On a cool night in April this year, Rambai lit a fire by her makeshift bed of straw mat and two woollen blankets. She was camping out in an arid field in the Umaria district of eastern Madhya Pradesh. She bobbed in and out of sleep, watching white buds slowly fall to the ground from a giant tree—an uneven patter, each quiet thud, separated by seconds, sometimes hours. As she did almost every day, she would wait here until the sun rose, well past its rising, perhaps into the afternoon. She would return home only after the flowers stop falling.
In Umaria, it is not unusual for Adivasis like Rambai to spend hours outside in the summer, watching mahua flowers descend from their treetops. People burn narrow tracts of dried leaves beneath the trees so they can see the pristine white flowers more easily on the charred earth. Along these ashen patches, they camp out to guard the trees, so that someone else does not steal the flowers before they can pick them off the ground themselves. “I came here at midnight to watch for thieves,” Rambai explained, “This is my tree, because it is on my field. But if I don’t watch it, someone else will come take my flowers.”
Although collecting flowers by moonlight might seem a romantic scene, in Umaria it is labour, a livelihood. Between late March and early May—mahua season—collecting the flowers becomes an important source of income for the three main Adivasi groups in the region: the Baiga, the Gond and the Kol. Several Adivasis give up on their daily-wage jobs, and instead work from midnight to midday, collecting flowers and guarding their territory from other mahua gatherers. Traders’ warehouses in town fill up with mounds of mahua that grow taller and taller each day, as more mahua is brought in by Adivasis from the surrounding villages.
Approximately 42 percent of Umaria district is covered in forests, which continue to be a vital resource for Adivasis. The average Adivasi in Umaria earns a living through a combination of small-scale farming, daily-wage construction work, and the collection of non-timber forest produce. After tendu leaves, which are used to make beedis, mahua is their most lucrative non-timber forest produce. Although the forest department has not surveyed the population of mahua trees in Umaria, it is safe to say that there are plenty—the trees are not cultivated, but indigenous to the region. In 2017, Umaria pulled in the highest mahua flower collection in all of Madhya Pradesh, totalling 23,340.23 quintals in government purchases alone.
Unlike a regular flower, whose value depletes as quickly as it wilts, mahua’s value increases in its decay. The famed mahua liquor, popular across central and north India, is made by distilling a fermented concoction of flowers and water. Not just Madhya Pradesh, many states in central India—including Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand—see a large mahua trade because of the liquor's popularity. But mahua is not simply liquor to the Adivasis, it is also a part of their cuisine, religious rituals and mythology. Although the production of mahua liquor is restricted in Madhya Pradesh (with a few provisions for certain groups of Adivasis), mahua persists as an important commodity and cultural symbol among Adivasis.