Shunali Khullar Shroff, writer and columnist, created quite the storm on social media when she shared an article on the Petha to claim that the Mughals are to be credited for the invention of the candy. She shared the article with the obvious intention of taking a jibe at Hindus who harbour disdain in their hearts for the Mughals due to the latter’s Islamic fanaticism.
She said, “Shah Jahan ordered his chefs to create something as pure and white as the Taj Mahal, and thus the petha was born. Will deniers of Mughal history give up petha now?” There was only one problem, however. The report she cited as evidence for her claim says precisely the opposite and debunks it.
“Petha is a poor man’s sweet and has no royal connection,” the report quotes Pushpesh Pant, a noted Indian academic, critic and historian, as saying. “It does not contain milk or mawa. It is made with ash gourd and lots of sugar, which is not very indicative of an emperor’s dish.” He also said that petha is found in various parts of India despite being denoted to Agra including Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.
“People from some parts of India call the fruit oal and prepare something called oal ka muraba,” he says before adding, “Muraba means a preserve. They dipped it in sugar syrup and preserved it for months at end, and therefore called it oal ka muraba.” Petha being linked to Agra had something to do with the city being designated the capital of the United Provinces in British India.
“Agra was the place where people could get off and buy food during a long-distance journey or while changing trains. The trains were slow and the journeys long as compared to today. People would pack puri and sukhi aloo ki sabji. Petha became a quintessential snack to keep kids happy and energy levels high. Since it didn’t contain khoya, it was preferred over a Mathura ka peda which didn’t have such a long shelf life. It also was a gifting option for travellers,” Pant said.
The candy earned the moniker ‘Agre ke petha’ because the British believed it would be a good idea to link it to the Mughals. “So, the poor man wouldn’t have to believe he is having it out of majboori [no choice], and because he can’t afford Sandesh or mawa mithai,” he said. Thus, the legend that says petha originated in the Mughal kitchens appears to be just that, a legend.
The candy is made from ash gourd. It is cut into chunks and then dunked into lime for about 10 hours following which it is washed, drained and boiled in water until it turns translucent. Then, they are soaked in sugar syrup before they can be eaten. Currently, there are numerous flavours of petha available including kesariya and chocolate.