Sondesh (সন্দেশ ), and its history – my hypothesis

Bhim Nag

Bhim Nag’s sweet shop in Calcutta. Sondesh was made famous in the last century by these guys and Sir Ashutosh, but as far as the present goes…they have seen better days.

Trust a Bengali to write paeans about sweets. It is equally interesting to dip into the genesis of a rosogolla or a rosomalai. What I have found however, is a lack of history of the sondesh (সন্দেশ ) ; the sweet any Bengali sweet shop worth its salt sugar would like to be known for. K C Das in Bangalore does not make sondesh. Do they count as a Bengali sweet shop then? Never mind, I digress, that is a story for another time.

Sondesh, as many of us know, is made of chhana (cottage cheese) kneaded till softness, sugared somewhere in the process and then put through a die to give it a shape. Many of us would also know that there is a harder (কড়া পাক – Kodha Paak) form of the sweet, and a softer one (নরম পাক – Norom Paak). It is usually sweetened with sugar; but during winters sugar is replaced with date palm jaggery. Some forms of sondesh are also steamed. Oh well, you know all that.

So, here is my hypothesis on the birth (or should I say evolution) of the Sondesh.

Name – We Bengalis pronounce the “अ ” with a rosogolla in our mouth as the way you would pronounce “au” (as in aurum). Okay, so the word is सन्देश . In at least Sanskrit, Hindi or Bangla the word means “message”. However, the word is not really used in Bangla. The word used is Bārtā (বার্তা). Ergo, there is a potential for the word to have crept in from a different language and culture. The one culture which does use the word “sandesa” (संदेसा ) is the Rajasthani one.

Timeline – If that logic holds, then from a timeline perspective the first (?) intense brush with Rajasthani culture would have been during the period of Mughals (somewhere late 16th century). During Raja Jai Singh’s time for sure, could have been earlier (with the other Muslim dynasties which ruled Bengal). This could also have been during Sher Shah’s rule, who did create the basic administrative structure that India still uses. But, there is little evidence of Rajasthani influence in Bengal at that time (before Akbar, that is).

Name again – So, if we are talking about a message indiao367aand from the Mughal period, why would a sweet be named message? What might it have to do with a message? Let’s recall for a moment how messages were sent those days. We did not have a postal system to talk about. Kings, nawabs and other administrative officers (subedars, jahagirdars, mansabdars etc.) did however have messengers who traveled long distances on foot, or rode horseback. There is a theory which talks about sondesh being sent from the (message) sender to receiver. That doesn’t really make too much sense, because one would want the messenger to get to wherever he needs to, as quickly as possible. Wouldn’t want to increase load. Could it have been that these messengers carried the sondesh with them as their own food? Clearly the messengers needed nourishment which wasn’t bulky to carry, would keep for longish time, provide energy and nutrition. What better than sondesh which is a gunk of protein, some fat, and sugar?

Form

There is a types of sondeshproblem with the type of sondesh. The norom paak would not do because it does not keep very well. It needs to be a drier (thus harder) form which does keep well over time. All good so far, and the theory does seem to hold to logic. But, there is no reason why the messengers of Rajasthani (or Mughal) administrators would use sondesh made out of chhana. Chhana isn’t used to make any of the milk based sweets which originated in northern parts of the country.

Birth / Evolution

I submit, that the precursor would have been something like a pedha (पेढा). Sound familiar? Pedha would work okay because it is sweet, and made of milk. Three problems with that though. One, its not a sweet which is light on the stomach. Too many of these will sit in your stomach like a lump of lead. Second, again is that in the humid climate of Bengal, it certainly won’t last long. And finally that khoya (made by thickening milk) is not used in any regular Bengali sweet and thus might have been difficult to produce or source in those days. Chhana should however have been available in plenty. A pedha transformed and made with chhana could be a sondesh, no? It then might also be possible that norom paak sondesh was made first, and that evolved to a kodha paak type through experimentation.

Does that hold to your logic, and historical reasoning? Do you happen to know more about this than what I have written here or do you have another theory? I would be delighted to know (as much as biting into a sondesh).

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