By PRADEEP SINGH
For centuries, the valley of Doon remained on the edge of civilisation and for cartographers and explorers it was ‘terra incognita’. Though geographically it was the domain of the Garhwal Rajas, albeit at times contested for by the rulers of Sirmaur, it was only due to the Mughal Imperium and the practice of its state craft that the Valley was drawn into the main current of Indian political processes.
But, with the military expeditions under Shah Jahan and then by Aurangzeb, the remarkable isolation of the Valley came to an end. While, from the perspective of empire building of the Mughals, the Gurkhas, and finally the East India Company, their activity is traceable from the middle of the last millennium, but before that the daunting wilderness was pierced by men of God, the sages, fakirs and the spiritual mendicants. These ascetic minded wanderers had their hermitages and retreats deep in the forests of the Siwaliks and despite the severe terrain and hostile environment of Eastern Dehradun, these seekers of a deeper meaning preferred this part of the Valley for their pursuits.
These peripatetic other-worldly men have left a unique legacy in the depths of the Sal forests of Eastern Doon and also visible along several rural paths and lanes that they traversed. The ubiquitous wild mango trees are a gift of the holy men that one often passes by without a glance, but not when the very same trees are laden with exotic unnamed varieties of ripe mangoes.
Though planting of mango orchards was a known practice yet it remained a preserve of the elite and transgression was indeed costly. Thus, for the toiling peasant and bedraggled pilgrims of summer months, these wild mangoes gave not just shade but some succour as well. The fruit, eaten raw, semi-ripe or replete with juicy pulp, was within easy reach of a hand stretched up to pluck, or the group that shook the boughs.
Though Eastern Doon was blessed with an amazing variety of seasonal fruits like jamun, anwla, ber, grapefruit, bel, pachnaala, dhehu, shehtoot, etc., but nothing was more sought after than the wild mangoes. The fruit excited, both, passion and appetite on hot summer afternoons when hunger for cooked food was far away. Children could hardly be restrained from plunging their hands into buckets of water in which the mangoes had been soaked to cool their inner heat. Even adults considered gorging on mangoes as a meal that was completed with a draught of buttermilk. Even the afternoon siesta was often under the shade of a mango tree.
Mirza Ghalib who penned his verses in the twilight of the Mughal Empire was a devotee of the fruit. He famously quipped: Mangoes should be sweet and should be plenty. (Aam meethey hone chahiein or bahut hone chahien). Again, while corresponding with a friend he wrote that the Creator be praised as he had filled liqueur in these decanters without a drop spilling out. While none may equal Ghalib’s pen, however, they may certainly outdo him in appreciating the mango.
Strolling in the forests of the Valley is no longer possible, both, as there are restrictions and the preferences of the present generation are for jungles of brick and mortar. But in days gone by, one could collect a bunch of friends and set out for the forest and hunt for wild mango trees which were often laden with fruit for anyone who cared to reach them in their remoteness. But you also had to get lucky that these trees dotting the wilderness were not reached before you by mango sellers who plied a plucky trade by finding wild mango trees and harvesting them and then trudging from village to village. They carried their fragrant loads on baskets slung across their shoulders balanced on specially made wooden splints. Their approach to the village was anticipated with much curiosity as no two lots were ever similar in size, shape or taste. Sold by ‘dhadis’ (approximately 5 kgs), the fruit was purchased at times in a single session of bargaining. If it failed, you got only the fragrance of the mangoes that too receding with the footfalls of the seller.
Like the Sal tree under which Gautam Buddha’s mother gave mankind a most remarkable person who sanctified this country and gave mankind a way to nirvana, the mango tree also has an indelible connection to the sage of the Sakyas. Gautam Buddha once satisfied his tortured body by eating a ripe mango but out of gratitude he dug out some earth and planted the seed of the mango and washed his hands over it to water it. The tree centuries later continued to bless visitors with its fruit. And, so is perhaps the legacy of the wild mango groves of Eastern Doon.