You may have enjoyed some wine, said three cheers over a whiskey or downed a pint of beer, but have you had a sip of what has to be one of India’s oldest and most earthy brews-the Mahua?
The Mahua drink comes from the Mahua plant (Madhuca Longifolia) that grows wild and in abundance in India, from parts of Maharashtra in the south to Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in central India and Odisha to the east. A large part of this is the old Gond land (from which the term ‘Gondwana Age’ is derived) and not surprisingly, the Mahua plant played a big role in tribal economies, in the region.
The Gond people revere the Mahua tree as the ‘tree of life’
In fact, the Gond people, from around the Central Indian plateau of Chota Nagpur, have revered the Mahua tree as the ‘tree of life’ for centuries. According to Gond mythology, the Mahua flower is a divine entity, believed to never dry up. A little bit of water is said to bring it back to life, no matter how dry it has been left.
During Chaitra, the first month of the lunar calendar (March/April), the Gonds celebrated the festival of Chaitrai Mahaparv marking the beginning of their New Year. An important part of this festival is the sampling of the freshest mahua flowers of the season. Just before the rains arrive, they would also celebrate the Mahua Tyohar or festival of the Mahua, in honor of their beloved tree. This was before they brewed their drink from the flowers.
During the New Year festivals of the Gond, they sample fresh Mahua flowers of the season
In the old days, boiled Mahua was also a staple meal for the tribal folk, and all celebrations had the mahua laata—basically balls of boiled, crushed flowers and Mahua ka Paag, a syrupy concoction to be had with rotis. The Koya tribe also considers this tree as sacred, using its wood for their funeral pyres.
One of the earliest texts mentioning the mahua drink was the Charaka Samhita (Charaka’s compendium), the definitive Sanskrit text on Ayurveda written between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC. It extols Mahua’s medicinal and astringent properties. Herbal historian CP Khare in his book, ‘Indian Herbal Remedies’ also mentions the flower’s ‘cooling, demulcent and tonic properties’ against cough and bronchitis-related ailments.
The Ayurveda text Charaka Samhita extols Mahua’s medicinal and astringent properties
The early distillates of the drink were mostly made from Bassia latifolia a.k.a. madhuca indicaor, another complex botanical name for, you guessed it, the mahua flower. Mahua flowers were first soaked in water and fermented, yielding a drink with inordinate amounts of glycoside, which also served as a laxative.
The distilled version of mahua, however, which is popular among the tribal belt is a largely colourless, cloudy, whitish-tinged drink, reminiscent of the Japanese sake drink, only milder. It’s made by mixing granular molasses (chhowa gud) with the musky-scented dried flowers, giving it its peculiar odour.
The drink is made by mixing granular molasses (chhowa gud) with the musky-scented dried Mahua flowers
Around 629 AD, during King Harsha’s (c. 590–647 CE ) reign in North India, Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller who is said to have visited then, refers to the concept of caste-based drinking, noting that while the nobility (Kshatriyas) consumed fruit or flower wines, the rich (Vaishyas) preferred to drink potent distilled liquor, while the elite (Brahmins) stuck to fruit juices for the most part.
This finds parallel in modern day society, with flower-based drinks yet to gain acceptance within the elite drinking culture, outside the tribal areas where they are brewed and consumed.
Mahua is still only enjoyed among the tribal communities, that is set to change
This distillate however, once established en masse, should be better preferred, with a more pronounced effect on your vowels than your bowels. It would also be one of the few to distillates to be based on flowers, which could set the mahua drink apart as a unique Indian spirit; much like tequila has done for Mexico.
The only concern that may arise is the paradox that the mass production of factory-made mahua could alter the sacred consumption culture of the very tribes that enabled it.
What is for certain is, with the Government’s aim to popularize and increase visibility of authentic tribal products and the introduction of flavored, bottled mahua, this ancient drink could well see a comeback in the future…
Cheers to that!
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