After khichdi rose to its short moment of fame, news broke today that the battle of origin over the iconic rosogulla sweet has concluded in West Bengal’s favour. The pearly white favorite, while popularly synonymous with Bengal, found itself amid a bitter, cultural tug-of-war in September 2015 when Odisha raised formal objection to West Bengal’s Geographical Indication (GI) claim over (“Banglar rosogulla”) the sweet, which the neighboring state also holds dear to itself.
The Odisha government responded by ordering the formation of three committees to settle the dispute over rosogulla’s origins. Led by the eminent scholar Asit Mohanty, the committees were to look into facts regarding the origin of rosogulla in Odisha and collect ‘conclusive evidence’ to bolster the state’s claim to rosogolla’s legacy. A social-media campaign #RasagollaDibasa was also launched by the Odisha government on July 30, 2015 to celebrate its origin. Offline, it was accompanied by an exhibition and awareness event by confectioners in Odisha.
West Bengal, for its part, cited an elaborate dossier of historical evidence along with K C Das — the sweet chain run by the descendants of sweet maker Nabin Chandra Das, who is said to have invented the rosogolla in 1868. Their key argument was that the Bengalis learnt how to make the chhena — the cottage cheese which is the chief ingredient of rosogulla — from the Portuguese and were the first to experiment with it for their sweets. Many food historians, such as Chitrita Banerjee, have corroborated the fact that prior to the 18th century, there is no documented evidence of chhena anywhere in India.
Meanwhile, the Mohanty committee’s final report in May 2016 quoted many historical Odia texts that were written well before 1868 and contained description of a similar sounding sweet as temple offering. The report had cited Dandee Ramayana, the Odia adaptation of Valmiki Ramayana, written by the sage poet Balaram Das in the sixteenth century which mentions a cheese sweet in jaggery syrup being offered to gods. Also mentioned is a reference within the ancient Odia dictionary ‘Purnachandra Bhasakosha‘ to a cheese sweet in jaggery syrup. The Mohanty committee also wrote that selections from Odia literature published by Calcutta University in 1924 had references to the sweet’s origin in Odisha. Based on this, Odisha had initiated its own GI claim last year on “Pahala Rasgulla,” in reference to a small highway-stop village between Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack, named Pahala with end-to-end sweet shops along a long stretch, which produce Odisha’s variant of Rasgullas.
The GI registry — a wing of India’s Intellectual Property Office — is a patent name, logo and signage assigned to brand certain products with the designation of a specific geographical location (e.g. a town, region, or country) that is its place of origin. It can act as a certification that the product possesses certain qualities, is made according to traditional methods and hence enjoys a reputation that is essentially attributable to its geographical origin. Darjeeling tea, for instance, has a GI tag for the tea produced solely in Darjeeling’s tea gardens, as does Champagne for a specific bubbly produced in Champagne, France — all the rest simply being “Sparkling Wines”. Both are huge export names, for India and France respectively.
While it seems that Bengal has won, the GI tag benefits for a ubiquitous sweet like rosogolla overall appear marginal and the battle at least in part being about stoked regional sentiments as it is neither a prominent export product nor will its legally-affixed place of origin necessarily alter its prized qualities for a food taster.