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Magical Mahua-Part VI Traditional Distilling: Universal Taste

Mahua enjoys a hoary tradition. It has been an essential part of the cultural and social life of many communities in India and its neighbourhood for centuries. Its mention in ancient and contemporary literature is a telling testament. Wine prepared from Madhūka flowers (Madhuca longifolia) finds mention in several Hindu, Jain and Buddhist literature works. It also finds mention in Ayurveda Samhitas which lists it among several wines of different kind.

In Ancient Texts and Contemporary Literature

Mahānirvaņa Tantra mentions,’Kali who is seated on a red lotus in full bloom, her beautiful face radiant, watching Mahākāla, who, drunk with the delicious wine of the Madhuka flower, is dancing before her.’ Mahua wine has found a place in the literature of ancient and contemporary India and its neighbourhood.  In the Vedas, Mahua has been mentioned as a medicinal plant, and its use in making wine has been described in the Rigveda. The Atharvaveda also mentions the use of Mahua flowers in making wine.

Mahua wine has also found a place in modern Indian literature. Writers like Shivani (Chaudah Phere), Arundhati Roy ("The God of Small Things") and Aravind Adiga ( "The White Tiger") among others have  described it evocatively.

Mahua wine is also popular in neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. In Nepal, the drink is called "Raksi," and it is an important part of the country's cultural heritage. The drink has been mentioned in many Nepali folk songs and poems.Few drinks enjoy a status across civilizations, as Mahua does. It is a sacred drink, an essential part of  religious and cultural heritage and an enduring theme of  folk songs, stories, and poems.

Mahua Distillation

Colonial literature offers insights into the methods of preparing Mahua for consumption. It informs us that the sun-dried Mahua flowers are first meticulously washed in water and strained out, and then they are roasted on a flame. The water in which flowers have been washed, is then boiled down to a thick syrup, and the roasted flowers added back to it. Sometimes a little rice is tossed into the mix.. 

The collected mahua juice is then poured into large earthenware containers or barrels for fermentation. In some cases, the tribals might add certain additives to aid the fermentation process. Natural yeast present in the environment or a starter culture is added to initiate fermentation. The containers are covered with lids or cloth to prevent contamination while allowing air circulation. The mixture is left to ferment for a specific period, which can range from a few days to a few weeks, depending on the tribe's traditions and desired flavour. After the fermentation process, the fermented liquid is ready for distillation. The tribals typically use traditional distillation apparatus made from locally available materials, usually clay stills, but sometimes also copper ones. These stills are invariably  simple in design and function.

The fermented liquid is poured into the still, and the still is heated using an open fire or other heat sources. The liquid is gradually heated, causing the alcohol to vaporize.  As the liquid heats up, the alcohol vapor rises and moves through the still's neck and condensing chamber. The neck of the still is often cooled with water or damp cloth to promote condensation.The alcohol vapor condenses back into liquid form in the condensing chamber and is collected in a separate container. This liquid is the distilled Mahua wine.

The distilled Mahua wine may be aged in earthenware pots or wooden receptacles for a certain period, which can range from a few weeks to several months. This aging process helps enhance the flavour and character of the wine. After aging, the wine is filtered to remove any sediments and impurities. Finally, it is put in bottles for consumption or storage.It's important to note that the process of making Mahua wine among tribals may have slight variation depending on their specific cultural practices, available resources, and individual preferences. These traditional methods have been passed down through generations and hold cultural significance within the tribal communities.

Apart from being used in making wine, Mahua is typically consumed in combination with foraged greens, tubers, tamarind seeds and, most popularly, with sal seeds that are first stripped of their characteristic astringency. Sun-dried Mahua flowers are boiled for long hours until softened and then eaten with sal or tamarind seeds. Sometimes, thoroughly dried flowers are pounded into a powder and mixed with other foods or even baked into cakes.

Similar Yet Different

In terms of taste and alcohol content, Mahua liquor is like other traditional alcoholic beverages made from fruits and flowers, such as palm wine or toddy. However, Mahua liquor is distinct in its aroma, which is described as floral and slightly sweet. Some, particularly the new initiates, however, find the smell too strong for their taste but they are soon willing to become converts. Mahua liquor is also different from commercial alcoholic beverages in several ways. Firstly, it is usually made in small batches and consumed locally, rather than being mass-produced and distributed on a large scale. Secondly, it is often consumed as part of traditional cultural practices and is deeply rooted in local customs and beliefs.In other words, drinking Mahua essentially has evolved as a manifestation of tribals’ cultural tradition and its consumption is more a celebratory delight than a daily compulsive habit.  

Photo-Conrad Braganza

(To Be Continued….)

(Writer is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)







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