On the banks of the Dhaleshwari river, lies a leafy village where the cool breeze from the distributary mingles with an unmistakable, yet unobtrusive sweetness detectable in the air.
It has the effect of immediately rousing the sweet tooth in one. But chances are, anyone who comes this far, has already given in to their craving for saccharine relief.
This is the picturesque Porabari village in Tangail, where the view of the river, the unending greenery and centuries of myth all combine to evoke a sense of an almost nagging magical realism.
It is also, according to various accounts, the birthplace of chamcham, a dessert popular across the subcontinent.
The Porabari chamcham is considered the oldest iteration of sweetmeat, unparalleled in its taste – and is not reproducible at any other part of the country, or by any other artisan.
A prevailing myth is that the village derives its name, Porabari, meaning burnt house, from an incident where the house of a sweetmaker was burnt to the ground.
Even today there are eight to ten factories in the village producing the treat, while its main bazar houses around four sweetmeat shops. One of these traces its lineage all the way back to one of the very first men to ever make the dessert.
History holds that a man named Dasharath Gaur came to Porabari village from Assam during the British period. He was the first to start making chamchams with water from the Dhaleshwari river and pure cow milk.
Other accounts say Porabari had over a hundred chamcham factories since being developed as a river port in 1608. During this time, Porabari Bazar, which now is home to around 50 shops, was a bustling business centre. Large merchant ships, launches and steamers were a regular fixture at Porabari Ghat.
Throngs of hungry crowds feasted on the chamchams and played a role in its spread throughout the continent.
The reason for the sweetmeat's popularity is hard to pin down, apart from its obvious rich taste and texture.
Research says the pure milk of native cows mixed with the sweet water of the river would be used to make the chhana, a form of cheese curds, which would then be turned into the delicious chamcham.
The two ingredients, which could not be replicated elsewhere, are considered the secret recipe for the dessert.
Sanwar Ali, a Tangail resident, said several families in Porabari village to this day make sweets till the early hours of the morning – although the village has seen a decline in its reputation for the sweetmeat over the years.
So was the Porabari chamcham a myth, an artefact lost to time or something that simply needed rediscovery?
The answer lay in the village.
Back to the beginning
The main ingredients for making the chamcham are milk curd, flour and sugar.
Its softness comes from its method of preparation, which also lends it a unique fragrance. The red colour in the Porabari chamcham comes from a sprinkle of mawa – burnt milk – adding another flavour profile to the sweetmeat.
Around 15 kilograms of milk have to be burnt and dried to get half a kg of mawa.
The chamcham's supposed area of origin – Porabari – is 7km from Tangail city. It is a beautiful drive, which takes about 30-45 minutes.
Upon entering Porabari village, one only needs to go to the fabled Porabari Bazar. Despite its history, the market is quite simple, with some 40-50 shops, including the sweetmeat ones.
One of the four sweet shops is owned by Dinesh Chandra Gaur. His shop is called Adi Porabari Mishtanno Bhandar. Immediately behind his shop is his factory.
Dinesh is a descendant of Dasharath Gaur, so the family lays claim to have popularised the chamcham.
A visit to his factory revealed Dinesh was busy making chhana from milk. A chance to taste the ingredient presented itself. Upon contact with the taste bud, there was no doubt that it was delectable. The fragrance of the pure milk hit the nostrils directly.
"If you buy this sweet from outside Porabari, you will only get the name Porabari chamcham, but not the taste. Many shopkeepers around the country do business under the brand," he said.
He, however, conceded that even his sweets no longer had the "original" taste.
"Milk costs Tk90. The sugar is another Tk100. There are also other costs. We manufacture it and then sell it for Tk200 per kg. To bring about the original taste, the cost would go up to Tk450," he said.
Some people have also complained that manufacturers often chose to sprinkle bits of biscuits instead of the mawa, further affecting the taste.
Ainal Munshi, a local resident, highlighted another reason for the original taste of the sweet being lost.
It was the river which contributed the sweet water so crucial to the chamcham's final taste, he said.
"After a dam was built, the flow of the water changed. It is now stagnant and not usable as before. Earlier, domestic cows would graze on the grass on the riverbanks. But now, most cows are given different types of feed, affecting the quality of the milk. I don't think the famous chamcham of Porabari can be found anymore" he said.
Both his points were valid.
The river's flow has indeed changed while local farmers now opt for foreign cow breeds instead of domestic ones, in hopes of getting more milk. As a result, the milk doesn't taste like it used to.
There still is a milk market in Porabari Bazaar from 11:00am to 2:00pm, but daily sales have dropped from 200-300 maunds to only 100 maunds.
Another sweetmeat factory owner in Porabari, Gadanchandra Gaur, said his chamchams are supplied to various parts of the country, including Dhaka and Chattogram.
He, however, maintains that he has kept the quality intact. His rate is also higher - Tk250 per kg.
Back in Tangail city, Panchani Bazar is another place renowned for selling the Porabari chamcham. One of the shops here is Jayakali Sweets Store, which has been in the sweetmeat business since 1939.
On an average it makes 40 to 50 maunds of sweets per day.
The popularity of the chamcham hints that the myth may have turned into reality, either by force of reputation or sheer quality.
Swapan Ghosh, president of the Tangail District Restaurant and Sweet Shop Owners Association and owner of Jayakali Sweet Shop, said there are 250 sweet shops under the association. In total, there are 1,000 sweetmeat shops in Tangail district.