Mahua - The tree of Elixir | Milaap

Mahua - The tree of Elixir

In the heart of India, spread over 5 different states, lives the Gond tribes. They are the part of one of the oldest landforms of India, the ‘Gondwana’. The tribe is known to have retained their culture since centuries. One such of their century-old tradition is their love for Mahua trees. When working as a fellow with Milaap in Odisha, myself and a colleague and friend of mine Waiz left in search of a story trail on Mahua.

Our target destination happened to be the district of Bargarh in West Odisha were we could expect plenty of Mahua collectors. We found a local friend Sitakanta to show us around the Nathapali village, where we could find Mahua trees. The local tribes especially the Gonds are involved in the collection of this forest produce.

Mahua and Gonds - A never-ending bond
For Gonds, the Mahua tree is very sacred. It is known to be a “Kalpavriksha”, a wish-fulfilling divine tree in Hindu mythology. In fact, the Gond people, from around the Central Indian plateau of Chota Nagpur, have revered the Mahua tree as ‘Tree of life’. According to them, a little of water is said to bring back the dried up tree back to life.

From birth to death many of the ceremonies of Gonds find the use of Mahua. On the birth of a child in the community, after cutting the umbilical cord, Mahua oil is applied to the child. During the weddings, the bride and groom are made to hold the sticks of Mahua tree. The Mahua drinks are served in marriages. Also, the dead corpse is smeared with Mahua oil. The tree is never cut and just passed on from generations to generations. Older the tree greater is its use and produce. A “Mahua Tyohar” is celebrated every year before rains, in honor of their beloved tree.
Gond art depicting Mahua tree and Gond wedding ceremony

About Mahua
Mahua is a seasonal flowering tree. The scientific name of Mahua flower being “Mahua longifolia”.  The tree grows in almost all parts of India, except extreme north. Majorly grown in Chota-Nagpur plateau area covering Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and further west towards Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. The major flowering season being from March and April. The flowers don’t remain for too long, blooming at night and it falls off before dawn. The yellow flower spreads around the Mahua tree like a carpet. The Gonds are known to collect these flowers and sell them to the local traders. As such the keeping of the Mahua flowers is illegal in Odisha and requires a special permit license from the Government for the Mahua procurement. Usually, there are middlemen who have a license and collect from tribal people and sell to Government.

Mahua tree, flowers, and fruit

Mahua flowers find its major use in preparation of alcohol. The process involves a simple distillation process. A local showed us the process of making this. The flowers are put in a traditional earthenware and closed on top using another pot. On heating, the bottom earthenware the vapor gets collected and is passed on to a bamboo made pipe were it is cooled to liquid back again and collected. A white colorless liquid. The distilled liquid is about 25 - 40% concentrated alcohol.  The locals are also known to take the drink raw but mostly it is further diluted and served to guests.

Distilled Mahua and distillation method

Among the collected Mahua flowers, almost 90% of it is used for alcohol making. But in the olden days, these were known to be used for many things. The fruit of Mahua is a natural sweetener. The local people have been consuming it for ages. It is also used in parts of Tamil Nadu in replacement for sugarcane during off seasons. Though they are consumed very cautiously, a limit more is known to cause mental stimulations and hallucinations. Apart from this the Mahua leaves are used to make plates and cups and are these are used during local festivals. The oil extract from the Mahua seeds is also used for various purposes.

Talking to a local lady in Bolangir, she says,” We use Mahua regularly as a vegetable to make ‘Tarkari(curry in Odia)’. Being major rice cultivators we use Mahua oil as Pesticide. Also, two spoons of Mahua can sort your stomach ache”

Medicinal history:
Searching through the history you can find tons of mentions on Mahua and its uses. The earliest mention of Mahua is found in Vedas. The Vedas frequently talk about Soma and its uses. Though not a proven fact but lots of scholars speculate to conclude Soma to be Mahua. Later Sushruta is known to have mentioned about soma in his medicinal book “Sushruta Samhita” that,“ he who drinks ‘sweet soma’ will not age and will be impervious to fire, poison or weapon attack. He can master all the Vedas and will find success wherever he goes. Furthermore, it could imbue the drinker with the energy of a 1000 elephants.” (Source: DailyIO)

Mahua tree finds its mention in the Charaka’s medicinal book “Charaka Samhita”. Here he says that the regulated amount of Mahua, mixed in proper proportions could balance the ‘doshas’ of an individual. It also particularly states about the precautions to be taken before consuming the drink due to its alcoholic effects.

Things to be made better
During the pre Independence era, in the 150 years of British rule, the demand for Mahua was drastically reduced. The Britishers introduced various laws and promoted European wines and liquor for a cheaper price and restricted the production of local Mahua beverages.

Post Independence the Mahua produce in most of the states of India is either State-controlled or completely restricted. The Gond and many other local tribes even now use them for a variety of medicinal purposes. A spoonful of purely concentrated Mahua is used for many illnesses and snake bites. The liquid is known to be highly laxative in nature and used to clean the large intestines. A bottle down you should be feeling its laxative effects. It is used in the treatment of Piles and other diseases like eye problems, bronchial diseases like TB, asthma and many more. Further, the oil extracted from Mahua seeds is used as hair fixer, cooking, lighting, to prepare soaps out of it. There is a great demand for bakery and confectionary items like Jams and sauces.

Mahua being a ‘non-timber forest produce’, Government has been trying to provide a better market for its production and to uplift the tribal dwellers who believe in these products. Various laws were enacted by the Government post Independence.

A local resident Harihara Seth says, ”There are collectors of Mahua who come on a daily basis to the village and take our produce. We get a little amount on a kilogram basis”

Even after the defined acts in place, the situation is quite on contrary. The Mahua gatherers generally receive very less around 20% or less value of their produce defined as a support price when compared to the market value. There are a lot of middlemen involved in the collection of these Mahua flowers. The balance profit goes to these middlemen. Mahua is still been treated mainly for alcohol consumption and other uses and products of it is completely ignored.  There is a need to provide better income to the Mahua collectors and help them prepare more Mahua products. India also has to look into the export of Mahua products since there is a huge demand in European markets for medicinal purposes.
Mahua middlemen collect from villagers 

In our quest for information, we came across many uses and benefits pertaining to Mahua. The fact that stood out for me was that people far removed from modern technology have a better understanding of nature and its multiple gifts. They live perfectly in harmony with nature and derive benefits from its uses. Witness the special relationship between the Mahua tree and the Gonds. They understand the value of this tree, their Kalpavriksha, Tree of life, Tree of Elixir. Somewhere down the line, in our thirst to modernize and innovate, we have badly gone wrong in understanding the insights of tribals, their history, and the culture of our India. There are many such products which we have gained and lost due to a lot of external factors. There is a need to dig into our roots, find out who we actually were and what better we could do to uplift the society. The study could well begin with understanding the tribal population of India, who have held onto traditions from centuries. Hope we find our Elixir soon!

(Credits to Waiz Azam for making necessary edits)