Civic Sanskriti: Mango magic... the treasure troves that sustain us all
While the brilliant Amaltas flowers are a visual delight, it is the Mango that is perhaps the most loved and delicious component of the golden Indian summer.
Street carts and bazaar shelves across Pune are filled with thousands of petis of mangoes. How many varieties of mango can you name? Alphonso, Banganapalli, Chausa, Dussheri, Kesari, Payari …
Some years ago, my colleague Satish Awate involved students from school-ecoclubs in the Sahyadris, or the northern Western Ghats, to look for as many mango varieties as they could find.
Students explored farms, village commons, and nearby areas, mapped the trees and interviewed elders. Awate delights in narrating the unusual varieties and stories the children found.
One mango variety tastes like curd, another like shepu (dill leaves). One smells like lemon, another like kerosene and yet another like bed bugs! Some varieties resemble other fruits and confusingly are named for the other fruit – so a mango that tastes like an apple is called safarchand. There are even mango varieties that taste like bananas and pumpkins.
Some trees and varieties have historical significance. Babasaheb Ambedkar is believed to have camped below a particular mango tree named Madhgoti in Uravade village not far from Pune and enjoyed its fruits.
There is often a distinct mango variety for each preparation – chutney, sabjis and curries, mango rice, pickle, fruit, aam ras, amrakhand, aam papad, and murabba. Some varieties, like the Alphonso, are carefully cultivated and are a major source of income from local sales and exports. Other varieties are highly local and grow in wild or semi-wild conditions.
Students of the participating schools recorded over 200 varieties of mangoes from about 60 locations in the Western Ghats. A study of these varieties has been done by CEE with IISER, Pune, to understand how distinct these popular varieties are at the genetic level.
Having large varietal diversity in a crop makes it possible to choose or develop varieties that can withstand climate change impacts. Different varieties are able to tolerate drought, high rainfall or extreme heat conditions, or pest attacks.
The Western Ghats harbour not only varieties of our favourite mango, but many other types of fruits, vegetables, fodder, medicinal plants, trees yielding timber, grasses or shrubs yielding fibre. These mountainous ecosystems are also the origins of the rivers that drain the Deccan and southern Indian region.
This mosaic of wilderness, forests and grassy patches, rivers and streams, village common lands, and farmlands in the Western Ghats is invaluable as a sustaining inter-dependent life force. When we remove a few components, hack some forests here and there, we start to unravel a complex web of life that has taken millennia to evolve.
The Western Ghats are one of 36 “hotspots” of biodiversity in the world. A hotspot is both a positive and a negative qualification. As a biodiversity hotspot, the Western Ghats are unique with at least 1,500 species of plants that are not found elsewhere in the world.
Unfortunately, the “hotspot” label also indicates that this natural vegetation is highly threatened. This means that the Western Ghats harbour irreplaceable life forms, and they are being lost.
For example, scientists and civic groups have questioned the need for projects such as the doubling of the railway line in Mollem National Park on the Western Ghats in Goa to increase commercial cargo handling. With this project and the existing highway and power line projects, a large tract of forest with 60,000 trees would be erased in the Mollem National Park.
Covid and lockdowns have hit us hard, but projects with short term gains to a few, and increased risks to both humans and other species seem like Sheikh Chilli cutting off the branch on which he sat!
Instead, we need innovative approaches that help to restore the economy and livelihoods while strengthening the natural resource base including biodiversity. It is a call to those who develop and support innovations, help incubate solutions and especially micro enterprises.
In the meantime, do try out different varieties of mangoes. Try to plant some mango saplings of different varieties in your neighbourhood.
In a lovely connection of Satish’s Western Ghats school eco-clubs project to Pune, students from Baburaoji Gholap School in Sangvi, Pune, raised saplings of 75 mango varieties in their school nursery.
These saplings were then planted in institutional campuses in Pune, and at the Botanical Garden at Shivaji University. Kolhapur. Grafts and more saplings could one day be prepared at the Botanical Garden, continuing to conserve these riches from nature.
We Punekars are lucky to live close to the treasures of the Sahyadris. Those interested in joining and evolving restoration efforts are welcome to get in touch.