In February 1961, Queen Elizabeth II of England arrived in Dhaka as part of her first tour of the Commonwealth. During their stay at the old Ganabhaban (currently Sugandha State Guest House), she was introduced to a local delicacy - a serving of molasses made from date palms.
The queen lifted a crimson lump with her hands, and was startled when it shattered into pieces. The molasses had looked and felt sturdy, but a gentle pressure could cause them to crumble in a rain of crimson sweetness.
This was no ordinary serving of molasses. This was Hajari Gur, a particular variant of molasses native to Jhitka in Manikganj, in the outskirts of Dhaka. With a process and tradition which goes back to over 150 years, it has been renowned around the country.
According to locals, its origins lie with a date molasses harvester (gachhi) called Hajari Pramanik. One winter afternoon, he climbed off a tree after setting up an urn in the branches to collect the juice trickling from the date palm. He found a dervish waiting below. The holy man begged him for a sip of the sweet treacle. Hajari was forced to refuse, saying it would take some time before there was any treacle to be drunk. The dervish insisted Hajari give him whatever the pot contained. Reluctantly, Hajari climbed the tree to appease the dervish and found the treacle miraculously running. The treacle ran so fast the pot was on the verge of overflowing. What took the entire night took place in front of his eyes in a few moments.
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Natives of Jhitka who still maintain the traditional way of preparing Hajari Gur - a variant of molasses native to Manikganj - on a cool January morning in 2018 Dhaka Tribune
He climbed down the tree and offered the fresh treacle to the dervish and professed his devotion to him for the miracle. The dervish embraced Hajari and blessed him, saying: “Every ounce of molasses you make from today, will be renowned throughout the lands. And the magic of these molasses will continue through your descendants for ages to come.”
Hajari, or no one for that matter, ever saw the dervish again. But the blessing has endured, as they say. Since then, Hajarir Gur (Hajari molasses) has been a cultural asset in Manikganj.
Its iconic feature is its surprising vulnerability to the slightest of pressures. According to merchants and locals, this particular variant of molasses also possesses unparalleled sweetness. The demand for Hajari Gur is always high, even before the season. Many people place orders in advance as during winter, the demand is sky-high. As a result, a kilo of Hajari Gur costs five to ten times more than ordinary molasses. They are usually sold for around Tk1,000-Tk1,200.
But in comparison to the demand, supply is terribly low. With climate change, deforestation, and lack of fuel to process the treacle into molasses, there have been complaints about the dwindling output of Hajari Gur this year.
The art of processing Hajari Gur has remained the same for over 150 years, according to the few hundred families who continue to produce it.
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The sweet clear treacle from date palms coalesce into the molasses known as Hajari Gur Dhaka Tribune
Hajari Gur requires temperature between 15-20 degrees Celsius. The trees have collecting pots set up the day before in the afternoon. The next day the collected treacle is clarified after it is harvested before dawn. Only the clearest treacle goes into the making of Hajari Gur.
But in spite of its breathtaking sweetness and the remarkable heritage, the practice is gradually being forgotten as fewer and fewer people maintain the interest to hold on to it.
Forgeries, in the form of ordinary molasses labelled Hajari Gur, are being sold openly, which has further driven the cottage industry into a corner.
Even as one takes a walk down a road in Jhitka, with date palms gracefully standing as sentinels flanking the road and their razor-sharp emerald leaves swaying in the breeze, it is near impossible to imagine the slow death the industry is experiencing. Only the muted, defeated lament of the families whose lives depend on Hajari Gur testified to the fading fortunes of the famed molasses.