“You have to walk on the bund, else your feet and shoes are both going to sink into the mud,” Syed Ghani Khan tells me as I try hard to match his steps while navigating his mango farm on a wet day.
I am at Kirugavalu in Malavalli Taluk of Mandya district in the South Indian state of Karnataka, visiting Khan, a farmer who grows about 119 varieties of mango, many of which are unique to his paddy farm.
These are trees that have stood the test of time, and some of which are more than 200 years old.
“As per our records, these have been conserved for seven generations. This place was called bada bagh [big garden] and we had more than 160 varieties of mangoes that I remember seeing as a child,” Khan says.
And make no mistake, these are not any old run-of-the-mill mangoes. Some of the variants taste like bananas, others like sweet lime; some take the shape and hue of apples; some have no hint of the sweetness that defines a regular mango; and others have a bite akin to that of cumin. Mini mavinakais are so small they weigh only 50 grams, while baga golas go up to 1.25 kilograms (the average mango is about 200g).
Khan, 45, has a deep connection with the king of fruits, courtesy of his grandmother.
“She told us that mangoes from this farm would be delivered to the palaces of the Mysore maharajas as well as to Tipu Sultan [18th-century warrior ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore]. Tipu had a keen interest in horticulture, and he had several imported mango varieties planted in our village and the village of Gargeshwari, where his soldiers were stationed. However, hardly any of those plants survive today.”
Water became more readily available in the 1920s after the construction of the KRS Dam, and many mango trees were felled to make way for paddy cultivation. When Khan grew up, there was no doubt in his mind that there was a need to preserve these mango variants given their unique DNA and superior quality.
“We have mango trees that have yielded despite climate change and weather vagaries. Some variants bear fruit as early as February and as late as August, depending on the tree,” says Khan.
“I have given many of the mangoes to the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, which has conducted studies and said these are unique mangoes that are not grown anywhere else. About 60 per cent of these variants have been conserved and grown at the institute.”
Somesh Basavanna, chief executive of Sahaja Samrudha Organic Producer Company, where Khan's mangoes are retailed, says: “These mangoes are much in demand – easily the most sought after at our store.”
The farm is spread over 6.5 hectares and Khan has paddy growing below and the mango orchard above the ground. As this is an organic farm, he does not add any fertilisers.
The biggest challenge, says Khan is “the need to conserve and rejuvenate dying variants. Once the diversity is lost, it will be impossible to see it again.”
It’s what happened to amini, a type of mango that was his grandmother’s favourite.
“She would harvest the mangoes, keep some for the household and distribute the rest among the villagers. It was such a coincidence that when she passed away, the tree fell almost immediately. It really spoke of the bond she had with it. Unfortunately, I was a child then and could not preserve the variety. I have never tasted a mango like that again.”
While he has appealed to various political bodies for financial support – as yet to no avail – Khan collects mango seeds and grafts the tree branches in his quest for conservation.
“My children accompany me when we harvest and can identify the fruits. They understand the need to conserve mango variants," he says. "I feel the government must help in saving these depleting variants as the next generation needs to know about them, too.”