The Disappearing Sweets of Bengal

The region renowned for its sweet tooth endured multiple conflicts and divisions, losing many of its creative mishti-making traditions in the process.

Mallika Basu

August 18, 2022

The Disappearing Sweets of Bengal
choshir payesh / choshi pitha (courtesy of Sukanya Ghosh (saffronstreaks.com))

The heavenly scents of the season’s first nolen gur, or liquid palm date jaggery, also mean that jaggery-based sweets are not far behind. The women of the home would slowly reduce the sticky, dense liquid with freshly grated coconut until it transformed into khondo, a chewy toffee, that they would then fashion into birds, animals, and flowers with patterned molds. Homes would store these sweets for weeks or send them as gifts to announce the arrival of nabanna, the harvest festival. Khondo is just one of the sweet treats women in the eastern part of pre-partition Bengal created to celebrate a special occasion.

A fertile region encompassing parts of present-day Bihar, Orissa, Assam, West Bengal, and Bangladesh, Bengal was home to some 80 million people before the British first divided it in 1905 — citing an area too large to administer — into two new provinces, each with different religious majorities. Hindu-majority Bengal then comprised West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha, and Muslim-majority East Bengal consisted of Dhaka and Assam. In 1911, following protests and the Swadeshi movement, the British reversed their decision. They reunited West and East Bengal. Bihar, Orissa, and Assam became separate provinces, and the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi.

Unfortunately, the region continued to face conflict and divisions under British rule. Deadly riots in Bengal in 1946 would initiate a mass migration that continued well after the partition of 1947 — including in 1971, when refugees fled then-eastern Pakistan. Bengalis faced death, displacement, and poverty. And, along the way, the sweet traditions at the heart of their everyday lives were lost forever.