Mandu, Mahua and Magic

March 2, 2024

At most times the urbanologist and the anthropologist are one and the same. For us walking the streets of old neighbourhoods in ancient or futuristic cities and the forgotten paths of history in far away places happen together. An assignment to Indore in central India, for the Aranya project saw us make a detour to mythic Mandu (Madhya Pradesh). Basically ruins of an old kingdom, the splendour of the place was accentuated by the lush monsoon greenery which gives the region that fantastic hue of green. It is deceptive, since it does not indicate the dryness it is also capable of declining into, just a few months later.

Mandu of course, on a weekend was overrun by tourists. This pushed us to look beyond and we had our customary airoots adventure that took us on a journey into the primeveal past of most cities. A journey through time that connects forests, collective memory and cities into one holistic moment. In four hours of driving time we could span habitats that nestled next to each other but lived in different centuries.

The Mahua Tree

Mahua, that magical tree which epitomizes the core of the colonial-tribal encounter yielded the most delicious intoxicant we had ever tasted. A nutritious drink made from the flower of the Mahua tree – also known by that name – came to us in a leaf cup. The making of the drink was banned by the colonial authorities in the late 19th century because it made the independent minded Bhil communities  that lived in the region even less dependent on a monetary labour economy that the authorities were intent on pulling them into. They licensed the making of distilled liquor only so that the communities could be addicted to it and had to pay and thus work for cash. Devious.

The colonial legacy lives on. Mahua making is not banned, but it is trapped in a moralistic, anti-drinking rhetoric that is the very opposite of the spirit of the tribal communities that love it. So it goes a bit underground.

Flower collector's at Bastar Village

We are sometimes blamed for being idealists. We spoke to the Bhil girls and boys, shepharding goats on the hills, and told them that our belief that there is something valuable here is often called delusional. They laughed. They told us they are really quite happy to be here on the hills, as long as their connections to the forests are not tampered with. No one likes going to the city and being pulled into doing physical work for the construction industry, something they have to do for survival, especially during the summers.Their presence in the forests around is discouraged by the authorities on the grounds that they will denude them.

The forest policies in India remain anti-people and to our minds are at the heart of a faulty policy that creates forest-less cities and people-less forests.

Generous Hosts

Bhil Pride

This experience will definitely inform our next paper that we are working – on to be presented at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, in November 2011 about the connections between the jungle that is Dharavi and the jungle that is the Borivili forest sanctuary in the metropolitan limits of Mumbai.

Our collective ancestral home

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