The sweet connection to Independence

Away from the mainland fight of revolutionaries, our freedom struggle saw the rise of an unlikely ally – sweets and sweetmeat makers. This Independence Day, we look at their role and how it set the tone for our favourites.

Year 1930. India was at the peak of the Quit India movement. Sri Chettur Sankaran Nair, a prominent lawyer and social reformed, is weeks away from hosting a small get together at his house. Known for his radical thoughts and impossible personality towards the British and high society natives, Sri Nair made history when he openly accused Lieutenant General Michael O’Dwyer for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Weeks before the big party, the police intercepted a telegram stating, “Bengali Sweets Dispatched”. A red alert was issued for days until the package arrived that finally turned out to be the iconic rasagola from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and not the potential bombs that were thought.

Ladoo independence day
As much as India loves its sweets, they’ve played an important role through our history, especially the freedom struggle.

The scare while was explained then as a “precautionary measure” to those in the power and the furious statesman, it was one of the many incidents that showed how food had transformed into this notable catalyst in India’s war for independence – and had the colonial power on its toes. Incidentally, it wasn’t the first time that food had played such an inexplicable but effective role in creating chaos in the English camp.

The earliest incident was in 1818, coconuts – single or in pairs – were passed on from one village to another at an alarming rate with little or no explanation. Every morning a pair or four would arrive and a few hours later a set would be sent to a neighbouring village. Was it for a warning or some form of a movement remained a mystery to the British who were further befuddled by a parallel movement by Pindaris, a group of merciless looters, around the same time. Their uneasiness was a result of the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, when for a whole day the English were held hostage inside the fort – and almost 200 killed – when the soldiers rose in defiance under Tipu Sultan’s son. And while the mutiny was crushed soon, a parallel event in the garrison left a lasting dent on English minds. In the account of Lady of Sir John Fancourt, the Commandant, who was killed on July 9, 1806, she notes how they were caught completely unawares and had little else to drink than wine, water from the flour and salt dusted kitchens once the horror was over. It was the same flour and salt that would do rounds of the garrison when nudged by the rumour of bone powder being added to them became more pronounced and egged the soldiers to abstain from eating both. Of course, modern day historians believe it was the forced “Christianity” that was the main culprit.

While in the colonial pages the 1806 mutiny was registered as a failed “bloody” attempt, little did the English know that fifty years hence they would face a much bigger scare of the first War of Independence and the baffling “chupatty movement”. Describing the predicament that this synchronised movement of the flatbread had created, Dr Gilbret Hadow had written to his sister in Britain, “There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present. No one seems to know the meaning of it.… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society.”

While the movement died a rather mischievous death a few months post the 1857 Revolution, it was successful in instilling a deep sense of worry and fear among the new rulers – The Crown – as well. In fact, even today, it remains a mystery that has many theories but not a single, valid explanation.

Interestingly, the “chuppaty movement” became a big lesson for the revolutionaries who continued their defiance time and again, this time using different foods as the way to communicate at the haat or peth that had transformed from being regular markets to safe havens where these men and women could travel with ease. It was the peth of Shahjahanabad where most landowners and other patrons such as Bijraul’s Shah Mal would send the ration for the freedom fighters and would often send a simple box of ladoos or some form of mithai as the message when and where to find it.  Courtesans such as Azeezunbai would often use the kebabs in Romali Roti or a ladoo or batashe instead of smoke or a candle to send the message or an alert to those on the run. In fact, the bhujwas of Lucknow, Cawnpore and Delhi excelled in the art of making batasa and khilona as these sugar toys could encase a message or two inside their delicate structure and reach the destination without arousing any alarms.

“What made sweets such a safe mode of communication was,” says Chef Vikas Seth (culinary Director, Embassy Leisure), “their omnipresence in our cuisine. We do not need an occasion for a ladoo or a kheer. And two, was the number of festivals that India celebrated at the time, where sweets were an essential element of the celebrations. And the third, of course, is the English’s own weakness for sweets that made them rather nonchalant to the movement of these little bites of deliciousness.”

“Consequently,” continues Chef Seth, “as the movement gained momentum, the revolutionaries continued to use sweets as their mode of communication. Ladoos became bombs, barfis designed differently could indicate fresh kartoos to a parcel sent, rasagula could mean both bombs and number of men and phrases such as ‘Send Bengal Sweets’ or ‘Send Mumbai Halwa’ an encrypted message for an agitation or worse, a bomb blast or assassination.”

“For Indians though, the selection of sweets,” says culinary archivist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “served the dual purpose of not only the message but also a mode of sustenance, especially in the early years post 1857 when many freedom fighters had gone into hiding and were dependent on such boxes to not only stay abreast of the situation but also build their energy on.”

“This,” add Chef Gorai, “meant that the selection of sweets on those early years had to be something that was as common as bread in Europe. And the understandable choice were ladoos that had in history played the character of an antidote and travel food.”

Til ke laddu independence day
Til ke ladoo was one of the popular variants which were even supplied to Indian soldiers stuck fighting for the British in both the World Wars.

Two such variants that became immensely popular during 1857 and the years after was the besan ladoo and pinni. While the former was chosen for its versatility as besan could be made in variety of ways and hence more versions of code name were developed such as the boondi ke ladoo was often used as a map of attack by replacing the colour of the bondi; pinnis’ (prepared using flour, desi ghee, nuts, sugar and jaggery) role was purely as a health booster. In fact, pinni’s popularity as a war meal came with the Nihant who used these ladoos to survive long standoffs instead of a proper meal. Such was the importance of pinni that in First World War, these ladoos were specially brought in to feed the Indian soldiers posted in the trenches of France and Belgium. For those in the east, the Magaz Ladoo became the obvious choice.

Sweets became an even bigger investment in the Second World War when special rations were created for Indian soldiers while the English had to make do with their canned food. The shift in the fortune was the realisation by The Crown that victory depended on the courage of soldiers and not the officers.

Back in India though, a nation that was riddled with famines and faced demeaning laws and rules of The Crown, sweets soon transformed from being food and letters to becoming beacons of the freedom movement. As a nation where small get-togethers were an offence by law, sweetmeat shops becoming an unlikely asylum for revolutionaries to meet, discuss, plan and eat without being put behind bars. Accounts exist of how the likes of Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh would use the dark of the night to visit their favourite lanes of Matia Mahal to have a sip of their khullad wali chai or stop at Ghantewala for a quick grub of puri-aloo and halwa.

It was during the early 20th century that the War of Independence saw the rise of the sweetmeat makers. Otherwise mute participants of the revolution until then, sweetmeat makers would now step up as an effective mode to propagate the cause of one nation through their sweets that were designed and named for the cause. One of the finest examples of this was the Thaggu ke Ladoo. Created by Ram Avtar Pandey after he was influenced by Mahatama Gandhi’s sermon on how sugar was harming the country decided to rename his laddus that used British Mill processed sugar to thaggu or thief since white sugar was cheaper to gur. Others such as Ram Bhandar Sweet Shop at Thatheri Bazar were known to create sweets named after either the cause of freedom like the Tirangi Burfi or after leaders such as Gandhi Gaurav, Vallabh Sandesh, Subhash Bhog, and Jawahar Laddu, among others.

“In fact,” adds Gorai, “the trend of creating tri-colour mithai is something that dates back to the early 19th century especially during the Quit India Movement and became one of the most effective modes to get the nation together.”

So impressive and impactful were the sweetmeat makers that in 1912, the famous canal of Chandni Chowk that flowed through the market was destroyed along with the trees lining as a lesson to Dilliwalahs for offering shelter to the revolutionaries who threw a bomb at Viceroy Harding. The now shut Ghantewala was one such place that had supported many a freedom fighter and survived that defacing of one of Shahjahanabad’s most beautiful landmark.

Such was sweets’ and sweetmeat makers’ role in our War of Independence that on August 15, 1947 when the nation gathered at the Red Fort to celebrate the first year of being free, understandably ladoos – rather the motichur ladoo – became the mode of rejoicing.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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