Culinary lore links a popular sweetmeat to the building of the Taj Mahal. In the 16th century, when work on the grand monument was on, the labourers would often complain of fatigue. Chief architect Isa sought the help of Sufi saint Pir Naqshbandi. A sugary translucent sweet made with ash gourd was revealed to the saint in his dreams, goes the legend, and thus was born the petha.
Like most food items, the origin story of the petha has variants. Another story associates the confection to the kitchens of the Emperor Shah Jahan. The fifth Mughal emperor, according to this version, asked his khansamas (male cooks) to prepare him a delicacy that was as gleaming white as his favourite monument. More than 500 cooks combined sugar syrup and a variety of essences and condiments — cardamom, rose water, saffron — with the white pumpkin to turn it into what the doyen of Indian food history KT Achaya describes — in A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (1998) — as “a fibrous and jujube-like sweet”. These halwais (sweets makers) are today, at best, a footnote in the narrative of royal initiative and divine revelation.
Confectioners haven’t always received their due in the country’s food history. In Life and Food in Bengal (1991), Chitrita Banerji talks of the condescension that has often been their lot. Popular tradition, she writes, pictures this artisan as “huge immobile mountain of flesh sitting in front of his stove or in front of a huge platter of white chhaana which he manipulates with the ease of long practice. He is utterly oblivious to all else in the world and so satiated with his products that he never touches them himself.”
Sweets-making is amongst the oldest recorded professions in the country’s history. The food historian Colleen Taylor Sen writes that “conversion of sugarcane to products was carried out during the first millennium BCE”. The Buddhist text, Mahavastu, composed between 2nd century BC and 2nd Century AD, talks of guilds of confectioners. The Manasollasa, one of the earliest Indian texts to contain recipes, has a variety of references to sweets. The 12th century text has recipes that have provenance even today, including puran poli. But it doesn’t give us any idea of the lives of the artisans who devised these delicacies.
Things do begin to change somewhat in medieval times. Kabikankan Mukundaram’s Chandimangal, a 16th century eulogy to Goddess Chandi, has references to the itinerant ways of Bengal’s sweetmeat makers from the Modak community. The community seems to have come into its own, once the Portuguese introduced cheese in Bengal — the invention of sandesh and roshogolla is culinary legend.
In Delhi, in the dusk of their reign, the Mughal emperors patronised the iconic Ghantewala (in Chandni Chowk) — it pulled down its shutters in 2015. The confectionary started in 1790 by Sukh Lal Jain, an immigrant from Amber, regaled the royalty with its ghee-laden halwas. The shop, though, earned the chagrin of Maulavi Muhammad Baqar’s Dehli Urdu Akhbar — the city’s first Urdu newspaper. In its chronicle of the 1857 revolt, it lamented: “no sooner do the rebels savour Ghantewala’s sweets, they lose all urge to fight”.
In Bengal, the upper-caste regarded the fame of sweetmakers with ambivalence. Zamindars patronised them. But notes historian Utsa Ray in Culinary Culture in Colonial India (2014), “mairas or confectioners, who generally belonged to the lower caste, became the object of disgust for the upper castes” who would petition the government to improve the hygiene of sweets shops. The gripe was temporary. The sweet-makers continued to be inventive — the ledikeni, a lightly fried reddish sweet ball, was named after Lady Canning (Charlotte), Governor Charles Canning’s wife.
And in Agra, the petha revealed to a Sufi in his dream, has become the muse for several Hindu and Jain sweets makers.