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.