I remember the first time I tried it. I had an audience, eight eager faces anticipating what my reaction would be. Years ago (okay, actually decades) when I was a ski rep, my team would buy me tequila, which I hated, purely for their own amusement, it would appear my tequila face was a sight to behold. I am only grateful that in those days social media wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of the tech giants and rarely was a camera taken on a night out. Skip forward 15 years and here I was in the heartland of central India, managing a lodge in Kanha National Park, with a team made up of the local Baiga Tribals and they were inducting me into their local hooch, now that Mahua season was upon us. Given their shrieks of mirth, once I had actually plucked up the courage to sample a few drops, I didn’t disappoint, my tequila face and mahua face must be quite similar.
Travel through Madhya Pradesh in April and in the buffer zones or reserve forest areas around the National Parks and you will see, at regular intervals, ladies crouching down collecting the pale green fruit of the mahua tree by the basket load. These they then carry back to their village to distil into their local hooch, this is a practice that has been going on for generations. Mahua is big in Madhya Pradesh it is used in every ceremonial occasion as well as daily life, the Mahua tree is venerated and never cut down and it characterises the landscape in a beautiful way. These fruit pickers will, more often than not, have a dog with them, because bears also like mahua and a basket full of already picked fruit can prove to be too much of a temptation. Drunken sloth bears are also a feature of April’s in Madhya Pradesh.
Skip forward another 15 years, and I once again found myself in a position where I was offered mahua, but this was very different from my first, second, third, fourth or even fifth time. Yes, I spend a lot of time in central India, I am fortunate to spend time with many of its top naturalists in various lodges and, at some point, it will invariably happen that I get offered mahua, they love it. I always repeat the story of my first sampling and how it’s not really for me, ‘Oh, that may have been old, or not distilled enough, or ………..’ there are always plenty of reasons as to why this, their favourite drink may not have met with my appreciation, and I always get persuaded to try it again.
This time, somewhat serendipitously, I was staying at Salban, a rather charming homestay in Village Baherakhar, adjacent to Kanha National Park. This home, architecturally inspired by the surrounding village houses belongs to Sheema and Jhampan Mookerjee who relocated here from having busy careers in Delhi. I was filled with envy, a beautiful traditional styled house, garden filled with indigenous trees and plants (one of Jhampans many projects) living out here, in nature, adjacent to this beautiful park it is, quite simply, heaven. Sheema’s love of food has come to the fore, and she experiments with the local ingredients. They both have a love of nature and a stay here, as well as heading into the park on safaris, encompasses so much of what this region offers beyond the park, nature walks, villages, people and culture but all in a non-intrusive manner, and as I was to discover, a very different mahua experience.
Sitting on the wide verandah, in the evening, surrounded by the sounds of the forest, Jhampan asked me if I’d like to try mahua. Despite being ready with a pretty strong argument as to why not, Jhampan was not to be deterred, and brought me a glass with ice and a slice, it could almost have been a G&T. I smiled politely and took a sip. My eyebrows raised, I gave him a sidewise glance, and declared, ‘but this is quite nice!’ years of indoctrination of bad experiences had battered outright enthusiasm out of me, but here was mahua that I could drink! Jhampan smiled and showed me the bottle and then told me the story.
Mahua has now been classified as a heritage alcohol, is being properly distilled, bottled and branded and will soon be for sale statewide (ultimately hopefully countrywide) and, this is the best bit, all for the benefit of the tribal people. I was sold, twice over. But how has this come about and how legit is it? Well, I can do no better than to give you Jhampan’s own explanation below:
‘’The Mahua initiative was started by the tribal affairs and excise departments of the MP government to encourage and empower tribal communities in MP, especially women, by monetising their traditional skills. Most tribal households in the state, already distilled the Mahua flower to produce an alcohol that is part of their ancient cultural fabric. Almost 90 per cent of the distillers are women who have learnt the technique from their mothers or aunts for generations.
The first step was to declare Mahua spirit in a separate category called Heritage Liquor, as opposed to colonial excise categories such as IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Lliquor) or CL (Country Liquor). The latter has an association with dangerous or low grade poisonous moonshine or hooch. The truth is that millions of people across central India distil and drink this alcohol daily without going blind or dying! This gave Mahua spirit a new respectability lifting it up from its lowly status of country spirit.
The next step was to open up the sector giving the right to distil and sell this liquor only to organised associations of schedule tribes like Self Help Groups(SHGs) or Cooperatives with at least 50 % women members. Simultaneously, research was initiated at a premier institute in Pune to create techniques that could scale up their home production methods using contemporary equipment. Two existing SHGs, one of the Bhil Bhilala community in Alirajpur and another of Gonds in Dindori, were adopted to create Mahua distillation units that would serve as role models and experiential learning grounds for others. A selection of these members was then sent on a three-week training to learn the basics of modern distillation.
The first distillery was started at Katthiwara in Alirajpur district with Hanuman Aajivika SHG which has registered its brand Mond, meaning mahua spirit in Bhil Billala community’s dialect. It is already in production with the product being tested in the market. Next in line is MN Aajivika SHG of Bhakamal village in Dindori whose label is up for registration and should start distilling soon.
This is the only spirit in the world to be distilled purely from flowers naturally steeped in sugar. It is made and consumed by millions of people in 12 states of India and has the potential to be declared India’s national spirit!’’
Look out for it on the shelves, give it a try, you may well be pleasantly surprised!
For more information about the Mahua project, contact Jhampan on firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on Salban Homestay, Kanha
For further information on travel to India: email@example.com
My novel, Escape to India based in Madhya Pradesh is available on Amazon.