A Beautiful Bond Between a Tree and the Tribals of Odisha

Nathapali, a tiny village in Bargarh district of Odisha houses a large number of Gond tribals. The community shares a unique bond with the Mahua tree. From birth of a child to the death of a loved one, Mahua’s significance in the lives of the Gonds is unmatched. Read more about this beautiful bond and what we should do to protect it.

In the heart of India, spread over five 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.

The district of Bargarh in West Odisha houses plenty of Mahua collectors.

Mahua and Gonds – A never-ending bond

Mahua middlemen collect from villagers

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.

Gond art depicting Mahua tree.

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.

Mahua and its various uses

The Mahua tree

Mahua is a seasonal flowering tree. The scientific name of Mahua flower being “Mahua longifolia”.  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 flowers find its major use in preparation of alcohol. The process involves a simple distillation process.

Distilled Mahua and distillation method

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 percent concentrated alcohol. The locals are also known to take the drink raw but mostly it is further diluted and served to guests.

Among the collected Mahua flowers, almost 90 percent 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.

“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,” a tribal woman from Bolangir district said.

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 confectionery items like Jams and sauces.

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.

Gond Wedding Ceremony

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.

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

Even after the defined acts in place, the situation is quite on contrary. The Mahua gatherers generally receive only 20 percent 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 fruit

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 the 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!

Originally published here, this story is part of content collaboration between Milaap and The Stories of Change. The Milaap Fellowship Program is a unique opportunity, providing young professionals with a six-month fellowship to contribute to a cause and cover inspiring stories of change.

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Adithya Acharya

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