The date palm has a long relationship with Bengal where it grows in abundance. Painters have drawn it, poets have written about the music of its rustling leaves, people have loved it for its sweet produce, whether date palm jaggery or the sweet fresh toddy. Nolen gur, or “new jaggery”, extracted from the tree’s sap is a winter speciality of Bengal. Rosogollas and sandesh made with nolen gur are the stuff Bengali dreams are made of.
Several varieties of palm trees grow in Bengal—coconut, areca, date, palmyra—and each has its unique uses. The process of making date palm jaggery is laborious, but the end product is more than worth the effort. The tappers, who grow the trees and collect the sap, are called shiuli or gachia in Bengal.
Every evening in the right season, the shiulis climb to the top of high trees, with just a rope or chain tied to their body for safety. There they gently scrape the outer layer of the trunk with a sickle to reveal the kernel. A thin bamboo pipe links the exposed kernel to an earthen pot hanging just below. Overnight the sap collects in the pot, drip by drip. At the crack of dawn, when the sun is not yet up, the shiuli brings the pot down. Since the sap starts fermenting with the first touch of warmth, time is of paramount essence. As is the shiuli’s cut—a shallow cut will not release the sap, a cut too deep may kill the tree. The sweet, transparent sap, if consumed early in the morning, is an instant energy boost. If left to ferment, it turns into tari (toddy).
“The shiuli’s expertise lies in his hands: the more experienced he is, the sweeter the sap,” said Aamir Sekh, a fourth-generation shiuli from Puraton Kella in Diamond Harbour, in South 24 Parganas district. His home is a 4 ft by 10 ft lean-to strung together with bamboo and a plastic sheet; he shares it with his father and son. In his 40s now, Sekh has been a shiuli from childhood, who earns a meagre Rs.10,000-Rs.15,000 per month.
Tapping requires not just tree-climbing skills but also the knowledge to find the right spot and make just the right incision. Once in high demand, shiulis are disappearing now since connoisseurs of fresh date juice and nolen gur have disappeared too with the arrival of more easily available synthetic substitutes.
The heyday ofi the shiulis is celebrated in Bengali literature: short story writer Narendranath Mitra’s (1916-1975) classic story of love and betrayal “ Ras” (Juice), later made into a Hindi film, Saudagar (1973), starring Amitabh Bachchan, revolves around expert shiuli Motalef aka Moti who has learnt the ropes from master tapper Razek Mridha. The relationship between the date palm and the tapper is so intimate that one baul song imagines the tree as female and the clay pot as male, married to each other.
The process of making nolen gur is time-consuming: the sap is boiled over a wood-fired earthen oven for more than an hour, then it starts releasing a heady aroma and turns reddish black—this is nolen gur. As the gur is boiled further, it becomes concentrated and sticky—this is dana gur (grainy jaggery).
Dana gur is poured into earthen pots and cooled down. It takes the shape of the pot and is called patali gur in this form.
Artist Sarfuddin Ahmed , from Khanpur in South 24 Parganas, has been visiting Puraton Kella for years, driven by his love for the date palm. To keep the skills of the shiulis and the tradition of nolen gur alive, Ahmed conceptualised the Rasamotee International Art Festival, which takes place in Puraton Kella in January each year.
Such efforts notwithstanding, the production of nolen gur has dropped considerably over the last few decades, with not just the trees dying due to climate change and urbanisation, but the shiulis too moving to other jobs. Moreover, climate change has seen winter lose its bite in Bengal; the hot weather stretches well into December, sometimes with bursts of rain. Both heat and rain spoil the sap. Talking of his unique profession, Sekh said: “The younger generation is no longer interested; they have drifted far from nature.”
The pictures here are from Puraton Kella, Diamond Harbour, and Santiniketan in Bolpur, West Bengal.
Satwik Paul is an independent photojournalist based in Kolkata.