Andhra’s Koya tribe faces brewing conflict over sacred Mahua flower

In Godavari valley, the Koya tribe faces a cultural crisis as raids by the Special Enforcement Bureau threaten their cherished tradition of Mahua liquor consumption. Scores of Koya women are increasingly abandoning their ancestral practice of collecting and brewing Mahua flowers, fearing the repercussions of enforcement actions, reports T. Appala Naidu

Updated - May 31, 2024 11:15 am IST

Published - May 31, 2024 10:33 am IST

A Koya tribal woman drying Mahua flowers in the backyard of her house in Chintoor Agency of ASR district.

A Koya tribal woman drying Mahua flowers in the backyard of her house in Chintoor Agency of ASR district. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

In mid-April, 25-year-old Madakam Janakamma was filled with joy as she started preparations for the naming ceremony of her first child due in two weeks. A part of Koya tribe celebrations, liquor brewed from dried Mahua flowers was central to her plans. She took stock of the 20 litres of liquor that she had already brewed from flowers collected earlier, before heading to the lone Mahua tree in her backyard. She was about to collect the flowers scattered on the ground, when two unexpected visitors in a government vehicle, arrived at her house located in a remote village of Andhra Pradesh. They identified themselves as the staff of the Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB), a newly-created wing of the State police responsible for enforcing sand and liquor regulations.

“I was working in the fields nearby when the police came to raid our house. Janakamma was alone at home at that time. She had brewed nearly 20 litres of Mahua liquor and police took away half of it. They also took the Aadhaar cards of all our family members,” says Janakamma’s sister-in-law Madakam Adamma, 30, who stays in the same house.

The following day, the police returned the documents after Janakamma’s husband shelled out ₹10,000 so that no further legal charges would be slapped against the family for brewing Mahua, says Adamma.

Towards the end of April, Janakamma delivered a baby girl, but the naming ceremony was held without Mahua liquor, a cultural shock for the family’s Koya friends and relatives.

Their village, Kokkeragudem, in Alluri Sitarama Raju district, is nestled in the heart of a jungle with 50-odd households. It is located about 5 kilometres deep within an isolated forest from the Chintoor-Bhadrachalam national highway on the Andhra Pradesh-Chhattisgarh border. The village takes great pride in conserving Mahua trees, and remarkably, has three times more such trees than homes.

Mahua, a tropical tree known by its scientific name Madhuca longifolia, holds great significance in the lives of various tribal communities in India. In Koya society, the tree is considered sacred and forms part of several rites and rituals. Its flowers bloom in early summer and are primarily used for brewing liquor. Dry flowers serve as a major source of income for the collectors. In the Godavari Valley of Andhra Pradesh, the Koyas extract edible oil from Mahua nuts.

Rites and raids

Janakamma was not the only one to be caught unawares by the SEB officials. The same month, Ravva Bhuvaneswari, a 24-year-old Koya woman, was alone at home, waiting for her parents to return from the forest around dusk, when SEB personnel in plainclothes showed up for a whirlwind raid. “They entered our house and conducted a search. They seized two bottles of Mahua liquor stored in our almirah. They also clicked my photo on their phone and asked me to inform my parents that they should visit the police station. My fellow villagers watched all this helplessly,” recalls Bhuvaneswari.

The next day, her father, Ravva Tammayya, went to the police station in Chintoor headquarters. “There, the police refused to listen to me. All that they expected was money to free me from the charges. I decided not to object as they threatened to throw me in Rajamundry Central Prison in a liquor case. Finally, I paid ₹4,000 in cash to stay away from trouble,” he shares, adding that the police have kept photocopies of his Aadhaar card and house tax documents.

Koya woman Madakam Adamma and her family members discussing last month’s police raid at their house in Kokkiragudem village of V.R. Puram mandal in Chintoor Agency.

Koya woman Madakam Adamma and her family members discussing last month’s police raid at their house in Kokkiragudem village of V.R. Puram mandal in Chintoor Agency. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

His wife, Rajamma, says, “I had brewed liquor from the flowers we collected from our Mahua trees last year. It was meant to be gifted during my niece’s wedding, as my brother had presented us 15 bottles for my elder daughter’s wedding. As the police confiscated our liquor, I had to gift him a crate of soft drinks instead.”

Last summer, Excise officials had raided the house of Podiyam Muttaya, the patel or nominated community headof Kunduluru, a Koya tribal village located close to Kokkeragudem. They seized nearly 60 litres or 30 bottles of Mahua liquor that had been brewed to be served at Muttaya’s first death anniversary ceremony.

“How can a death anniversary be observed without Mahua? No villager would accept lunch without liquor,” rues Muttaya’s daughter, Chilakamma. “During the raid, the officials demanded ₹5,000 despite us explaining to them about our death ritual and its association with Mahua. However, we did not have cash and had to bribe them with a rooster used for cockfights roughly worth ₹5,000,” she adds.

Tribal rights

Chintoor Circle Inspector (SEB), M. Prasad, says at least 100 raids on Mahua liquor brewing and storing have been carried out in his jurisdiction in the past three months. “But we have not registered a single case yet. Those raids are known as UDC (undetected cases) in which no claimant of the seized liquor is established. However, we destroyed the seized Mahua liquor at the same spot where it is found, mostly stored on trees.”

The Andhra Pradesh Prohibition Act, 1995, did not exempt the brewing and storage of Mahua liquor by the Koya tribe. The Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (or PESA), 1996, empowers the gram sabha to protect traditions, beliefs, and culture of the tribes. However, implementation of the PESA Act is in question as the SEB reportedly chose to ignore this legislation and its entitlements to the tribes in Chintoor Agency.

“The Koyas have convinced us about their cultural association with Mahua liquor. We do admit that they brew it for their rituals, festivals, and ceremonies, and not for commercial purposes. However, we are tasked with enforcement on any liquor. The amendment to the AP Prohibition Act, 1995, with some privileges for the Koya tribe on brewing and storing of Mahua liquor is the only solution,” says Prasad.

Under the leadership of Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, restrictions and raids have intensified, particularly with the establishment of the SEB to oversee liquor and sand sales. The police wing purportedly receives information on Mahua liquor in Koya villages, allegedly from supporters of political parties aligned with the government. Koyas claim that during police raids for Mahua liquor, fellow tribe members have stopped intervening, as they do not deem it fit to question the authority that is questioning their cultural practices.

“In just three to four years, our Koya villages have been weakened greatly without any voice to question or protest such raids. In many villages, Koyas have been divided on political lines, posing a threat to protect our tribe’s cultural identities,” says Sunnam Sarada, a Koya woman and native of Kunduluru village.

Impact on collection

In many Koya tribal villages along the 15-kilometre stretch on the Andhra-Chhattisgarh border, over half the households in the Koya villages of Ramannapalem, Narsingpeta, Kunduluru, and Kokkiragudem have quit Mahua flower collection, scared by police raids. During the raids, the police also destroyed freshly collected flowers, allege women collectors of Kunduluru and Kokkeragudem villages.

“In Kunduluru alone, scores of Mahua trees were left unattended to by the flower collectors this season. The collection may draw unwanted police attention. Instead of flowers, we are waiting for the collection of Mahua nuts. How will Mahua flowers reach shandies (weekly markets), if we stop the collection,” says Rajamma.

Currently, a kilogram of Mahua flower fetches ₹35 in the weekly tribal markets. In the monsoon and winter, the price rises sharply. For the Koyas, Mahua flower is a major source of income, often exchanged for essential goods at the shandies set up in the border villages of Odisha, Telangana, and Chhattisgarh.

In the inter-State shandies, much of the Mahua dry flowers come from Chintoor Agency and they are exchanged for commodities, including salt. The Koyas are left with no alternative income source if they give up collection of Mahua flowers.

Bond with lifecycle

From birth to wedding to death, Mahua liquor is a staple at Koya events. Of all the ceremonies, weddings are the most extravagant. Even the most modest Koya weddings typically host 3,000 to 4,000 guests, all of whom are served Mahua liquor according to tradition. In addition to a lavish feast, which typically includes dishes such as beef, fish, chicken and mutton, Mahua liquor remains a central component.

Deeply connected to nature, the Koyas begin their agricultural year with a three-day Bhumi Panduga, a monsoon festival complete with hunting and Mahua liquor. For the Koyas, consuming Mahua liquor offers relief during hunting expeditions. The festival culminates in a community feast, signifying the beginning of the kharif season. During Dasara, they observe Pachha Panduga, a festival centred around vegetables. Come Sankranthi, they celebrate Chikkudukai Panduga, in which all the newly harvested crops and Mahua liquor are offered to ancestors and deities before the people partake of it.

In early summer, the Koyas celebrate Kolupu, a time dedicated to offering prayers to their local village deities. At the end of Mahua flower collection, they observe Maamidi Panduga, a festival of mangoes.

“Without Mahua liquor, nothing moves in our life. Are we being forced by the government to redesign our cultural life by excluding Mahua liquor,” asks Sarada. “This year, I brewed Mahua liquor with flowers that I collected during the last season and presented it to our Koya deities, Sammakka-Sarakka, during the biennial Medaram Jatara in Telangana. From next time, should I buy Mahua flowers to brew the liquor to offer to our deity?”

Guardians of culture

Secretary of the CPI(M) Chintoor mandal, Seesam Suresh, who also belongs to the Koya tribe, says many Koya families have been seeking his party’s support while visiting the SEB police station on Mahua liquor matters. “The enforcement authorities are free to conduct raids if any commercial activity of Mahua liquor is established. Otherwise, their intrusion into the Koyas’ cultural life is highly objectionable.”

He has proposed that the government focus on empowering Koya women by training them in producing value-added products using Mahua flowers, rather than undermining the revenue generated from the sale of the flowers.

In the Godavari valley, the Koyas who have not been displaced by the Polavaram irrigation project across the river Godavari are regarded as the custodians of Koya culture. However, a significant majority of the 1.5 lakh displaced families belong to the Koya tribe and are compelled to reside alongside non-tribal communities in Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) colonies.

“We are the last Koyas of the Godavari valley. The responsibility of preserving our tribe’s culture now lies with us. At a time when our tribe is already in conflict over displacement from ancestral forests, the raids will put further strain on our cultural lifestyle and practices. This is our tragedy,” says Bhuvaneswari.

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