Little unites the Adivasis, hundreds of tribal communities in the forested depths of India, except systemic oppression, loss of sovereignty over the land and a spirit called Mahua.
The drink is made from the tropical evergreen tree Madhuka Longifolia, also known as Mahua or Kalpa Vriksha, which translates as a tree of life.
The term Adivasi means indigenous people in Sanskrit. And the Adivasi tribes, many of whom are hunter-gatherers with roots dating back to 1500 BC. Chr. and before that, have been making mahua for centuries. Their traditions are rich in stories, songs and sacred verses dedicated to the Mahua and its many blessings. Many people see themselves as protectors of trees and collectors of their flowers, fruits, branches and leaves, which are used for food, money and medicine.
During the British Raj in India (1858-1947) the settlers denounced the mahua as a dangerous intoxicant. Those who used it were presented as barbarians.
Prohibitions and policies, such as the Mhowrah Act of 1892, were enacted to restrict distillation and consumption. This has led to an underground brewery and a decline in quality. Stories of alcohol poisoning are still part of the story in modern India.
Today there is a revival of mahwa production in India. The question remains, however, who benefits from the global stranglehold of the Mahua and whether heritage liquid can lift the oppression of generations and guarantee sovereignty.
Flower used to make mahogany / Photo courtesy of Desmondji
Establishment of the Mahua
Made from the flowers of Madhuk Longifolia, Sharaab Mahua, or alcohol, is known for its floral notes and soft, smoky nuances. As soon as these spherical, light yellow, sap-soaked flowers are picked by hand, they are sieved, soaked and then fermented. The fermented juices are distilled in pots and pans over heated coal.
To test its strength and purity, Maua can be sprinkled over an open fire as the ultimate test. When an open fire leads to an inferno, the alcohol is considered to be optimally distilled. The alcohol content of the traditional Mahua is between 10 and 25% by volume (abv). But most distilleries dilute the Mahua and sell it between 5 and 7.5% abv.
Consequences of colonialism for the Mahua
Despite the therapeutic and cultural role of the spirit in the daily life of the adivasis, restrictions on the spirit and mahwa flowers were imposed by colonial laws in the late 1800s. Maua was classified as an intoxicant and a danger to public health and morals. And consumers were portrayed as uncivilized outlaw farmers.
About 20. Numerous embargoes followed in the 19th century. Taxes on local alcohol were high and the dismissed Raj campaigned to denigrate the Adivasi way of life, including the Mahua.
Prohibitions were used as a means and a trick to fill the pockets of the British Crown, as heavy provincial taxes were imposed on communities that consumed the village’s drink.
Indra Munshi Saldanha, professor of sociology at the University of Mumbai, writes in his article in the Economic and Political Weekly on the history of alcohol abuse and alcoholism in colonial India, how much the colonial state violated what could be called an atmosphere of private and collective action. …alcohol became an instrument to exploit the poor.
With such restrictions the British settlers wanted to push their own foreign liquor programme to take over the Indian alcohol market.
Alcohol was one of the vital raw materials that was cheaply imported from Germany and Britain and competed with domestic industry, writes Nandini Bhattacharya of the School of Humanities, University of Dundee, Dundee, United Kingdom, in The Alcohol Problem in Colonial India (c. 1907 – 1942) : The increase in consumption is the result of both government policies to use excise duties as the main source of income in all presidencies and changes in taste preferences and consumption patterns.
The latter types of alcohol [diluted/processed in India] compete with village alcohol, Mr. Bhattacharya said. Field liqueur was a generic term for spirits, usually from the mahwa flower, especially where it was abundant in western and central India.
Today, up to 90% of the mahwa flowers in India are used for alcohol production, according to a report for rural development in the state of Chhattisgarh.
Nevertheless, the economy of the Mahua did not improve with the independence of India in 1947. The Indian ruling class has not granted indigenous peoples such as the Adivasis sovereignty over the land, nor the right to practise their traditional way of life.
Indian mahogany producing states have banned the product or limited the amount of mahogany flowers and liquor that individuals can possess.
Successive Indian governments have continued to tax, tax and punish indigenous peoples who consume mahua from their own forests. These rules also limit the time adivasis may store, sell and produce a certain amount of mahwa. The Adivasis are forced to sell most of their harvest to traders who can then store the flowers for months.
Every year, when they are allowed to buy more mahwa flowers, the adivasis buys the flowers from these sellers at inflated prices.
The geographical belt of indigenous Mahua production in Central India runs through the heart of the Maoist insurgent zones.
For 50 years Maoist guerrillas have been fighting against the Indian state to create a communist society, writes Alpa Shah, author of the Night March: Among the Indian revolutionary guerrillas, for the BBC. So far, the conflict has claimed at least 40,000 victims.
Woman making mahogany / Photo courtesy of Desmondji
Since India’s independence from British colonial rule, the situation has only worsened, says Konrad Braganza, marketing director of Agave India. In 2018 the company launched the first handmade Mahua alcohol and liqueur in India under the brand DesmondJi. All current policies are a hangover from the puritanical and trade laws that were once enacted.
The distillery cooperates with the Adivasi communities of Odisha and supplies Mahua flowers.
Desmond Nazareth, the founder of the distillery, has been campaigning for years to change the archaic policy on the production, distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages. It faces challenges from the state authorities to market and sell its mahogany-based beverages.
Nazareth is licensed to sell artisan mahua to Agave India in the states of Goa and Karnataka. He believes he will spread this spirit much more in Great Britain than in the rest of India.
According to Braganza, Mahua has a pleasant and subtle taste profile, but should not be too sour or too sweet. He says shrubs, tonic water and dessert cocktails are doing well.
In the stream of new Indian handmade gins and a large whisky market, Nazareth defends Mahua as a spirit of Indian heritage. He hopes to establish a heritage such as cognac in France or whiskey in Scotland.
Mahua flower collection / Photo Desmondji
Is the Mahua operational?
Debjit Sarangi of Living Farms, a non-profit organization working to improve the culture of the Kondh Adivasi community in Rayagada, Odisha, warns against romanticizing the story of the Adivasi Mahuas and their practices.
In March 2020, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs of India’s central government plans to launch an alcoholic beverage, Mahua, in six fruit flavors. But the real benefit of public support for the production of adivasi mahwa remains to be seen. Sarangi therefore wonders who really benefits from this introduction.
When we talk about benefits, we refer to only one currency, Sarangi said. The symbiotic relationship [between the forest and indigenous peoples], which is relatively non-monetized, is monetized and commercialized, which is very disturbing.
According to Mr Sarangi, the real well-being of these communities can only be guaranteed through food sovereignty, mediation and the right to vote.
Sarangi wonders whether the rebirth of the Mahua is a sign of decolonization, or whether it is merely maintaining white capitalism.
Indigenous communities have taught us to live responsibly and without looting, he says. Can we please talk to them, learn from them, learn what they want?
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