In Telangana's interiors, the mahua tree remains sacred, even as demand for its flowers decreases

The mahua tree is held sacred not just for its religious associations, but also for its multifarious uses, and provision of food security during the harsh summer months | #FirstCulture

Lakshmi Prabhala April 02, 2018 11:21:14 IST
In Telangana's interiors, the mahua tree remains sacred, even as demand for its flowers decreases

During the early months of summer, a heady fragrance emanating from the mahua trees in the forest at the crack of dawn, is bound to draw in anyone travelling through the dry and arid interiors of north Telangana. If one is lucky enough, they could even chance upon aboriginal women and children collecting freshly-shed flowers from under the trees which are in proximity to habitations.

For many centuries, the mahua tree (madhuca indica) has been an important part of the Adivasi ethos in the Adilabad, Kumram Bheem Asifabad, Mancherial and Nirmal districts, which had hitherto formed part of undivided Adilabad. Mahua is held sacred by the Raj Gond and Kolam aboriginals not just for its religious association with their gods and goddesses, but also for its multifarious uses, provision of food security and raising supplemental income during the harsh summer months.

In Telanganas interiors the mahua tree remains sacred even as demand for its flowers decreases

The cluster of mahua flowers are seen at the end of the tree's bare branches. All photographs taken by the author

Mahua, also called Ippa (in Telugu) or Irp (in Gondi) is a large-sized tree, found mostly in the dry deciduous and miscellaneous forests spread across the four districts. An independent estimate has the number of these trees at five lakh, spread all over the four districts which cumulatively produce enormous quantities of edible flowers and seeds, which yield edible oil. The dried up flowers also are fermented to make wine called ippa sara in Telugu. The flowers, fruits, seeds and the bark of the tree are all known to have medicinal value.

During the month of March and early April, each mahua tree bears flowers for a period of about 15-20 days; the period itself could vary depending upon the topographical location of the individual tree. Kanaka Ambaji Rao, a Raj Gond teacher from the Marlavai village in Jainoor mandal of KB Asifabad district, explains how these unique blooms are sensitive to temperature.

In Telanganas interiors the mahua tree remains sacred even as demand for its flowers decreases

Soon after sunrise, ladies from Kannepalli village set out to gather mahua flowers

“The mahua tree sheds its flowers only when there is some gentle warmth in the air, like that coming from the rising sun. The trees which are located at a higher altitude therefore, bloom and shed the flowers comparatively earlier. On the other hand, the trees that grow in a valley bloom late because the temperatures are relatively cooler. The flower shedding takes place only when there is a slight rise in the temperature, as the sun rays fall on the trees in the valley.”

The collection of mahua flowers starts only after the irup puja ritual or worship of the mahua tree is performed. The collection mostly involves women, young girls and small children with occasional assistance from men.

In Telanganas interiors the mahua tree remains sacred even as demand for its flowers decreases

Towards the end of the morning, the collections grow in larger quantities

“As we do most of the work on the field, and also look after cattle, the task of flower collection is mostly left for the women. Also, they are more suited to it because they are nimble-fingered," Kanaka Limbaram, a villager from Kannepalli in the Lingapur mandal of KB Asifabad district, points out.

It was at this village, a small Raj Gond hamlet of Jamuldhara gram panchayat, that a small group of women set out at sunrise with empty baskets to collect flowers from the mahua trees in the vicinity. One of the first trees which the women came across stood tall, bereft of leaves, but its slender branch ends were laden with dense clusters of flowers.

The pale green flowers or ippa puvvu (in Telugu) look more like berries, drop onto the ground in quick succession as their gentle aroma wafts around the tree. The women quickly gather under the tree to pick flowers, and once the baskets are full move on to another tree. They ensure that they complete the daily collection before the cattle in the village are untethered and sent for grazing.

The domestic animals too relish these flowers, and race in the direction of the trees to feast on the flowers. In the days of scarcity, the cattle rely on mahua flowers to satiate their hunger, as the forest is devoid of any green cover.

In Telanganas interiors the mahua tree remains sacred even as demand for its flowers decreases

The mahua flowers are left to dry in the sun

At Kannepalli, the collected flowers are all spread out in an open area to dry, and once the process is completed, they are stored. The dried flowers then become an important part of the menu of the aboriginal people and are consumed in different ways, like in the form of rotis or vadas. Kanaka Buchiram, another resident of Kannepalli, adds that they dry-roast mahua, press it together tightly and wrap it in a cloth to prevent it from getting moist. Small chunks of this mudda or lump are mixed with ambali, a porridge made from jowar. Though the kernel of mahua seeds produces edible oil, it is now used only for specific religious rituals or to cure ailments.

Kanaka Jangu Patel, the head of Kannepalli village, reminisces of a time when liquor brewed from mahua flowers was available in every Adivasi household. “Mahua is an integral part of our mythology, its liquor being sacred was offered to our gods and goddesses during festivals.”

In Telanganas interiors the mahua tree remains sacred even as demand for its flowers decreases

When left to graze, the cattle never miss mahua flowers lying strewn under a tree

“Before the start of an agricultural season, we perform Bada Dev or Persa Pen Pooja, to seek blessings for a good yield. After the rituals, we place a representation of Persa Pen (the Supreme God in Gond mythology) on a branch of a mahua tree till the harvest season in January. Prior to sowing seeds, we perform the marriage of Chanchi Bheemanna, one of our gods, under the mahua tree," says Kanaka Jangu Patel, as he explains that all festivals have some or the other connection with mahua. "The wood of a dead mahua tree is used for making totems of Gods. The dhol (drums) that are used during Ghusadi, Jangubai and other festivals are also made of mahua wood," he added.

The economics of mahua, however, does not paint a rosy picture this season, which is why there is hardly any enthusiasm among women who take part in collection of flowers. Kanaka Parvathi, who had just completed mahua flower collections for the day, explained that they would rather have their girls go to school instead of gathering mahua flowers, as it isn’t as viable as it used to be.

In Telanganas interiors the mahua tree remains sacred even as demand for its flowers decreases

After collecting mahua flowers from one tree, ladies move to another

According to sources in the Telangana Girijan Cooperative Corporation, which purchases dried mahua flowers from the Adivasis, the price of the MFP (Minor Forest Produce) has been slashed by a steep 50 percent this year. From the Rs 2000 per quintal that was offered last year, the GCC is offering only Rs 1000 per quintal this season. “We could not even sell all the quantity purchased last year. The Maharashtra State Trading Corporation which purchases the dried-up flowers from us could not offer more than Rs 800 per quintal last year,” the source explained.

Deploring the signs of a fading tradition, Kanaka Ambaji Rao says, “In recent years, there has been a steady decline in the age-old custom of mahua flower collection by Adivasi tribes that can be attributed mainly to a drop in demand. Most Gonds collecting mahua flowers today, do so, only for personal consumption."

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