I often noticed the kulfi maker. This was one hard-working man, who showed up punctually at 8.00 am on the road pavement each day, where he would begin his first batch of production for the day. His production unit consisted of a metal drum with a handle on top, filled with liquid ingredients. Then there was a large cylindrical bucket and a bag which lay zipped by the side. The drum was placed inside the cylindrical bucket, with the remaining space in the bucket being filled with ice. The drum would be moved in circular motion using the handle. More ice would be added at intervals, until the liquid in the drum froze into kulfi -- the Indian ice-cream.

The technique is primitive. But it served the kulfi maker. However, it always brought me two contradictory thoughts. One, that the process is ultimately driven by ice, therefore the process could not predate the refrigeration engineering, or to be more precise the time when the first American ships brought ice to Indian shores. Second, medieval India accounts talked about our royalty enjoying kulfi, with the blistering heat of Delhi and Lucknow being sought to be cooled with kulfi. Both could not be true?

The Journal of Fanny Parkes is an 800 page account of day-to-day life and events in India during 1820-1840, by wife of an English officer of little significance, who was tossed around and transferred across India. William Dalrymple has been behind a new abridged version of this fantastic work. And my answer lay here.

India manufactured ice well before refrigeration reached her shores. North Indian royals and elites seemed to have their regular supply. There were several ice factories in major cities. And (presumably) the East India Company owned a factory in each of such locations. In Fanny Parkes’ journal, she gives account of the production process in Allahabad’s English ice factory around 1820 (i.e. nearly 2 centuries back). Parkes’ account tells us that:

The ice was manufactured during winter by exposing water to dry and freezing winds, in managed ice pits. The ice pits are managed by the adbar. On a winter day, “should there be a crisp frosty feeling in the air,” the abdar “prepares for action at about six or seven o’clock, by beating a tom-tom (a native hand-drum), a signal well known to the coolies in the bazaar, who hasten to the pits”. They “fill all the rukabees with the water...”. “If the night be frosty, without wind, the ice will form...”. Once the ice has formed, the coolies, each “armed with a spud, knocked ice out of the little pans into a basket...ran to the ice-house, and threw it down the great pit”. During the summer months (April to July 1st week), this ice was devoured steadily from the pit. “The natives make ice for themselves, and sell it at two annas a seer...

The account filled my heart with joy. Albeit, the ice was affordable only by rich. But we had the technology nevertheless! Now when I see the kulfi maker (he’s grown old), I do so with a definite knowledge that he is a link to a rich heritage

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