The fruit’s social role kept surfacing in my conversations with old people in Lucknow. Amid over-the-top stories of the mango passion of Awadh’s nawabs and Pathan warriors, somebody or the other pointed out that the mango is a qaumi or awaami fruit. Qaum means common property in Arabic, but can also mean nation, community, caste, or clan. Awaam, also from Arabic, means common. The mango was sustenance for the poor, I heard from at least three people in Lucknow. When the range of food items dried up during the summer, poor people ate their roti with mangoes.

Experienced people in Bihar echoed this observation. “It was the poor man’s fruit. But now there are no mangoes for the needy,” said Binodanand Jha, retired director of Bihar’s education department and a source of customary knowledge. “On account of the hardy nature of the tree, low cost of maintenance, and profuse yield, it has come to be known as the poor man’s fruit, and thus possesses mass appeal,” wrote agriculture scientist Lal Behari Singh in a widely cited 1960 book.

As mentioned earlier, ancient scholars like Varahamihira and Parashara encouraged the planting of useful trees like the mango.

This was a matter of policy early on, at least in the 3rd century BCE. The edicts left by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka illustrate this. One such testimonial was inscribed in a pillar edict erected at Topra, near present-day Ambala; in the fourteenth century, it was brought to Delhi’s Feroze Shah Kotla, where it stands today. It mentions that the king had mango groves planted along the highways. The pillar erected at Allahabad, now Prayagraj, includes his queen Karuvaki’s edict. It says: “...the officers everywhere are to be instructed that whatever may be the gift of the second queen, whether a mango-grove, a monastery, an institution for dispensing charity, or any other donation, it is to be counted to the credit of that queen...”

The mango has long been an element of statecraft. Mauryan ambassadors helped spread both the mango and Buddhism. Monks took the Indian mango to parts of Southeast Asia. Subsequent rulers kept following the policy of mango propagation. Various Gond rulers of central India planted mango trees along their roads. This policy is revealed in the chronicles of the Moroccan Ibn Battuta, who travelled to various parts of the Indian peninsula in the 1330s and 1340s. The mango is the first entry in his account of Indian trees and fruits. In his Rihla he described Koil (today’s Aligarh) as “a handsome city possessing gardens. Most of the trees are mango trees.”

Sher Shah Suri, a 16th-century ruler from Sasaram in Bihar, had mango trees planted along the Grand Trunk Road, the ancient Mauryan-era highway that he had rebuilt. Historians have noted that during the 16th and 17th centuries “fruits of the common kind, mangoes, melons, berries, coconut, etc., were available to the poor in season”. Historian Lallanji Gopal wrote that in Mughal times, “anyone who converted his cultivated land into an orchard was entitled to get all his revenue remitted.” In Bihar’s Mithila region, mango orchards were not taxed even in the 20th century.

Horticulture also became a means to increase revenue in Maharashtra. “During the Peshwa period when financial difficulty became acute and the revenue rate was raised, the cultivation of wasteland and of cash-crops such as mangoes, coconuts, and betelnuts was especially encouraged by the state...such a promotion became a duty of local officials,” said an economic history of India. The mango has been a component of welfare and economic policy for all kinds of rulers: from large empires to small estates, ambitious military adventurers to debauched nawabs, and enlightened governors to powerful bigots. These included a number of rulers except the British. To be sure, they did like the mango fruit. British travellers tasted and admired the mango, penning accounts of its popularity. British botanists wrote books about it and played a hand in creating grafted varieties. British land surveyors noted its economic worth. “Mango on the roadside is a profitable source of income,” said the 1892 Report on Arboriculture from Gurdaspur, Punjab. The 1899 Report on the Land Revenue Settlement, Nagpur District, signed by one RH Craddock, said: “ is a meritorious act to plant a mango tree on account of the food and shelter it yields”. The mango kept giving.

But the British land policy had no room for the well-being that the mango generated. With the Permanent Settlement formalised in 1793, the new zamindari system had begun to tell on the well-being of ordinary people by the early 19th century. “The common lands of the village (shamilat) also suffered invasion by ‘the newly-created zamindars, who have all a propensity to cutting down mango topes, and appropriating to themselves tanks, wells, and grazing lands’,” wrote historian Eric Stokes, formerly a subaltern or a junior army officer, in a 1980 book. It quotes a British official in Kanpur as saying the “new zamindar was ‘very imprudent as to live within the village he has acquired’, but employed an agent ‘who, backed by the authority of Government, is able to realise revenue, and seize upon everything visible and tangible’.”

There was a shift in attitude. The qaumi or awaami fruit disappeared from state policy. When the British began setting up railways in India in the 1850s, there was no effort to plant mango trees along the railroad. Quite the opposite took place: widescale logging began for railway sleepers. “A great deal of India’s deforestation can be traced to the colonial period. It is also important to study the ecological impacts of colonialism such as deforestation because these colonial empires were the forerunners of contemporary globalisation. One of the most important causes of deforestation in India was the building and expansion of the railways,” wrote historian Pallavi Das in her 2015 book on the railways.

This unprecedented deforestation disrupted the hydrological cycle of several regions, leaving them vulnerable to drought and famine. It also led to conflicts with forest-dwelling tribal communities, causing a series of hools (revolutions) in the tribal heartland. Even Indian princely rulers switched priorities to align with the colonial development plan. In Alwar, the maharaja seized control of community forests and sold them to railway contractors; villages increasingly began suffering drought.

In 1911, the British decided to build a new city near Delhi to move their capital. There was much discussion on the trees that were to adorn New Delhi. “The archival record is rich with reports and memos by foresters, horticulturists – even civil servants with strong opinions – who argued for or against candidate species,” wrote author and naturalist Pradip Krishen in his 2006 book. “One factor, above all, stands out—all their lists contain a clearly stated prejudice against deciduous trees that go bare and remain unsightly for some period in the dry season. That is clearly why the amaltas, mango, siris, and shisham, for example, did not make the cut.” A policy of indifference felled the tree of desire. What if the British had taken to the awaami fruit like previous rulers! Would it have made their rule less destructive? It is a question worth asking, because the mango has helped localize foreign rulers for long.

Awaam is the plural of the Arabic word aam; it means that which is widespread and general, marginal not central. In most of North India, the common word for the mango is aam from the Sanskrit aamra. This leads to a surfeit of puns on aam aadmi or the common man. The aam was central – not marginal – to India’s aam aadmi.

Excerpted with permission from An excerpt from Mangifera indica: A Biography of the Mango, Sopan Joshi, Aleph Book Company.