Food, culture, and legacy – this is the most time-tested and overwhelmingly powerful trio that has historically contributed to the making of regimes, civilisations and more recently, brands. India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. And this diversity has impacted the long-standing traditions and cultures of this land for centuries.
Taking from this vast and diversified culture, the ‘Food’ in India is also one of the best to be found anywhere worldwide. From Kashmir’s famous Dumaaloo and Rogan Josh, Bihar’s Litti Chokha, and Sikkim’s Gundruk and Sinki, to Rajasthan’s Gatte ki Sabzi, Karnataka’s Dosa, and Tamil Nadu’s Idli, the ‘great Indian food’ is a jewel of pride on every Indian’s head. This pride is felt unanimously by people across religious, social, economic and political lines.
This story is about one such revolutionary, universally loved ‘famous’ beverage that has come to be known as the de facto beverage of Madurai, enticing tourists from faraway lands of all walks of life and quenching the thirst of locals with excellent taste – the Famous Jigarthanda company.
Madurai’s Jigarthanda – A Meeting of Taste and Cultures
Jigarthanda (ஜிகர்தண்டா in Tamil) is a cold beverage that is famous in the South Indian city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, India. It literally translates to “cool heart” in English (Jigar means heart, Thanda means cold in Hindustani). This beverage is generally prepared and served at roadside stalls as a refreshment during the Indian summer. It is effectively a cold drink made of milk, almond Pisin (gum derived from the bark of the sweet almond tree), khoya, sarsaparilla root syrup (nannari sherbet syrup) with alternatives of basundi and milk ice cream as toppings.
A drink seemingly born in the local markets of Madurai is now largely regarded as the city’s own drink, with many restaurants and bakeries now selling ‘Madurai’s’ jigarthanda counters. However, anyone familiar with Tamil can spot that the name ‘jigarthanda’ is not Tamil enough to be born in Madurai.
So, where did jigarthanda come from?
Differing Roots of this Now Truly Madurai drink
Jigarthanda is synonymous with Madurai, even though it may not have been born there. Some experts say that the influence of this cold beverage came from the North. They say that the concept for jigarthanda and the widely famous North Indian falooda are essentially the same. Just that in falooda, chefs use almond pisin, semiya, sabja seeds and rooh afza, while for jigarthanda, they use milk ice cream, milk, nannari sharbat, basundi and almond pisin.
The drink's nomenclature, which has etymological roots in the North Indian language of Urdu, is further cited as a source for the drink's connection to the North. 'Jigar' means heart, and 'thanda' means cool, and thus jigarthanda translates to 'cool heart'.
But the one thing that is certain regarding jigarthanda is the role of a legacy brand that started from a tiny pushcart in the 1970s and today has expanded to over 200 outlets of this ‘famous’ beverage, the iconic ‘Famous Jigarthanda’ of Madurai.
The iconic ‘Famous Jigarthanda’ of Madurai
Today, Famous Jigarthanda is a household name in the city of Madurai. Started by P.S. Sheik Meeran at the Kaalavasal junction in Madurai in 1977, the business has gone full circle, from Sheik Meeran initially selling ice creams made of milk, sugar and vanilla essence on a pushcart to selling thousands of glasses of jigarthanda during the season’s peak.
When Sheik Meeran began selling the jigarthanda on his pushcart, it immediately became his most sought-after product, and people bought it overwhelmingly. Though this drink is available everywhere, Famous Jigarthanda’s became quite different from the others over the years due to the mixing of ‘basundi’ for adding more taste to the drink.
In simple terms, Jigarthanda is a cold beverage like falooda, but the taste of the two drinks is entirely different. What separates the Jigarthanda from its northern cousin is pisin. While the latter uses vermicelli and is scooped up and eaten, the Jigarthanda is stirred and drunk.
Sheik Meeran’s farming ancestors hailed from Yangon, Myanmar. Tales of the Meeran family say that Sheik Meeran’s grandfather was the one who first made up a drink comprising basundi (condensed milk), milk and edible almond gum. He coincidentally came up with a version of Jigarthanda that was hot as it lacked the ice cream.
Situated on the famous East Marret and South Masi Street intersection, the Famous Jigarthanda shop attracts hundreds of customers every day and peaks further during summer. Their customers gave them the name ‘famous’ to identify their shop – it has stayed so ever since, and Meeran’s sons have made the proper use of it.
With five simple components, P. S. Sheikh Meeran and Sons have made the jigarthanda synonymous with the town’s name. There is no recorded history of this beverage; legends situate its origins in Mughal emperor Jehangir’s reign, all with too much contestation. Yet nobody knows jigarthanda better than perhaps the locals of Madurai.
People of Madurai have adopted this drink and made it their own popular-staple drink. The city is full of jigarthanda vendors, and there are minute differences in the variants available. But the name that stands out as the best is ‘Famous Jigarthanda – Since 1977’.
Famous Jigarthanda – From Tiny Pushcart to 200 Outlets
Today, P.S. Sheikh Meeran’s four sons have expanded the business into a chain of nine shops in Madurai and 35 regions across Tamil Nadu. S. Peer Mohammed, Sheikh Meeran’s eldest son, takes care of the Anna Nagar branch, while his next son, S. Zinda Madhar, is in charge of the shop on East Marret Street. The third in line – S. Shahul Hameed – takes care of the company godown. The youngest son Amanullah takes the shop’s name and fame beyond the city limits. He is in charge of the out-station orders.
Ten people manage the leading shop that sells not less than 1,000 glasses of jigarthanda in a day between 10.30 am and 10.30 pm, with only one holiday — on Diwali — every year.
They regularly supply for weddings and other functions in Erode, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Chennai and Bangalore. Famous Jigarthanda has its head office in East Marret Street Madurai. It operates branch offices in Madurai, Chennai, Coimbatore, Tirupur, Ramanathapuram, Sivagangai, Tuticorin, Virudhanagar, Hosur, Dindugal, Vellore, Theni, Sivakasi, Tiruchy, Pudhukottai, Erode, Perambalur, Idukki, Namakkal, Thirumangalam and Bangalore. This legacy brand runs around 200 outlets.
Famous Jigarthanda sells two types of jigarthanda: the Ordinary and Special. The main ingredients that go into jigarthanda are milk, almond pisin, basundi, ice cubes and sherbet. The unique variety has more khoya than the ordinary one. The legacy brand makers prepare their own sherbet.
The drink that Famous Jigarthanda serves to its customers has condensed and chilled cow’s milk, nannari sherbet syrup, almond pisin, sugar syrup, cream, milk ice cream and basundi. This varies as per the customers’ orders. It is generally served in glass tumblers and is a body coolant, true to its name. It is perhaps this cooling nature of the drink that made Madurai embrace it as its own.
In 1988, Meeran diversified his products and began selling Jigarthanda at night. He saw the drink was broadly available in the area, so, at Rs 3, he kept the price per glass lower than other vendors. He also infused more basundi for a better taste in the drink. This simple yet innovative idea worked, and Meeran set up his first shop on the busy street of East Marret in 1993.
Fast forward to 2021, and the brand today has 200 franchises across Tamil Nadu with a daily footfall of around 300-500 customers per shop. At its main store in Madurai, 1,000 glasses of Jigarthanda are served every day. The current prices of the brand’s titular products are incredibly affordable, explaining the brand’s mass appeal and widespread success.
Starting with the Jigarthanda Ice Cream Small from Rs.15/- and Jigarthanda Cone Ice at Rs.20/-, the company prices its Jigarthanda Basundi at Rs.80/- and Jigarthanda Basundi Parsal at Rs.85/-. The Famous Jigarthanda Special is priced at Rs.60/-.
The sales of thousands of these products rope in profits for the brand. More importantly, it keeps the legacy of Sheik Meeran’s indigenously created beverage alive by serving it chilled to customers from all walks of life.
What makes Famous Jigarthanda so popular?
Jigarthanda is to food enthusiasts what the city’s famous Meenakshi temple is to devotees. Tourists from across the world, including celebrities and movie stars, have come to taste this chilled drink.
In the Famous Jigarthanda factory, chefs boil 100 litres of cow’s milk in multiple batches till it reduces to 40 litres and refrigerate it to make khoya. While most jigarthanda makers use kadal paasi, also known as china grass (or agar agar), this family run business (brand) use what the father-founder Sheik Meeran started to make the products stand out from the competition- the self-made khoya.
They soak the natural body-coolant badam pisin (almond resin) overnight, grind it and add it to the main drink in a particular measure. Home-made vanilla ice cream is another essential ingredient. The sweet nannari (sarsaparilla) syrup is made by boiling the roots and mixing it with sugar and basundi (sweetened thickened milk). All these are combined to make the thick shake that spells magic in the mouth.
Coming of Age with New Era Technology and Online Shift
As the company has turned itself into a legacy brand with deep roots in the South Indian region, it has not failed to realise the new era of technology driven changes and new models to expand its business. With a well-maintained website serving as its easy to access portfolio and information hub for lakhs of potential customers, it also gives online ordering services to its customers.
From letting people order desserts online to promising fast delivery of these sweets at their doorstep, the company has tapped into the large market of individual customers and the bulk ordering and large-scale event segment. It regularly supplies for weddings and other functions all over Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. The door delivery service offered by Famous Jigarthanda is also available for events and bulk orders, with the threshold order quantity set at 100 plus items for local delivery and 300 plus for out-state delivery.
Famous Jigarthanda has become a renowned franchisor with years in the making, and it now has franchises all over Tamil Nadu, Bangalore and Kerala. The brand’s conduct in the market made its franchise expansion possible. As a franchisor, it provides the undertaking parties with a clear picture of the competition and helps them differentiate as entrepreneurs in the market.
This legacy brand’s entrepreneurial feels, greater confidence and a constant demand for its product have boosted its stature in the market and food ecosystem of South Indian circles. More recently, the company has been involved in exporting its food and beverage items. It now undertakes export orders of Jigarthanda to countries like Malaysia, Dubai and Singapore.
Though the next generation of Sheik Meeran’s family has moved out of the business and has gone into academics, the family hopes they will lend their professional knowledge to expand the business further. Undoubtedly, the famous Jigarthanda is the signature drink of Madurai, and the Famous Jigarthanda shop is a not-to-be-missed destination for visiting tourists. In its making of the legacy brand, this once local beverage company has set new highs for other small businesses and local entrepreneurs to strive for more and succeed even in the age of the tech-based business ecosystem.