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Mahua: lost tradition of tribals in modern intoxication



Ramesh Hembram

My father was a bank employee. My childhood was mostly spent in the cities and towns of India. Like other employee’s children I was privileged to visit my village in my school vacations, later the frequency decreased as me and my younger brother went for higher studies and the nostalgia of the rural life remained inside me. Especially the food culture of my village, I started missing the most.

My native place is called Nichuapada, which is situated in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha (which was called Orissa before, named by British). It is a tribal village and 17 km from Baripada, the district head quarter of Mayurbhanj. Apart from sports and festivals in my village, the food played a very important role to reignite those nostalgic moments.

Food is an important part of any community’s cultural heritage. It gives the uniqueness and impression about the community. Tribal food mainly Santali food follows the same traditional way of cooking as they used to do long back with the same vegetables and ingredients. Ingredients, which are common to the mainland people and the exceptional vegetables and non-vegetables dishes those are not common too. Foods like verities of jungle potatoes, Bamboo shoots, ants, river snails, Mahua flowers and verities of green leaves are available only in the tribal regions are the delicacies I will never forget.

We have our drinks called Handiya, which is fermented rice beer and Mahua, which is made by fermenting the mahua flowers. I tested Mohua when I was in my 10th standard and I was underage for the consumption of liquor at that time. I tested the beautiful nectar hiding from my parents, later I got caught though. However, that’s a different story. But the smell of Mohua and it tests, still I can remember vividly.

Recently When I went to my village after a long gap I saw a different picture there. My village market is filled with shops from near by town and they are selling the city food which are available in the near by city market. I saw Chinese food stalls are mushrooming. The more sweet shops could be seen and People are drinking cold drinks too. When I searched for Mahua and asked one of my village friend name Jiten, he told me “you can’t find Mahua in this village. You have to go 60 km inside the jungle to another village. There are chances you wont get there too as it is illegal and you are looking like a man coming from a town as you are wearing branded clothes so they even wont give you But I can arrange it for you tomorrow as I m going to that village and would bring it.” I was shocked to listen this and my curiosity increased to find more about the Mahua’s history, existence and the politics involve in it. Because I don’t want to see my favorite drink would extinct like this from my tribal culture.

Mahua is the crux of tribal lifestyle. I mean not only for the purpose of drinking but also the flower, fruits and leaves that provide food, fodder and fuel to the tribal life. The Mahua flower is used for medicinal purpose too and tribal people make verities of edible out of it. Out of Mahua fruits they make oil. A mahua tree is never chopped down but passed on to the next generation. According to sagram , a villager I met in the village market “ The older the tree, the higher the yield. So it makes economic sense to conserve it. Mahua plays a role in the barter economy. For instance, an Adivasi pays with a bag of flowers for vegetables. In many tribal cultures among India tribal people considered it as the nature’s reward.” The making of Mahua liquor is also restricted to certain season as the flower blooms before the rainy seasons and it can be used for making alcohol after that and they drink it moderately for the year. Mahua wine test sweet and its color is like water.

“It’s one of the best indigenous drinks to India,” says Felix Padel, an anthropologist who has worked in India for several years. (He is the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.) Padel has drunk it on many occasions during his stay in Odisha. “The best thing is that it is natural. Good alcohol comes directly from nature whether mahua or Scottish malt whiskey, or beer. The art of making mahua and other tribal drinks like salpu or Tadi (palm wine) and rice/millet beer is highly developed,” he says.

But after the state intervention and regulation, the Mahua wine is banned in many parts of Odisha and the regulation laws are stringent. According to the government it is to curb the growing alcoholism among tribal culture. But according to Sonaram a tribal Activist and leader from Odisha “It is opposite, the relation between regulation and pattern of consumption is ignored. Because of regulation people are buying more Foreign liquor and alcoholism is growing among Adivasis. The foreign cheap whisky and beer has more percentage of alcohol and highly addictive.”

According to him there is liquor mafias operating in the background with the help of state power and corporate agencies. Tribal population around the developing spaces of the tribal areas like places where mining and industrial works are going on and the tribal villages nearby cities or district headquarters are good examples, and can be seen growing alcoholism among tribal because of these mafias. They are trying to impose British era patterns to get Adivasis addicted to alcohol so that they shouldn’t think much and get exploited easily. They want to conquer the whole tribal resources and market of liquor too. It is a well-planned tactics. It is another cultural loss to the tribal identity. We are loosing our language, rituals and now food culture too. There is not a single occasion where Adivasis don’t use Handiya and Mahua as the main ingredients for their cultural custom. Whether its marriage or death ceremony or new child is born, we worship our forefathers and Holy Spirits with it. After a hard day of work we relish it with pride. So not even a single laborer would move if he is assisting you in your harvest or other work without it.

According to JIten “The black marketing of Mahua exists but for very small percentage. As there are rumor spreads about the ill effects of Mahua and there are people who are selling these by mixing it with other toxic substance to make it more potent. And it is done by small businessman near the city who mainly are not Adivasis. Because of the regulation these black marketers are somehow maligning the tribal drink. And people are now getting scared of this drink but drink it as a substitute secondary alcohol when they don’t have money for foreign liquor.

Because of the regulation people are scared to keep the Mahua flowers in their houses too. As in some places keeping of Mahua flower to a limit is punishable. So we were loosing our authentic dishes, where we used to use the flower as an edible substance and the oil from the fruit for cooking to get the authentic test to any curry. So it is a direct blow to the tribal culture.

According to Dhunu a tribal Sarpanch from the nearby village says the concept of development is so much linked to the upper caste and class that the tribal are forced and attracted to follow it. It is also the main reason for loosing our language, culture, rituals and food. So drinking the foreign liquor too is the sign of progressiveness and it gives them a sense of class. Tribal population who are migrating to big cities and the tribal villages that are in the 50 km radius to the city has to go through a cultural assimilation process. We can’t stop this development and the assimilation too. Tribal will vanish after some years.

As I finished this article Jiten has managed to bring a bottle of Mahua and his wife cooked chicken that night. I was thinking should I assume that this Mahua does not test as sweet as the foreign liquor and it tests bitter to me like the way other feels.


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