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101 uses of the mahua; tribal India’s tree of life

It seemed that the jungles of central India were dripping with mahua flowers and the air was filled with their heady, sweet yet pungent fragrance.

The flowers don’t remain on the tree for long; they bloom at night and fall to the forest floor at dawn, creating a cream carpet around their parent. At first light tribal villagers make their way through the forests to the trees dressed with new red leaves where the waxy blooms keep coming till the leaves turn green, and carefully collect each fallen flower. Simply distilled in earthenware pots, fiery mahua liquor is drunk in copious amounts but the entire tree is vital to tribal body, mind and spirit, from cradle to grave.

Mahua leaves are woven into cups and plates used for festivals, sticks of the tree are placed on the bride and groom’s hands during weddings and a corpse is anointed with mahua oil. The flowers can be eaten raw, boiled, or fried and eaten with salt and chillies. In south India Tamils use the flowers when no sugar cane is available, though with caution as an excess is said to result in unbalanced thought and even complete lunacy.

Mahua fruit is eaten as a vegetable, while oil from the seeds is used as everything from a hair fixer, for cooking and lighting lamps, to making soap. The crushed leftover matter then becomes a seedcake used as fertiliser.

Both the flowers and the oil have long been used in traditional medicine as a cure for a myriad of ills. The oil is taken as a laxative and to cure piles, while the flowers in various forms are used for heart, bronchial and eye problems, to treat TB, asthma, blood diseases, tonsillitis and to get rid of parasitical internal worms.  The bark is used to relieve itching, to heal wounds, fractures and snake bites.  Both the flowers and the bark are believed to be aphrodisiacs.

The wisdom of the tribal peoples is now being taken seriously and scientists are checking out mahua properties. One study has shown that mahua oil has more free radicals than extra-virgin olive oil and it’s also being tested for its potential as biodiesel. Watch out for mahua products coming to your neck of the woods soon.

Take a look at our website to discover more about the jungles of India on a tailor-made safari.

Posted by: Andrea Hulme

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