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The saga of Bengal 'shiuli's, and their bittersweet relation with Nolen Gur

13 January, 2023 13:35:48
The saga of Bengal 'shiuli's, and their bittersweet relation with Nolen Gur

Narendranath Mitra’s classic short story, ‘Ras’ is a saga of love, betrayal and hope. It was made into a Hindi film, ‘Saudagar,’ in 1973, featuring Amitabh Bachchan. The story revolves around Motalef aka Moti, a shrewd skilled ‘Shiuli’ (date palm tree tapper). Date palm jaggery is a special type of natural sweetener made by evaporating the sap of wild date palm trees. Harvested between the months of November and February in West Bengal and throughout Bangladesh, it is available in liquid, grainy, and solid forms, known as jhola gur, khejur gur, and patali, respectively.

What does a ‘Shiuli’ do? A date palm tree tapper aka ‘Shiuli’ carries earthen pots slung from a bamboo pole, known as a byank, on his shoulder. When he reaches a date palm tree, he ties a rope around his waist and attaches a curved pin to the rope, then latches an empty clay pot, or kolshi, to the pin. First, the dead branches have to be trimmed from each of the tees. The blades have to be honed, and then the bark scraped off the trunks to insert thin pipes made from reeds (nol). Near the top of the tree, another kolshi hangs precariously. The tapper balances his bare feet on the trunk, and climbs up to replace the kolshi, which is full of fresh date palm sap. Called khejur rosh, the sap is the key ingredient to khejur gur, or date palm jaggery. And khejur gur is, in turn, the secret to Bengali sweetness. The Shiuli repeats this exercise on several date palm trees before daybreak.

It is not enough to work hard. A shiuli is an expert at climbing up and down trees and is deft with his hands too. It is this skill that makes the sharp blade — the slightest touch of which on the skin can make blood flow — get the palm trees to ooze their sweet syrup. This is not like harvesting paddy or jute, where one can simply cut the entire plant along with the root at one stroke. This is tapping a palm tree, which means both slicing and stroking. The tree must not be hurt or damaged. The slightest slip of the fingers and the tree would die before the year was out, with only its stump left. The wood from the trunk might be used to make flights of stairs for the river ghat, but the tree will no longer ooze its juice one drop at a time all night.

Wild date palms grow naturally near canals, isolated ponds, farmland, and wetlands. Their sap is harvested from incisions made in the tree’s trunk with sharp, sickle-like iron tools, then channeled into clay pots through split bamboo stalks or ‘nol’ that the shiuli attach to the trees. Composed of 10 to 20 per cent sucrose, the sap breaks down and ferments when it is heated, a process that turns it from sweet to sour; this is why the sap is ideally collected in the hours between dusk and dawn, before the heat of the sun can sour it. Apart from the microclimate, at what time of the day the sap has been tapped makes all the difference in the quality of the jiggery. After the sweet, clear sap is collected, it is boiled in an earthen wood-fired oven for a couple of hours to make nolen gur, the most premium version of date palm jaggery.

A Shiuli’s job is a very specialized one that only a few like Motalef can master, thanks to Razek Mridha, who trained Motalef how to tap palm trees. The author writes, “There wasn’t a tapper as famous as Razek. His fingers could even coax the syrup out of trees three-fourths dead. A tree that yielded half a pot of juice to others filled Razek’s pot to the brim. Householders would be confident when they gave him the commission for their trees. The trees would not be harmed, and the pots would be full. Motalef had spent several years as Razek’s pupil, following him everywhere and helping him. Razek had a couple of other pupils too — Maqbool from the Sikdar family, and Ismail from the Qazis. But none of them became the expert that Motalef did. Only Motalef could have replaced Razek.”

While the grainy gur is used almost exclusively as a side dish to Indian flatbreads, the solid and liquid forms are used as both side dishes and as flavoring agents for Bengali sweets like sandesh, roshogolla, payesh, naru, and pithe. The liquid nolen gur is prized as the best kind of date palm jaggery for its distinctive smoky sweetness. Many believe, the liquid nolen gur derived its name from the thin bamboo stalks or ‘nol’ that the shiuli attaches to the trees to channelize the sap into clay pots. When refrigerated, both liquid and grainy jaggery can be stocked for a week, while patali is good for a year. Unlike cane jaggery, which is ubiquitous throughout the subcontinent all year round, date palm jaggery is valued for its seasonality -- qualities reflected in its distinct aroma and sweetness.

However, production of nolel gur has dwindled considerably in the last two decades and this is attributed to a number of fators, environmental and otherwise. Natural habitat loss, the destruction of trees, over-tapping, and the attrition of skilled tappers from the profession due to its physical demands and uncertainty are all at play. And then, of course, there is the impact of climate change, which has delayed the arrival of winter in Bengal, making it shorter and unpredictable. Since jaggery can only be made on cold, sunny days, its season is now even more restricted. Untimely rain, clouds, and fog are date palm jaggery’s enemy — the sap on those days turns foul. Recurring floods, another effect of climate change, have increased soil salinity and caused habitat loss in Bengal. On top of the peril posed by climate change, there is the growing threat of urbanization. In addition to being cut down and replaced with more “economically significant” trees like betel nut, date palms have also become the “favorite fuel” of the brick kilns.

Meanwhile, fewer trees have led some Shiulis to engage in unsavory practices to extract their sap. After an incision is made in a tree’s bark, sap flows continuously from it for one to five days. Normally, the next incision isn’t made until the previous one has dried completely, a process that requires at least three continuously sunny, cold days. Without rest, the trees eventually die. But due to booming demand, some overly ambitious Shiuli refuse to wait, tapping again too early and killing the plants. Bengal’s date palms produce very bad fruit and thus have little economic value aside from that of their seasonal jaggery output.

Gur (jaggery) is a winter staple in almost all Indian households. Many people take a bite of it after every meal as a dessert and to digest the foods eaten. Gur is rich in essential vitamins and minerals, helping in keeping the body warm and boosting its immunity to stave off cold and cough. Nolen gur is a natural sweetener and can be used as a healthier alternative to refined sugar. Nolen gur is extremely rich in iron and potassium, which may help manage your haemoglobin level. Nolen gur also contains a good amount of magnesium, which may be helpful for our nervous system, and muscles and bones. In Bengali cuisine, nolen gur enjoys more popularity as it brings its own taste, texture and other advantages and goes perfectly with many dessert recipes.

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