The man reviving endangered mango varieties

It’s the fag end of mango season, and the last batch of fruit is being harvested inside KS Jegannatha Raja’s 15-acre farm abutting the Western Ghats near Rajapalayam. The ground is strewn with bulbous green-yellow mangoes, each the size of a fist. They are of the panjavarnam variety, native to the surroundings of Rajapalayam in southern Tamil Nadu, that arrive towards the end of summer. Raja remembers how guests to his home used to be treated to the sweet juicy panjavarnam mangoes year-round.

“This is probably the only mango variety that can be preserved and served during the off season. Once the fruit ripens and the skin bears wrinkles, my mother would wash them in warm water, dry them in the shade and then put them in ceramic or glass jars filled with honey. And the fruits would stay good for a year, until next mango season. It used to be a prized delicacy given only to guests, and sometimes when we felt like eating mangoes in mid-winter,” narrates Raja.

As he speaks, he takes quick steps within his farm, home to over 140 gigantic trees that stand an imposing 60 feet from the ground and are over 120 years old, some of them yielding over two tonnes of mangoes. Though Banganapalli or sappatai is a popular variety in the region, Raja has grown over 20 different varieties in his farm, including rumani, kalapadi, theeyamavadi, katladi and pacharisikaai.

A surprise find

The man reviving endangered mango varieties

Sometime in the late ’90s, the Horticulture College and Research Institute at Periyakulam, declared a variety of native mango called puliyadi, extinct. That’s when Raja went in search of that lone mango tree in the far end of one of the farms in Rajapalayam that he’s known since childhood. “I had tasted the fruits of that tree and I had heard elders say that it’s puliyadi. It bears the distinction of being the first mango in a season, as the tree starts flowering in late February and the fruits will come in March,” he recalls. And luckily, he found what was probably one of the last surviving puliyadi mango trees. “I took the help of an elderly farmhand in the neighbourhood who knew grafting and we created a mother plant from which we got many saplings. I then invited officials from the Horticulture College and they confirmed my find. Puliyadi also has distinctive characters like wriggly leaves and fruits that weigh about 200 grams.”

Since then, through approach grafting method, Raja has revived two other nearly-lost native varieties — karupattikai (a kind of mango that tastes as sweet as palm jaggery) and pottalma.

“All of these are sweet mangoes. A main reason for them becoming extinct is that the fruits were consumed only by farm owners, who didn’t want to share or market them,” says Raja. “Puliyadi, for instance, was consumed only by the landlords and their families.”

The man reviving endangered mango varieties

He adds, “The market only patronises commercially successful varieties. Even today, puliyadi, despite being superior in taste, doesn’t reach markets outside Rajapalayam. Only a few who know about the fruit, buy it.” A Class X school dropout, Raja today is an expert in grafting and cloning techniques and has been reviving old and inventing new mango varieties. He has been supplying mango saplings across southern India.

“Recently, I have helped develop a farm of panchavarnam mangoes near Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh,” he says. “I have also developed a new variety of mango called ‘Raj1’ through grafting, for which I got a certificate from National Innovation Foundation. I am documenting various lesser-known varieties across India and I do it out of love for mangoes.”

He adds, slurping on a fleshy panchavarnam, “Mangoes are simply one of the best gifts of Nature.”

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