The ancient origins of the Mahua tree traces back thousands of years ago. It is one of the few trees documented in ancient Sanskrit literature. The word Mahua is derived from the Sanskrit word madhu, which means honey.
The Mahua flower is deeply respected and admired by the adivasis, who are the indigenous people of India. They had a dynamic economy connected intimately with the use, preservation and regeneration of the forests, hills and water bodies in which Mahua had a special place. It is believed that the Mahua tree is a gift of the Gods gifted directly to the people of India. It is deeply respected and admired in parts of central India more than anywhere else in the world (Dhamorika 2014). For this reason, traditionally when forests of trees were cleared for agricultural purposes, the valuable and highly treasured Mahua tree remained untouched and stood tall.
The Mahua tree produces various beneficial products, including edible and cosmetic oils, alcohol, green manure, and fruit - all of which sustains those who live in its vicinity. The Mahua tree can grow on a wide range of different soils, and because it remains unaffected by heavy rain or drought, it has great potential for forestry.
One of the traditional uses of the Mahua flower is for distillation to produce alcohol known as Mahuli, Mahua pani, or simply as Mahua. Collecting Mahua flowers is typically done by women and children in the early hours of the morning (Bhat et al. 2011). The flowers are harvested by being picked up off the ground rather than being plucked directly off the tree. The spirit produced by this flower is of great significance to the adivasis as it plays a crucial role in the festivals of the agricultural cycle, as well as in all occasions of the life cycle such as births, deaths and marriages (Shah 2011: 1107-8).
Due to it's importance to indigenous communities the Mahua spirit is consumed as a way to propitiate and regain the favour of the spirits and ancestors of the house (ibid: 1108). It is said that the spirits of the house and the ancestral clans and families of the village demand propitiations with alcohol particularly on the days that they are celebrated, and consequently without it, villagers fear the terror, misfortunes and hauntings of these spirits and ancestors in the village for years to come (Shah 2011, 1108). For this reason, the spirits of the house as well as the ancestral clan of the villages are remembered with alcohol at both festivals, and during the general consumption of the alcohol.
While the sweet flower remains an important source of food for the adivasis, there have also been several research publications that have explored the different medicinal properties of the Mahua tree including its bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, and seed. The flowers and seeds are believed to have healing powers and medicinal properties and are used to treat illnesses such as bronchitis, rheumatism, diabetes, piles, arthritis, bleeding gums, tonisilitis, asthma, blood diseases, thirst and burning sensations, eczema and other skin disorders (NIIR 2017). It is clear that the Mahua tree is a valuable treasure to the adivasis due to the beneficial health properties that it provides as well as it being a great source of food, thus consequently, the flower and seeds have been used as a form of currency in some places, which as a result, provides the economic and financial support to families.
The trade and business of the Mahua alcohol has been strictly observed and constantly monitored since colonial times. As in other parts of the world during the colonial period - including the Latin American and African continents - commercially produced alcohol was used to control native populations for the purposes of using them as labour in plantations, railroad constructions and commercial farming. In the process indigenous drinks were banned or persecuted as they signified independence and freedom from the colonial economy. This produced a legacy of unhealthy, drinking practices among working populations and justified continued ban on traditional spirits.
In spite of this, Mahua managed to hold its own amongst the indigenous communities of India – as a significant symbol of their cultural heritage. They resisted the low status attributed to it by a commercial alcohol industry. Old official policy divided what was called “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” from “country liquor” (including Mahua) which restricted the latter from becoming part of the national modern industry of alcohol.
The colonial legacy that forms the basis of this categorization is only now getting dismantled bit by bit. In the process, the tradition and legacy of the drink as deeply connected to India’s diverse indigenous history needs to be protected and honored. The development of the drink as a modern product needs to be looped back to the communities to which it belongs at every level. Especially since the drink is connected to the tree which in turn is situated at the heart of the forest economy that they have nourished for thousands of years. The best way of paying tribute to the drink is by ensuring that its circulation ensures greater preservation and regeneration of the forests and the communities to which it belongs.