Kheel Batasha: The Essence of Diwali

Nothing says ‘festival of lights’ both in soulfulness and spirit like the good old, snow-white sugar drops – the original sweet of the Diwali thali

By Madhulika Dash

One look at the perfectly shaped Kheel Batasha and it is hard to fathom that not so long ago it was a sweet treat banned not by nutritionist but orthodox Maulvis, who found the addiction with batasha radically threatening. As per food historian RV Smith, such was the displeasure that they even warned their community of the dire consequence of eating kheel – even one small piece of kheel (batashe) at Diwali could earn them a punishment in afterlife where they would be force-feeding with kheel made of red-hot iron bits.

But the kheel-batasha loving denizens paid little heed to the admonition as the Muslim community continue to join the Diwali reverie by munching the sweet treats by the handful that was generously gifted by their Hindu neighbours and friends. Incidentally, it was a sweet comradery that existed way before The Mughals made Diwali, a national-wide celebrations, driven partly by the Chauhan rulers of Delhi, especially Prithviraj Chauhan and his grandfather Vighnaraj IV, who celebrated it as a harvest festival that brought in prosperity; and partly by the Bharbhujas community, the official makers of some of the tastiest kheel batasa that was composed of both Hindu Bhujwas and Muslims too.

By the time Delhi turned into the seat of powerful dynasties like the Chauhans, Khiljis, Tughlaqs and the finally the Mughals, a majority of kheel-batasha makers were Muslim brothers who had the know-how and the ovens to turn sugar into delicious pieces of indulgences – and toys called kholona. Such was the popularity of these handmade treats that the Bharbhujas community would go into work soon after Dussehra as fresh sugarcane began making their way into the market as these little mounds of sugar called Khand.

The arrival followed a ritual of first grating the mounds that would pass through a process of double sieving before they were cooked in high temperature, cooled half-way before baking soda is added to help the process of crystallisation. The timing of adding the soda and how refined was the khand often determined how the kheel-batasha will turn up – not just in taste, but in that delicate, snow- like texture too. It was an art that was as old as sugar production itself in India, which easily dates to 500BC.

But was it the sweetness of sugar that gave kheel batasha their popularity and place in festivals like Diwali? Not in entirety, say old timers, who also fell for the fact that it was one thing that was generously gifted – you could ask for more, and you would get a handful with a smile - and of course the economics. Even as late as 1950s, the kheel-batasha makers would easily pack you 16 seers of the sugary goodness for a little over a few annas. A rupee would get you a sack.

There was of course another aspect to the kheel-batasha popularity, apart from the fact that it travelled well and didn’t spoil as much as fresh food, it was its Indianness. The art of batasha making was very much an Indian innovation that many historians believe developed around the same time that sugar was inducted as one of the profitable exports on the Silk and Spice Route. The original Bharbhujas, who were known for the grain parching skills, were employed by traders and sugarcane farmers to turn the sweet juices into white gold. Their deftness with fire proved a boon for the community that took to batasha-kheel making and eventually began trading in the community as well.

By the time Shahjahanabad was made and Chandni Chowk was designed by Jahanara Begum, most sweetmeat shops were either owned by the community or they were employed as the head halwai.

The pull of these sugar treat could be imagined from the fact that royal decrees had to be issued by Jahanara Begum to several of kheel-batasha makers to make these treats exclusively for the palace, especially during Diwali. This tradition continued till Bahadur Shah Zafar who called the sugar drops, white blessing – and would shower it by the sack to everyone who came to meet the aging emperor during the festival. As for the city, the fortune of the kheel-batasha makers continued to smile as even the colonial rulers took a fancy to this fascinating piece of sugar art. One such British was the William Fraser, who came to Delhi during the days of Akbar Shah II. Bored with the Company’s lifestyle, Fraser took to the Nawab way of life like a fish in water. And it all began with a bowl of kheel-batasha that the emperor had sent him as part of Diwali wishes.

Fraser was among the few British turned Indian Nawab who patronised the sweet treats – and its makers. He even made it a part of the Christmas celebration, and would regularly send a bowl of batasha to summon his favourite from his vast harem.

It was however post 1857 that the role of kheel-batasha in Diwali really began to make an impact. With the country reeling under the plundering East India Company, these little treats remained the single most “happiness” that one could afford to buy and share generously even during a cold Diwali. An emotion that kheel batasha effectively translated with their sweetness. Thus, continuing the sense of brotherhood between communities.

Even today when we buy kheel-batasha, it is a salutation to that spirit of sweet belonging and sharing. And that is what makes these sugar treats, an integral part of Diwali – almost like its essence.