Sarju gently shook me awake and said, rather dramatically, “Can you hear it?” I was groggy and thought he was pointing to a bear. Sarju and I were in a forest in Redhakol, in Odisha. I had trekked with Sarju, his two siblings and his mother, Bina, to the forest in the evening. His father, my friend Michael, was away at work on a road project in a town nearby. We were sitting around the mahua trees that have been owned by Bina’s family for generations. It was around midnight when we reached the part of the forest where Bina’s trees stood, and we had lit a fire to keep animals, especially bears, away. In the distance, I could see more fires being lit. Some people were beating tins and drums. We were all here because it was spring and the mahua trees were flowering. If it were not for the noise and the fires, the bears, too, would have been here. They love mahua flowers as much as humans do, and, every year, the competition for mahua flowers ends up in many maimed and disfigured people and, at times, brutal deaths for bears and their cubs.
Around late March, the trees burst into buds that hang like olive green tassels from their branches. Soon, these buds turn into light yellow-green, hollow, grape-like flowers that are rich in sugar and nutrients. They usually drop in the early hours of the morning.
In the silence of that April night, the flowers produced a steady pitter-patter as they fell to the ground. It was like light rain. I picked up a fleshy flower and put it in my mouth. It was sweet and, yet, slightly musky. We men kept watch until it was daylight. Then, as the darkness receded, the women and children around us woke up and started picking the fallen flowers. They painstakingly gathered the flowers until about nine in the morning, and, then, with our baskets full and heavy, we all walked back home.
The morning’s collection was spread out to dry at Bina’s home. Next to it was yesterday’s lot, already changing colour. Dried mahua, which is brownish-red in colour, is stored in nylon sacks. The leafless mahua tree flowers continuously for nearly three weeks before it erupts into rich red leaves and the flowering stops. The flowering cycle varies from one year to the next, but, every year, for a little over two months, from March to May, hundreds of villages and thousands of people in central India enact this age-old ritual that I had been witness to.
The mahua tree (Madhucaindica) is mostly found in central India and the north Indian plains and it is prized for its wood, flowers and seeds. But, for many indigenous people, including people from Bastar in Chhattisgarh, from the Dang district in Gujarat, tribals from Odisha, the Santhals in Jharkhand and the Gonds of Madhya Pradesh, the tree is primary to life. In fact, while an entire forest might get wiped out on the central Indian plains, no one touches the sacred mahua tree.
The Gonds and other indigenous people of the central Indian plains use the flowers of the tree to make a clear, refreshing and deceptively potent brew that takes its name from the tree. Mahua flowers, like grapes and apples, self-ferment.
“Mahua has a way with you. If you have a few drinks, you behave like a parakeet. You laugh a lot and say the same things over and over again. If you have a little more, you become a tiger and roar, full of bravado and bluster. But, if you drink even more, it turns you into a pig, rolling on the ground, wallowing in mud. Such are the ways of mahua,” my friend Dulam Singh Dhurwe once told me on the edges of the Kanha National Park, in Madhya Pradesh.
According to the Gonds and Baigas, when BadaDev, their god, created Earth, he also made the tree of life and called it mahua. The Gonds believe that only good spirits are allowed to live on it, for it gives them the water of life. The tree figures prominently in rituals associated withbirth, death and marriage among the Gonds. During a Gond wedding, two young boys from the groom’s family fetch small branches of the tree and take them to the bride’s house. The branches are, after being washed, kept at the location of the wedding as celestial witnesses to the marriage.
In another dry corner of the country, near Godhara in Gujarat, the Rathwa Bhil tribals paint their houses using a local dye that is mixed with milk and mahua as a form of worship to their god, Pithora Baba. This elaborate nine-day ritual includes daily feasts and long drinking sessions.
The mahua tree grows slowly and has a low survival rate, but once it takes root and is lovingly nurtured, it can live up to 150 years, serving many generations of animals and people. Strangely enough, I have never seen anyone planting a mahua tree. Till recently, the only forest department mahua plantation on the subcontinent was a miniscule two-acre one that was set up in 1948 in Chhindwara, in Madhya Pradesh. There have, of course, been some plantations along avenues in cities and along highways for completely different reasons. Interestingly, after ignoring one of its most useful trees for decades, the Madhya Pradesh forest department declared 2011 as the Year of the mahua and claimed to have planted some hundred thousand trees across the state.
I first encountered mahua ten years ago. I was in Chhattisgarh on a long assignment and, having run out of rum, asked my guide if he could procure some alcohol for me. He came back late in the evening with a dirty mineral water bottle filled with a slightly opaque liquid. He looked pleased with himself. The spirit had a fairly pungent smell, but it was surprisingly smooth. It tasted a lot like ripe jackfruit. I was slurring after just three swigs, but I was nicely benumbed. As the evening progressed, I was, I am told, happily immobile. Since then, I have had mahua regularly, at home, around warm campfires on moonlit nights and with my friends among the indigenous people of central India, and it has always becalmed me.
It is a travesty that the sale and consumption of mahua, which is a part of the social and cultural fabric of central India, is banned in Gujarat, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra.
Each of Bina’s adult trees yields around 200 kg of flowers. In a good year, she ends up with around 700 kg. This year, the price of a kilo of mahua flowers started at Rs 16 per kg and went up to Rs 21. Bina held her stock and made over Rs 14,000. Larger households, which have the ability to harvest more trees, can end up with much more.
When I visited the weekly market at Keswahi, in Madhya Pradesh’s Sahdol district, this past April, it was bustling with activity. Groups of women in colourful clothes were streaming in, carrying bags of mahua flowers, which were then weighed on traditional, manual and electronic scales by traders. By evening, over 50 tonnes of dried mahua flowers had been collected from the market at Keswahi. “On a busy day, we collect more than 100 tones,” a trader told me.
By nightfall, I counted 22 large trucks laden with mahua driving of out of that market. Forest department sources told me that while there are no clear records, the Keswahi market alone could be buying between 3,000 to 5,000 tonnes of dried mahua. There are at least 100 markets the size of the one in Keswahi in Madhya Pradesh and many more in Odisha, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, which are the largest mahua-producing states in central India. Do the math and you’ll realise these five states together produce a lot of mahua. But, where does it all go?
“It’s a long chain, and we are the smallest unit in it. There are mid-level buyers between us and the cold storages. At all levels, the margins will be a rupee or two per kilo, but we deal in, say, 50 tonnes a season and make a few lakhs,” a trader in Keswahi told me. The larger cold storages in Raipur and Bilaspur, in Madhya Pradesh, store between seven and eight lakh tonnes each season. Ninety eight percent of the dried mahua, said my trader friend, is used to distill or brew alcohol. Bastar is said to be the largest market for mahua, but distilleries in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh also buy it in bulk. By September, the dried mahua starts moving back towards its source. “Bastar is the largest market, and a large part of the dried mahua is retailed back to the very people who first collected it from the forest. But, the product also moves all the way up to Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh for bulk use in distilleries,” said the trader.
I first met Michael and Bina in 2009. It was a wet day. I was working with a wildlife survey team, and my guide suggested we go to his friend’s place for tea. A lanky man with a boyish smile opened the door of his hut and invited us in. We were all drenched. He took one look at us and decided tea wouldn’t do. “I have something better,” said Michael. He plied us with glasses of warm mahua, and we were instantly revived. Over the years, Michael and I became good friends, not just because he was one of the best animal trackers in the area but also because he had a little still at his place.
Soon, whenever I happened to be around Redhakhol, I started helping Michael ferment and distil mahua in my spare time. Michael’s distillation technique was simple and similar to that practised by tribes across central India. A clay pot containing fermented mahua is set on a slow fire atop which is placed a similar-sized pot with holes at the bottom. The second pot contains a smaller clay pot, which is placed on a raised surface inside the pot. Atop the second pot is another vessel filled with cold water. The joints between the three pots are sealed with strips of wet cloth dipped in fine clay picked up from termite nests. As the brew in the bottom pot warms, vapours rise up through the holes in the second pot and hit the cold bottom of the pot that contains cold water. The vapour condenses to drip into the clay pot kept inside the second pot. What comes out of this clay potis variously called mahua, mahuli and, among other names, mahuda in central India. The technique varies mildly across states. Clay and bamboo tools have slowly given way to aluminium and plastic ones, but the alcohol and the distillation apparatus has remained essentially the same from, perhaps, before the Christian era.
To get around the hassle of changing the water repeatedly during the distillation process, many people set up their stills next to a river. The flowing water provides constant cooling, and distillation is more effective.
In Baliguda, in Odisha, I met Nupur, the local tribal hooch queen. Nupur runs an almost industrial-sized illegal distillery located near a waterfall inside a forest. A 40-litre aluminium pot sat on a raised mud platform. Two bamboo pipes linked the pot to two smaller condensation pots that sat in the river. Another bamboo pipe directed a steady flow of water from the waterfall to the condensing pots. A ledge above held many large terracotta containers that were full of bubbling mahua being readied for the pot still. Downstream, a herd of buffaloes wallowed in the mud. Nupur’s husband used to work at a distillery. “We were a happy family. Many people were jealous of us, and, then, one of them put an evil spell on him. We went to the best shamans (spiritual leaders), but he simply wasted away and died. I was left alone with two children. I had seen him doing this and had worked with him, so I thought, why not take over when he left,” Nupur told me over glasses of mahua. “Ours is the best mahua you can get in this area. We give the best quality and get the best prices,” she said.
Meanwhile, the batch on the flame was ready. The alcohol was poured into big tyre tubes for ease of storage and transportation. The big pot was carried over to the waiting buffaloes and over turned. The animals patiently waited for the spent mash to cool and then started eating voraciously. Mahua-flavoured milk, I thought.