies ‘sweet’ but might not always be prepared like sandesh. Mithais are mostly made of coconut, moong dal, semolina, flour, etc. along with lots of sweet spices like cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and dry fruits, examples that can be cited include Carrot halwa, besan barfi, moong barfi, kaju barfi, etc. Lastly, comes the, sandesh our favourite Bengali sweet dish. Probably, this name came up in association with the concept of ‘Sandesa’ or message given by a messenger. The name sandesh is of Indian i.e. Sanskrit origin and which means message among quite a few of certain Indian oral traditions. This sandesh during the 16th – 17th century got popularized both because of the Vaishnavas and Portuguese as they brought to the confectioners the concept of chhana/paneer/cottage cheese. Sweets or mishti as we say in Bengali began to be prepared with these main ingredients and as the very name means this dessert took its place permanently as an item for every occasion and festivals. Good news were supplied with a packet of sandesh and thus this word got entwined in such a way that it came up as if “anybody bringing good news to the family will carry with him a packet of sweets.” Slowly this thing culminated as a societal norm within the Bengali society and it is continuing till date. We all will agree how hearts light up when we are welcomed with sweets and how our happy hormones start working by tasting them.