Two weeks ago while visiting my maternal family in Udupi, my aunt, Shwetha Sunish, pointed at a pale mara or devil tree in front of the house and asked, “Do you see the difference in colour?” Upon a closer look, I realised the tree trunk was significantly lighter than the branches, which were of the usual brownish colour. The bark had been chipped off, and suddenly the tree looked bare. It’s for paleda mara kashaya (a concoction made using the bark of pale mara), my aunt said.
Every year, in the month of Aati, the fourth month of the Tulu calendar, which generally falls in July or August, people make a special drink using the bark of Alstonia Scholaris or pale mara. The drink is consumed on aati amavasya, or new moon day. Pale Mara is a tropical tree that grows 50 to 80 feet high and is found in Southeast Asia. The tree trunk looks a bit wrinkled and has leaves that grow 6 inches long. Each whorl has about seven leaves, which gives it another name, Saptarami, according to a 2011 article published in Deccan Herald.
Although little is known about when the tradition began, the concoction is believed to have health benefits. “Nowadays people are prescribed medicine for cleansing worms from our bodies, but earlier drinking this concoction was one of the popular remedies, which continues as a tradition in many areas in and around Udupi and Mangaluru even today,” says my aunt, a resident of Korangrapady, near Udupi.
The herbal drink is made in a unique manner. Early morning, before sunrise, the bark of the pale mara is chipped off using a stone, usually a white one. It’s believed that using a metal tool will make it poisonous. The juice from the bark is taken out through further pounding and to this, a powdered mixture of pepper, fennel seeds and garlic is added. This is then boiled for a few minutes and consumed as a drink. “It’s a very bitter taste,” shares my aunt. She remembers drinking it in her childhood, but hasn’t followed the tradition after.
Drinks made of tree bark are not uncommon. In Kerala, the bark of Indian Rosewood (Biancaea Sappan) is used by many households to make a herbal drink, Pathimugham. It’s a small tree that is sometimes used as a fence around forest areas, according to a 2020 article published in Down to Earth. The tree bark when infused in water releases a pinkish hue. To make the drink, the bark is boiled in water for a few minutes, until the water turns pink. To this coriander seeds, cardamom and ginger can be added. “My mother adds it to boiling water and it has a bit woody, but pleasant taste. It is believed to have antioxidants and is good for digestion,” says Anu Soman, an IT professional based in Kochi.
Moving beyond India, in Barbados, a bitter drink called Mauby is made from the bark of the Mauby tree. The bark is fermented and often mixed with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The brew is sweetened before consumption. Although traditionally it was sold by street vendors, Mauby has now been commercialised and reimagined in different ways, with carbonated water as well as an unfermented drink.