The spirit of mahua
The production of 'mahua' is finally entering the formal economy as new initiatives seek to upscale this indigenous drink, selling it across the country and even the globe
It is a cloudy morning in Nangur village in Bastar district, Chattisgarh. It is a settlement of a little over 400 families, considered fairly large in these parts. We make a bumpy journey down a narrow, unpaved road intermittently shaded by sargi (sal) trees, bringing us to a cul-de-sac with three homes skirted by acres of paddy fields. The smell of fermenting mahua (Madhuca longifolia) flowers and woodsmoke hangs heavy in the air. Chickens walk around in the open courtyard. It is only 8am, but the Sethia household is buzzing with activity.
Rambati Sethia, 65, is hunched over a wood fire, feeding it wood as her husband Shankar, 72, watches closely, making sure the flames don’t climb too high and scorch the delicate flavours of the mahua. They banter and crack jokes, all the while keeping an eye on the mahua that is being distilled. A ready batch sits in a pot placed in one corner waiting to be poured into empty beer bottles. Just like wine, coloured glass bottles are the best way to store mahua to increase its longevity and protect it from the sun. “This is fulli, the purest form of the spirit, which has no additives or diluting agents," says Shakeel Rizvi, an expert on the history and socio-cultural practices of the region, who is accompanying us. “Five kilos of dried mahua flower yield about 3 litres of alcohol. The quality of fulli is tested by throwing it into the fire to see how it burns. This determines its potency and purity." To demonstrate, Rambati throws a ladle of the fulli on the fire, sending the flames soaring. She urges us to try a spoonful. It is aromatic, unusually floral and leaves a fiery trail down the throat, with an aftertaste that is sweet and smoky. This—possibly the best, most natural form of mahua you can get—is available at the very reasonable price of ₹ 100-150 for 650 ml.
Rizvi says the family belongs to the Sundi caste, which is historically associated with distilling country liquor in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. Shankar’s ancestors, who specialized in making mahua, migrated from Odisha to Bastar during the reign of king Mahipal Deo (in the 19th century) to make mahua at the royal court. Two centuries later, the princely state is long dissolved and the art of making mahua is no longer a closely kept secret. Many homes in rural Bastar, especially those of the tribal communities, have a rudimentary pot still used for distillation and the knowledge required to turn the flower into a potent spirit. Despite this, the Sethias’ mahua is considered special, regarded as among the best not only in Nangur but in the entire region.
We soon learn that the activity at the Sethias is being mirrored in many homes in Nangur. Today is the weekly haat (market), which is always good for mahua sales. Across the village, people are busy bottling their mahua or collecting stockpiled dried flowers to sell at the market, which will open at noon. As we walk around the village, dropping into the homes of Rizvi’s friends who distil their own mahua, we see burnt-out embers below empty pot stills, bottles and handis of ready liquor. Some of the bottles are for personal consumption. In each home, the mahua tastes and looks different; it also varies in potency, flavour and clarity, a natural outcome of home brewing. Aficionados say this is what makes each batch a surprise. Mahua, as a spirit, is an important aspect of rituals among the Adivasi communities of Chhattisgarh, the Chotanagpur plateau and parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. These tribal communities consider themselves to be the guardians of mahua. They collect the flowers and consume the spirit. Births, deaths, weddings and funerals—everything is touched by mahua. Though it remains a minor forest product, it is the nerve centre of a lucrative local business.
Business in bloom
About 70% of Bastar’s population comprises Adivasis and while there are plenty of cultural differences and inter-caste dynamics between them, the one thing that runs common is a taste for mahua. Its ubiquitousness, unique flavour and cultural connotations have made it the liquor of choice for many non-Adivasi communities in the villages and a novelty for city folk and tourists as well.
While the market for mahua is now growing, and the trade is even entering the formal economy, the industry remains beset with problems at every level of production and distribution.
The procurement and sale of the flowers by the Adivasis are also subject to many challenges. There is inadequate support from the government and the market is unregulated, leading to an exploitative relationship between traders and the collectors of the flowers. One of the major challenges in the mahua trade is also distress selling due to inadequate storage facilities.
There are limits on home distilling and in Chhattisgarh—Adivasis are allowed to brew and store up to 5 litres of the liquor for personal consumption. Villagers in Bastar expect a raid by police or excise officials every few weeks, ostensibly to check on exactly how much mahua is being made. Rizvi says a good network of informants and advance warnings give the distillers enough time to pack their pots away and hide the traces of alcohol production. It is usually the same homes which are searched. Yet, the one thing that this does is keep the mahua production in check and anything made on a larger scale for commercial purposes is prosecutable under the law.
In states like Bihar and Gujarat, which have prohibition, mahua is banned altogether. But the drink continues to be consumed widely among the Adivasi populations of these states; it is distilled illegally, resulting in adulteration. This also leads to harassment by excise officials, with sporadic crackdowns and arrests.
Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh proposed banning alcohol in the state in 2017, but widespread protests and gheraos by the local Adivasi communities stalled the move. A Chhattisgarh Excise (Amendment) Bill passed in 2017 brought alcohol sale under strict government control, removing both middlemen and private players from the market. This has led to the closing of makeshift stalls that sold country liquor, including sulfi (a local home-brewed beer) and mahua. Now, sales of mahua take place in the grey market, often directly from the brewers themselves.
There are age-old perceptions about the consumption of mahua, associating it with deep inebriation, moral laxity and tribal poverty. This perception continues to influence the way the government looks at mahua. There is a ban on the sale of mahua in government-regulated shops in many states as it is neither bottled nor branded.
Rahul Srivastava, an anthropologist who runs Urbz, an action and research collective, has developed projects around forests and habitats, with a special focus on mahua. He believes there is a need to accept that moderate, responsible drinking is both a modern and traditional idea. “Scholars like Jhampan Mookerjee have shown that India has an ancient and deep legacy linked to alcohol, touching sacred dimensions while also being consumed for pleasure," he says. “It was thanks to dated colonial laws that indigenous spirits were marginalized in favour of international spirits. Perceptions can be changed by spreading knowledge about these traditions and developing a gender- and class-inclusive approach to responsible and moderate drinking."
The practice of drinking mahua has been tarnished over the centuries by the government and mainstream society. “A lot of conscious work is needed for a healthy economy to emerge around it, which is sensitive to the people who traditionally identify with it," he adds.
Yet, eager entrepreneurs believe this liquor, consumed in many parts of the country, already has tremendous potential. In addition, wider exposure to the spirit in different markets could uplift the Adivasi economy. There is also a belief that it could lead to a new kind of tourism, centered on the “mahua experience". Jeet Singh Arya is the man behind Unexplored Bastar, a travel start-up and social enterprise, who has been working relentlessly for the last four years to draw more visitors to this region, largely perceived as the feared “red" corridor of India. He believes that mahua could have great potential for tourism. “If the state approves the making and sale of the liquor on a larger scale, this could work really well," he says.
One way to drink mahua—traditionalists would say the only way to drink it—is in a leaf cup surrounded by forests and birdsong. But another alternative is slowly emerging: a natty bartender pours mahua into elegant glasses, shaking it into craft cocktails and pairing it with equally sophisticated small plates in a speakeasy or a fine-dining space.
A few craft distillers have understood this and are making efforts to take mahua to a larger audience. A truly sustainable growth model for the mahua industry would involve collaboration between the Adivasi communities that are the primary collectors of the flower, a system of standardized and fair pricing, and a change in the existing tax structures and excise laws around the liquor.
Mahua is currently classified as country liquor. According to Susan Dias, co-founder of the Mumbai-based start-up Native Brews, the only way forward is “to create Adivasi cooperatives and give them trading power over the flowers." She says it is important that the story of mahua is told authentically. “What should be achieved is a high quality spirit that is Indian," she says. “Its story—past, present and future—must stand on its own. India has a long history of alcoholic-beverage excellence. Bringing this history to light will help indigenous spirits like mahua and other brews break away from the ignominy of being regarded as (low quality) desi daaru."
Regulating the mahua industry is going to be challenging; experts say that varied pricing of the flower and the continual demand for the spirit mean that it is often difficult to get consistent versions of the drink, or consistent quality. Sometimes mahua is fermented with the cast-off from raisins, or other natural products like the kusum (Schleichera oleosa) flower, tamarind or jaggery. Other times, chemical products like urea are used. The idea is to create a potent, throat-scorching brew; if supplies of the mahua flower run short, one must improvise.
Goa-based Desmond Nazareth is somewhat of a pioneer when it comes to bottling indigenous spirits. He has spent 12 years travelling around the country, researching local spirits and brews. The first product he created and sold under the DesmondJi (DJ) brand back in 2011 was a blue-green agave native to the Deccan plateau. It is now his aim to take mahua to urban India and beyond. The idea is to take a storied local spirit and traditional know-how and make it accessible to an entirely different consumer base.
His brand, DJ Mahua, aims to address each of these issues through standards of hygiene, quality control, consistency and a superior distillation process. DJ Mahua has the same delicate floral notes of the original, yet it tastes noticeably different, like a milder version of the mahua we tried in Chhattisgarh—with an alcohol strength of 40%. This is very different from the varying strengths of mahua in Chhattisgarh, which range from 11% for a diluted version to 70% for a potent fulli.
Although it is not indigenous to this south-western state, Goa is the only state at the moment where the excise laws allow mahua to be manufactured and sold on a commercial scale. Nazareth sources his mahua from Odisha and Jharkand’s Adivasi areas. The flowers go through a rigorous cleaning and sorting process before they are fermented with a standardized yeast starter and then distilled multiple times in stainless steel steam pot stills at his micro-distillery in Andhra Pradesh. This makes the drink taste cleaner and smoother. DJ Mahua is the kind of drink that would be equally at home in a boutique speakeasy or as an exotic addition to a home bar. It is versatile enough to be consumed on the rocks, as a great base for fruit-based cocktails or with a splash of tonic and a squeeze of fresh lime. Nazareth also makes DJ Mahua Liqueur, a variant which incorporates honey and spices.
The buzz around DJ Mahua is growing through social media and word-of-mouth. The first batch of mahua was fairly small, with about 2,000 cases of 12 bottles each. It was officially launched in June. Curiosity about the spirit has led to the sale of 300 cases in the three months since its launch.
DJ Mahua spirit and DJ Mahua Liqueur are available at big liquor stores and supermarkets across Goa. The former is priced at ₹ 975 for a 750ml bottle while the liqueur retails at ₹ 1,275. This is almost 10 times as expensive as the Sethias’ home-made fulli, but it is still reasonable. The increased price is to account for excise duties, transportation and production costs.
Although hailing from Goa, Nazareth chose not to bottle and market feni. He felt its consumption was limited to a tiny state, while mahua had a national footprint. He also feels it has international potential. “Mahua fits the criteria that could make it a national spirit," he says. “The alcohol in question should have deep cultural roots and follow traditional distilling techniques, and also carry some distinction in terms of terroir. Another thing unique to mahua is that it is the only distilled spirit made from a sweet flower in the whole world," says Nazareth.
Nazareth points out that many popular alcohols across the world started off as country liquors, which then evolved and found wider markets after international standards for distillation were developed. In India, this remains a far trickier process. “All the local spirits were clubbed together under the umbrella of country liquor. They went off the radar, remaining in this lawless zone where no rules, licences or quality checks existed. Bottling mahua has kicked off a larger discussion on heritage alcohol in India. The idea is to push a certain vision of a national Indian spirit, spearheaded by mahua," says Nazareth.
The Heritage Tag
Nazareth is the forerunner in the bottling of mahua, but Susan Dias of Native Brews is close behind. Dias left her job at Ernst & Young five years ago in order to travel across India researching local spirits, brews and wines. “On my travels to the Maharashtra border, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and parts of the North-East, I came across mahua and went into it extensively in order to find out everything—the source, the process, the taste, the culture and its impact on lives." She started Native Brews soon after. The idea was to develop a list of indigenous spirits and alcohols and bring them to the mainstream. She also wants to be able to manufacture mahua and make it available to urban consumers, in India and globally. Thanks to Nazareth’s efforts, Goa has emerged as the new destination for mahua liquor even though the flowers continue to be sourced from markets in places like Jharkhand and Jagdalpur.
“The biggest challenge in giving local liquor a heritage tag is its classification as country liquor," says Nazareth. “To move a spirit from one status to another is very challenging." Nazareth is petitioning different state governments and the Adivasi Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India (Trifed) for the creation of a new category within IML (Indian made liquor), which will be taxed slightly higher than country liquor but regulated properly.
It is not just the private players that are excited about mahua. In 2019, Trifed will launch its own version of bottled mahua, a milder and flavoured version of the spirit. The flowers for this project will be largely sourced from the Bastar area.
A day at The Market
Historically, Bastar has always been associated with Adivasi craft and forest produce, ranging from dhokra (bell metal) artefacts, Gond paintings and tamarind fruits to mahua flowers. All year round, the mahua tree has one or the other use with some more lucrative than the others. September in Bastar, when we visited, might be long after the mahua flowering and plucking season (February-April), but it is a good time to see the workings of the mahua business as the demand is high and the flowers are not as abundantly available as before.
A full-bodied fruity smell permeates the markets of Jagdalpur, where 40-kilo sacks of dried mahua flowers lie stacked high in warehouses and mandis. Incense sticks planted at corners produce clouds of smoke that keep the flies away. Business is flourishing for the big and medium traders, as a steady stream of koochiyas (small traders) arrive on scooters and cycles to carry away individual sacks to sell at the weekly haats.
The majority of the traders in the big markets belong to the Marwari community. Mintu Gupta’s shop is one of the oldest in Jagdalpur. A leading mahua trader of Jagdalpur, his family has been in the business for 40 years. They started out as a government-licensed opium and bhang shop, until the sale of those substances was outlawed. “Since drinking is integral to the Adivasi culture, the demand for the flowers is ever-growing. In the Jagdalpur area alone the annual turnover ranges from ₹ 50-60 lakh to crore, depending on the season," says Gupta, who sells an average of 200 40-kg sacks of mahua per month. “Ninety per cent of our sales is for the purpose of making alcohol. A tiny percentage is sold for other things like agricultural use and candy-making, but all of this is in a very early experimental stage."
These are the big wholesalers, one of 12-14 who store their stocks in cold storage and then sell them to the medium-sized traders. They even export the flowers to the neighbouring states depending on how competitively they are priced and the collections that season. The latter is dependent on weather patterns or political conditions, especially in south Bastar, where access to the forest area is affected by Maoist insurgencies.
The price range can be quite wide; dried mahua, which would sell at ₹ 15-20 a kilo in the flowering season, was selling at ₹ 45-50 a kilo five months later. As a result of this inflation there is increasing demand for the poor-quality raisins which are used as a substitute for the flower. Large bags of this raisin mix are bought along with smaller portions of mahua, as the two blended together will create some approximation of the spirit.
At the haat, the koochiyas take centre stage. They buy mahua during the flowering season, often at low prices, which they sell to the bigger traders in the cities and neighbouring states. The koochiya is the middleman. Since this is such a highly unregulated market, with major price fluctuations, there is plenty of room for price manipulation.
In a study published in the journal Economic And Political Weekly in July 2003, titled Forest Products of Bastar: A Story of Adivasi Exploitation, authors B. K. Ganguly and Kalpana Chaudhary write, “For the unsuspecting Adivasis, the haat has also become a place of exploitation. The koochiyas, moving from one weekly haat to another, take advantage of the innocence of the Adivasis, buy on their own terms and outwit them in pricing, grading, weighing and counting."
Despite the dominance of the koochiyas, a haat is still quite a festive affair, for these are no ordinary bazaars but an important event in the social calendar and essential to the cultural life of the area’s villages. It is a space for trade, entertainment and interactions with friends and families, some living as far as 50km away. Mahua flows freely through the day.
At the Nangur haat, the koochiyas occupy a central stall and sell large quantities of the dried flower. A short distance away, among the vegetable vendors and dried fish sellers, there is the occasional Adivasi woman with a small stock of mahua from her private reserves. At the far end of the haat, almost in a logical placement after the daily staple and vegetables, are the liquor stalls. A group of women sell mahua and hadiya (rice wine), doling out ladles into little leaf cups to a line of waiting patrons. Mahua is a great gender-leveller. Men and women drink to their heart’s content and even children are given the occasional swig. There is one last tradition near closing time, where the men make their way to the blood-spattered cockfighting arena to gamble away spare change. A group of male and female revellers leave the haat, their shopping bags laden with toys, vegetables, groceries—some stagger out supported on friendly shoulders, some have a gentle sway in their gait. All of them have luminous smiles.
‘Mahua’, tree of life
While trees are often cleared by the Adivasis, the ‘mahua’ is always left untouched
At the edge of the village of Tirtha, 35km from Jagdalpur, the Indravati river suddenly turns into a seething mass of water, gushing down a sheer cliff to form the magnificent Chitrakoot Falls, one of Bastar’s most famous sights. The landscape around the falls is sparse and dotted with a handful of trees. The mahua tree is the dominant species. Silhouetted against the blood-orange sunset, these trees assume an otherworldly air, a fitting canvas for the central role that they occupy in the culture and economy in Chhattisgarh and other Adivasi areas of India. While large tracts of trees are often cleared by the Adivasis living in close proximity to forest areas, the mahua tree is always left untouched. As per a 2008 study published by Forest Governance Learning Group, “One single mature tree can provide an annual income of about ₹ 1,500 from its flowers and seeds, in addition to various other tangible and intangible benefits." Rajendra Singh, a Raipur-based anthropologist describes the varied uses of this wild forest tree:
Shoots: The tender light green shoots of the tree are cooked as a vegetable.
Branches: The narrow young branches are used as datuns or teeth cleaning twigs by the Adivasi population. Since it is considered an auspicious tree, the central pillar of the mandap at Adivasi weddings is made with branches of the tree.
Fruits: The raw fruit is cooked as a vegetable. It contains large seeds from which tora oil is extracted and used for cooking, as hair oil and for therapeutic massages. Almost every Adivasi village has an oil mill and tora oil is part of their daily staples.
Sap: The sap from the mahua tree is used to make a gum which is applied on nets and hung on trees and used to catch small game birds.
Leaves: The broad mahua leaves are stitched into bowls which are used as cups to drink mahua liquor as well as rice wine. They are also used as bowls to both steam food and eat in.
Flowers: The most lucrative part of the tree, the flowers, are dried and used to make the liquor. Apart from this, when there is a scarcity of rice and grains or a famine-like situation, the dried flowers are mixed with jaggery and eaten as laddoos or cooked as they are an important source of vitamins, minerals and iron.
Hot, spicy and sweet: the other side of ‘mahua’
The ‘mahua’ flower is finding expression in pickles, ‘laddoos’ and more
The dried mahua flower’s natural sweetness makes it perfect for candies, chutneys, pickles and laddoos. NGOs and government organizations working in mahua-growing areas are trying to promote these products as an alternative to the liquor.
Jiyo!, a design-led initiative of the Delhi-based Asian Heritage Foundation, is working with rural women in Jharkhand to make pickles and chutneys out of mahua. Priced at ₹ 500 for 200g, this is a step towards introducing an urban audience to innovative forest products. Orders can also be placed through email (mail@asianheritagefoundation.
org) or on phone (9810852182).
In Bastar, mahua laddoos are slowly becoming a brand under the guidance of social worker Razia Sheikh. She has trained a group of 11 women in Kamanaar village to make the laddoos, optimizing flavour, nutrition as well as hygiene standards. This small but growing enterprise has helped empower these women socially and economically. A mix of mahua flowers, nuts and jaggery, these laddoos are priced at ₹ 80 for a box of 15. Orders can be placed through email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on phone (7587876449).