What OTHER thing is Agra famous for, besides the Taj Mahal, and is also as old as the monument itself? If you have a sweet tooth, you would know already. It’s the petha — the chewy, candy-like delicacy made from a pumpkin variety, believed to have originated in the royal kitchens of Shah Jahan.
Within 500 metres of the Taj Mahal, countless varieties of the sweetmeat are hawked by shops big and small. Flavoured variants such as kesar, strawberry, rasberry, cherry, orange, pineapple, paan, and even chocolate petha, are neatly stacked in transparent boxes on shop counters, on both sides of the walkway leading up to the Taj. Most of these shops, though, are marked “Panchhi Petha” with minor differences in labelling — “New” Panchhi Petha, “Original” Panchhi Petha, “Authentic” Panchhi Petha, “Famous” Panchhi Petha — with the adjectives painted in the minutest font size possible. Apparently, a gentleman called Seth Pancham Lal Goyal, fondly called “Panchhi”, started the petha business around 70 years ago, with just one store in the old city. Today, Panchhi has 50 franchise outlets in Agra, and more than 200 impersonators.
As he escorted us towards the east gate of the Taj, Nathu Lal, our guide, said, “Most of these shops near the Taj have come up in the last couple of years. Ever since the Yamuna Expressway opened and day trips to the Taj became a thing. Tourists spend a few hours at the Taj, giving the city a skip, buy some petha and leave. Their Agra darshan is complete.” A kilo of petha costs anything between Rs 300 and 350 here, with the chocolate and paan ones topping the popularity chart. Outside in the main city, beyond the flurry of the Taj, petha is available at under Rs 100 a kilo.
“Everybody lives off the Taj in Agra — hawkers, businessmen, guides and the media. But, most of all, the petha industry,” says Bhuvan Vikram, an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) official posted in Agra. The ever-increasing tourist footfall, he says, directly benefits the petha-sellers, and that is the reason these shops have been mushrooming at a rapid pace, selling the ware at three times the price.
However, there’s another, less palatable side to the petha story in Agra — it is also one of the many industries polluting the monument.
Traditionally, petha makers used old-school coal stoves to boil the fruit, which takes hours. But in the light of the recent Supreme Court guidelines to tackle air pollution near the Taj Mahal, shops were overnight provided with LPG connections. Not all of them are happy about it — many feel it changes the taste, says the ASI official, adding that some of them are still using coal, albeit discreetly.
This side of the story unfolds at Noori Darwaza in the old city, the hub of the petha industry. An official estimate says that more than 700 cottage units churn out this delicacy day after day within the confines of this narrow, 2-km stretch. Pancchi also has its primary store here. “We have been in the business for seven decades. The demand has mostly been the same, but the impersonators remain the main benefiters of tourism,” says a salesman at the shop counter.
As one explores the shops in this part of town, the shopkeepers look on suspiciously. They have been getting more inspection officials in the recent times than genuine customers. Says 70-year-old Banwari Lal, who has been in the business for more than five decades, “Making petha is a tedious process; it takes 24 hours to get it right. And it fetches Rs 80 for a kilo. Still, the administration keeps putting more restrictions on us and fines us for breaches.”
Besides tackling air pollution, the administration is also trying to fight water pollution. Calcium hydroxide, or edible lime, is used to wash and treat the fruit before it is dipped in sugar syrup. All of this discharge is then dumped into the nearby Mantola drain, which ultimately empties into the Yamuna. K Rammohan Rao, commissioner of Agra, and chairman of the Taj trapezium zone, the pollution regulatory body for the Taj, says, “We propose to shift the entire petha industry a little far off, which may be causing both air and water pollution.” The entire industry has been up in arms at this announcement, made in February this year.
Legend has it that Shah Jahan once ordered his royal chefs to prepare a sweet that would be as pure and white as the Taj Mahal. The result was the petha. But with the Taj losing some of that pristine sheen, literally, how long will the petha be able to hold fort?