Amidst the melee of shops vying for a shopper’s attention at Maru, sweet shops feature prominently. Competing with popular mo:mo joints, new fast food hubs and street vendors selling juicy sausages and fries; these traditional sweet shops are some of the oldest eateries in Kathmandu.
“I need one kg of Peda,” says one gentleman as I arrive at the shop run by Mrs. Saru Rajkarnikar. “Two kgs of Jeri for me,” says another lady in a heavy Newar accent. There are other customers making their orders in Newari as well. Despite changes in the local demographic, Maru is one of those places in Kathmandu that has remained predominantly Newar, so it comes as little surprise that this shop functions largely in the local dialect as well. Rajkarnikars are one of the many Newar clans; some of the oldest inhabitants of Kathmandu valley. Popularly known as halwais or palmahalwais, the clan has traditionally run confectionaries.
Bhandas Mithai Pasa, also known as Shree Purna Ashok Bhandar, is the oldest sweet shop of Maru, Kathmandu. “135 years old, this year,” Rajkarnikar claims with pride. Saru, along with her husband Yogendra Rajkarnikar, have inherited the store that has been in the family for generations. An apt businesswoman, with an extremely pleasant demeanor, she fills me in on the history of the eatery. Established 135 years ago, Bhandas Meethai Pasa, was named after Bhandas Rajkarnikar, the founder of the store. Later, Bhandas passed on his legacy to his son Purna, who further passed it on to Tirtha Das. Today, it is operated by Yogendra and his wife, the great-grand children, along with 12 employees working under them.
On the display at the front of the store, mouth watering delicacies greet the customers. The popular sweets sold here are pahelo peda, chocolate peda, gold peda, Banarasi peda, masala laddu, buniya laddu, suji ko laddu, dry fruits laddu (I shall vouch for these incredible yummy sweet balls), kaju ko barfi, milk cakes, lakhamari and other items.
“The business is good so far” she says. Bhandas Meethai is busiest during the morning hours when nearby community people crave for sweetmeats like jeri, swari, sel, malpuwa which are popular for breakfast. It seems the customers of this shop are not limited to people of Kathmandu. Rajkarnikar adds, with modest pride, that people from Balaju, Maharajgunj and even Pokhara and Dharan come to buy sweets from her shop. “We have many loyal customers because we never compromise with quality. We stay away from adulterated products” she reasons. Bhanda
s Meethal Pasa has indeed amassed several customers both national and international. “There are many tourists who come here second time to ask for the sweet they had eaten earlier” she says with a smile. The scope of their products has increased from Nepali traditional sweets to Indian sweets as well. This famous confectionary has business booming during wedding seasons and festivals and S.L.C results. “It has become like a fashion to offer sweets once you get through S.L.C exams” she explains.
“What was your good childhood memory related with sweets?” I ask. Her eyes smile at me as she answers. “Sweet making was always a family business. The whole family would sit around and we would work together till late at night. Although it was only after my marriage that I learnt to make sweets, we used to always help our elders. It used to be so much fun” she reminisces. As I dig into the information about the work division back then, she informs that the older women in her family engaged in production of the delicacies whereas men dealt with the customers.
I further question Saru Rajkarnikar to satiate my own curiosity. With the other Rajkarnikars opting for other business options and settling abroad, the mithai pasals in the valley are slowly declining in number. I asked her how she felt about this. “I really wish new generations would continue this legacy of sweet making” she says. “I want my son to continue this shop because it isn’t only the means of our income but also marks our identity” she confides. While her daughter, who is at the States, is thinking of spreading the Rajkarnikar legacy through digital media, it is her son Suyash Rajkarnikar who is keen on continuing the family business. “He wants to establish a new factory where large quantity of sweets can be produced and supplied. However, sweets have short shelf life. So it is quite problematic for us to produce in larger quantity, pack them and sell. There are other suppliers who add chemicals to make the sweet last longer, but we don’t use chemicals” she says. “So except for lakhamari, we cannot make sweets in huge quantity” she adds.
As my mind soaks in the information, I ask her if there are any interesting supernatural beliefs related to this sweet shop. To my surprise, she nods her head with twinkle in her eyes. “We call it “Jhasko paseko”. Jhasko paseko is the term used for difficulty in breathing, a heavy sensation in chest. At Bhandas, they have many people from far and wide who want to have puja done in their name to get rid of the ailment. According to her, there is a secret ritual done by the descendants of Bhandas to get rid of this ailment. “Perhaps it’s either really working or it could be psychological. But people even from abroad send their names and request to have the puja done in their name.” she says as I stare at her in bewilderment.
With so many sweet shops around, I inquire her about the competition. She tells me that there are particular customers for particular shops. “Once our customers get acquainted with our taste, they love to buy from us time and again. They even wait for the next day if our shop is closed” she says.
Amidst the busy lane of Maru, you will find Bhandas Meethai with all of its glory and friendliness. And there will be this smiling busy lady dealing with the customers while not failing to answer your curiosities about the sweetmeats her family manufactures. The Rajkarnikars make sure that their sweets satiate your taste-buds and their service leaves you content.The next time you visit Basantapur, make sure you visit Bhandas Meethai and savor the sweets with your friends and family.