Palmyra palm is significant in several Indian states, but the art of turning it into delicacies is unique to Bengal and Odisha; Sri Lankan Tamils share that art

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“Taler bora kheye Nanda nachite lagilo /Ki ananda hoilo re bhai, ki ananda hoilo.” Generations of Bengali children have grown up with this rhyme, which, in essence, is synonymous with Janmashtami among the community. Roughly translated, it means, “After eating taler bora, Nanda breaks into a dance; oh, what joy it is, oh what joy!”

If you have noticed, the rhyme contains neither the word “Janmashtami” nor has any mention of Krishna. So, how is it related to the festival? It’s “taler bora” (taal vada) or palmyra palm fritters that is the significant word here — barring, of course, Nanda, Krishna’s adoptive father. A Bengali Janmashtami is incomplete without these sweet treats, along with several other delicacies made with taal or the Asian palmyra palm, variously known as toddy palm or sugar palm.

Nadotsav or Talnabami

But even though taler bora is intrinsic to Janmashtami in Bengal, it’s actually the next day that is more relevant to the delicacy. The next day is called both Nandotsav and Talnabami (Taal Navami) in Bengal.

So, to explain the legend behind the rhyme, Krishna’s adoptive father Nanda is so happy with his birth that on the next morning, a whole bunch of taler bora is made to be distributed across Gokul. And, he himself has a taste of the sweets and breaks into a dance! Hence, the day after Janmashtami, which is Navami according to the Hindu calendar, is celebrated as Nandotsav, but at the same time, it is also called Talnabami — the fruit being an intrinsic part of the festival.

Now, if you think about it, Gokul and Krishna’s birthplace Mathura are both in Uttar Pradesh. And the palmyra palm grows largely in the coastal states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, and West Bengal. So, how can Krishna’s birth celebrations have anything to do with the toddy palm?

A likely practical reason could be the easy availability of the ripe fruit in Bengal exactly at that time —around August-September — which is why it came to be associated with the festival. Second, we Bengalis love to adopt anything and everything as our own. Third, in Bengal, the line between the sacred and the profane is often very fine indeed.

For instance, Goddess Durga is, at the same time, our mother and our daughter, who comes to visit us with her four children from her husband’s abode in the Himalayas during the four days of Durga Puja. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that we have adopted Nanda as our own as well and we “make” him dance after eating taler bora with scant regard to the likely unavailability of the fruit in his home state.

Flavours of Bengal villages

Taler bora is essentially a rural delicacy, just like pitha or pithe on Makar Sankranti. In fact, many prefer to call it taal pitha. Preparation is simple enough. The ripe palm fruit has to be pulped, which is the most difficult part of the cooking process. Traditionally, a jhuri (cane basket) is used to pulp the ripe taal. The outer skin is ripped off, the three pulpy seeds are soaked in water, and then they are painstakingly squashed, using the porous basket.

Ripe palm fruits ready to be sold in a Kolkata market ahead of Janmashtami

Once the pulping is done, the rest is easy. It is mixed with atta (whole grain wheat flour), mashed bananas, grated coconut, sugar, a pinch of baking soda, and the batter is fried into small fritters in oil (traditionally mustard oil is used in Bengal). The ingredients are often flexible. Some don’t use bananas; some use white flour (maida) instead of atta; some add rice flour.

The taal pulp is not only used to make the fritters. It’s used to make a whole range of delicacies, including taal kheer (malai), taler luchi (fried flatbreads), taler ruti (rotis with a taal filling), and myriad other fancy dishes.

The Sri Lankan sibling

Taler bora, however, is not exclusive to Bengal. The same dish is made in Odisha as well. But while the palmyra palm is significant in several other states — notably in Tamil Nadu, where it is the state tree — the art of pulping the fruit and turning it into delicacies is largely missing. It is the ice apple — which is the fruit in an earlier state of development — that is more widely preferred, even to make dishes like the nungu payasam in southern India.

So, when I chanced upon a sibling of the taler bora during a lazy Internet surfing session, I was astonished. The picture told me it was taler bora, but the description in an alien language piqued my interest. And that is how I became acquainted with the panangai paniyaram of Sri Lanka — more specifically, of the Sri Lankan Tamils. It has been variably described on different websites as “a staple for Jaffna Tamils”, “one of the famous short-eats in Sri Lanka”, and “a must-have in Jaffna”.

The cooking process is strikingly similar, with a variation in ingredients just like in Bengal. In fact, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that the panangai paniyaram is an identical twin of taler bora. Though initially I was taken aback, a little thinking told me that it might not be such an earthshattering surprise. After all, both myth and science say that Bengalis share a significant relationship with the Sri Lankans.

A cultural remnant?

According to the Mahavamsa, an ancient chronicle of Sri Lankan rulers written in Pali, Vijay Simha, a king banished from Simhapura, a kingdom in what is now India, settled on the island with his entourage in the 6th century BC. Sri Lankans believe they are descendants of King Vijay and his men. Now, several parts of India, including Gujarat, Bengal, and Odisha, have staked claim to Simhapura.

But what does science say? All genetic studies give an upper hand to Bengal and Odisha compared to Gujarat. Studies conducted by S Mastana (2007), GK Kshatriya (1995), and RL Kirk (1976) have found the Sinhalese to have significant genetic links to Bengalis and Odias apart from Indian Tamils.

Also, the migration from eastern India to Sri Lanka may have happened over many centuries. Scholars cite several cultural similarities between Bengalis and Sri Lankans, too. Is the panangai paniyaram one of those cultural remnants — quietly thriving across the ocean, much like Krishna did in Gokul, unbeknownst to uncle Kamsa? But then, how did it come to be with the Tamils of Jaffna instead of the Sinhalese?

These are questions to be answered by food historians. Maybe, there is no link at all and the two dishes were born separately in two different regions of the subcontinent on their own. But is there any harm in imagining a bunch of east Indian migrants settling down on an alien island, finding a known fruit, and turning it into the only thing they learnt at home? Over the centuries, the ties may have been forgotten but the sweet taste of home has lingered on, the humble palm fruit continuing to connect two peoples across the ocean.

Happy Janmashtami!

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