Sweets’ History in Chitral


The subcontinent has a long history of serving and offering sweets on different important occasions. It has been an erstwhile tradition of goodwill gesture to welcome a visitor(s) with serving sweetener, and special sweets were served during festivals and celebrations.

Sugar, sucrose, has been an important ingredient in making different types of sweets ie. halwa, cakes, biscuits, jam, and syrups of different flavours. It is obtained from sugarcane, and sometimes from beetroots in different parts of the world. It was first time ‘domesticated in New Guinea around 8000BC’, afterwards taken to Indonesia and subcontinent for cultivation 2000 years later. Mintz, in his book, mentions that there is no reason to believe that 'sweetness' in food was always 'desired’ rather anthropological tools combined with history and profitable net made it so.

It is, however, also believed that sugarcane is indigenous to India that there is no parallel word of iksu in other Indo-Aryan languages, and the ‘cultivation of sugarcane caught the attention of Greek visitors to India’ from the banks of Indus the “honey bearing reed” spread ‘east and west’. Before the introduction of machineries in factories, most of the sugar production (was) consumed in India was in the form of “gur”. The transformative power of a single commodity——Sugar, had been associated with sugar revolution from trades, Atlantic slave trade to triangular trade, European nutrition and consumption, and increased interest in tropical colonies vitally contributed to Industrial revolution in the world. Its increasing demand and transformative status had had a bearing on history of economics and politics around the world.

The sweetening contents, glucose, fructose, and galactose, of sugar making it an attractive addition in foodstuff. Doctors also stressed on its medicinal quality in early stage, but it was very late its benefits and adverse impacts on health were taken into consideration. Some studies, however, on sugar intake push it into extreme for its few apparent disadvantages for body weight and metabolic syndrome, one the one hand, and its adverse impact were also reported for dental health and cancer, on the other.

For the indigenous mountainous people of Chitral sugar was something a rare commodity of luxury till very late. Ridden in extreme poverty and isolation from outer world, it was neither demanding nor affordable for locals. Instead of sugar, milk and some stuffs produced from milk ie. Phenak, shuphinak etc. were offered, even now, during important events and celebrations. The honey, rarely available to even privileged people, continued to be a part of serving items on special occasions as sweetener. Historians indicate that livestock farming was the main occupation of pastoral families and their source of food. Most of the people of Chitral would have sustained on livestock. Many people in highlands rely, even now, on livestock farming for outsourcing their income.

In past, the salt and tea were the major import items, along sartorial in Chitral. The earlier agricultural crops, oat and maize, and much later most probably during ‘Green Revolution’ the seeds of good quality Wheat, reached Chitral for cultivation. The indigenous innovation of sprouted wheat flour (shoshp Peshiru) to making varieties of locally-made-halwa (Shoshp) from walnut, fat and flour (Xola shoshp, tarbat, kilil) were highly demanding and delicious, providing a taste of sweetener.

When tea was introduced in Chitral in late 19th Cetury, sugar was a rare commodity here. The Cetral Asian People had already developed a kind of beverage with tea, salt, milk and butter. Chitralis also adopted it, and Trup Chai became the national beverage here. Even today, when sugar is not sugar is easily available, chitralis would prefer a cup of good trup chai to that of one with cugar in it.

Good quality seeds and saplings of fruits, most probably after 1980s, replaced wild fruits available in Chitral. Better quality dry fruits, thus, became available for serving, and personal usage during winter, and selling surplus to businessmen from down districts.

The history of serving sweets is something new in Chitrali culture, and now it has become a common tradition across Chitral during important events and festivities. This is however not known when sugar had been taken first time to Chitral. From the oral history of Chitral it indicates that jaggery preceded sugar in reaching Chitral since it was used to be as a sweetener in India. It might be very late because the people of different part of Chitral had bartered within whatever they had and needed. Since Pathans, by then, said to have taken sugar to Chitral, was called “Qand”, some loaf-sugar (Misri), and crystallized cube-sugar called ‘chini’ (also called Tari) was late invention till seventies.

This is very hard to cite an exact timeline when sugar (‘Shokhor’ in Khowar language) was taken to Chitral but famously known sugar “Nabati Misri Shokhor” had continued to dominate local market for very long. This sugar, having been famous, was quoted even in a poetry. (ie. Nabati Misri shokhor ta alfaz bareki hai, ta alfaz bariki, chule ma shareki, ta alfaz bulbulo, hai shareki xumbulo) It was a fine quality sugar, crystal and long in length, which was available in local market till late 1980s. The jaggery (Gulak in Khowar) continued to be available in local market for making tea during winter, making halwa and other sweet products. People in Chitral, even now, use jaggery for making tea during winter, and special fruits-mixed-jaggery for eating in cold season.

The natural honey, rarely available to people in the area, was used to be an important sweetener along milk products to serving new visitors on social, cultural and religious events in Chitral. Since sugar was taken to Chitral it became an important sweetener item, in raw-form, offered to visitors on special occasions. Some of the dishes, later, were introduced made up from sugar, and served.

Sweets have continued to be an important ingredient from earlier times and have also been served on important occasions now. The cakes, biscuits and different types of sweets have been new addition in our tradition of serving visitors in celebrations and festivities. A family from Kashmir, established baker shop in Chitral on 1976 in Xaang Bazzar, was the first introduced sweet products in the area. Few years later, during Afghan war, many of the refugees reached Chitral, some of them specialized in baking products and sweet-making, established shops some other parts of Chitral. Some special cuisines and heating techniques they also introduced in the valley.

The people of Chitral have continued to preserve the Asiatic culture of serving sweetener to visitors on important occasions, celebrations and festivities. Honey continued to dominate serving as a first sweetener, though in limited circles in the area. With the introduction of sugar in Chitral, after jaggery, it became part of serving items in raw-form. Later some dishes, prepared from sugar, were served to visitors. Now with the introduction of baker shops, special cakes, sweets, biscuits are served to visitors which have replaced milk products, honey, and raw sugar as sweetener in Chitral over a course of time.

The writer is independent researcher and M.Phil Scholar in the University of Peshawar.

A Website on the Culture, History and Languages of Chitral.