This is one of the lands where the ancestors of all the world’s citrus fruits originated. One of these is the Khasi mandarin (Citrus reticulata): a little larger than a tennis ball, bright orange in color, hard to peel and with sweet, aromatic juice.
Cultivated only in the state of Meghalaya, the trees grow on the steep but not yet mountainous slopes that run along the border between India and Bangladesh. The best fruits come from the south, where the indigenous War and War-Jaintia populations live, thanks to the chalky soil and very hot climate. The villages are at the bottom of steep valleys. To reach them requires walking down between five and ten thousand stone steps, before climbing back up with baskets full of mandarins tied on the back. On each journey, the villagers carry loads of 90 to 100 kilos.
The fruits start to ripen in September, around the time the temperature starts to fall. The growers make long, difficult journeys on foot to bring them to the market stalls of nearby villages: Mawphu, Tmar, Pyndengmawlieh, Nongnah.
A traditional local crop, the Khasi mandarin has long been an essential presence in the everyday life of the communities. According to a local belief, it has the ability to dispel anger, and so the fruit is given as a present to make up for offenses.
Unlike in the rest of the world, in this region the fruit trees are not harvested by grafting, but by seed. Seeds are selected from the hardiest plants, and only the healthiest saplings are planted out. In fact, over the centuries, growers have realized that thanks to the specific biology of the seed’s formation, the citrus trees can be reproduced without losing the original characteristics of the tree and its fruit. This ancient propagation method means the tree has slowly formed an indissoluble relationship with its cultivation environment. The fruits only start to form after many years, but the trees live for longer and have adapted to the local soil and climate.
Every community has their own way of preserving the fruit after the harvest: Some arrange them in sandy pits, others on the hood of the hearth. Thanks to these techniques, the mandarins can keep until March and sometimes even April.
Most families tend at least 200 trees, but some farmers have as many as 4,000, and generate all of their income from the mandarins. The growers have traditionally turned the fruit into jams, and now there is an attempt to recover this local tradition, respecting the historic recipes but drawing on the help of a technical team to make the product marketable.
The Presidium has been started thanks to the work of NESFAS (North East Slow Food & Agrobiodiversity Society), which is also working on cataloguing the many varieties of local citrus. The producers are also working with the Meghalaya Agriculture Department on technical training (pruning, seed selection, etc.) and jam-production projects.
Mawphu, Tmar, Pyndengmawlieh, Nongnah villages, southern Meghalaya
Meghalaya Agriculture Department