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Life With The Tribals In One Of Asia's Oldest Sal Forests, Mahan Forest

Life With The Tribals In One Of Asia's Oldest Sal Forests - Mahan Forest

How the intoxicating mahua fruit defines life in Mahan.

I felt beads of sweat roll down my forehead as I sat inside the car, watching a drunken local gunda threaten us to leave the forest. Teenage girls with heavily powdered faces and painted red lips stared from behind him, giggling and whispering to each other.

I had been selected as the documentation leader for Greenpeace India’s anti-coal mining campaign in Mahan forest, located in Singrauli district in Madhya Pradesh. Three days in and I had already been exposed to the harsh reality of corporate entities controlling the lives of tribals in order to attain non-renewable resources. From local gundas threatening us, to the police questioning our presence – all of this seemed to be routine. As most corporate controlled tales go, bribery and alcohol was the norm amongst the drunken gangsters and pimps residing in the forest. These foul mouthed characters with bloodshot eyes did a marvelous job of ensuring most locals of their village were silenced. But amongst the gundas and troublemakers, existed the ones who believed in an honest life.

Inline Living with the tribals of the Mahan Forest Living with the tribals of the Mahan Forest

These were the villagers I lived with. The stories of the women, men, young children are full of dreams of being empowered, gaining knowledge and having greater access to technology. I met 13-year-old boys who wanted to become engineers, fly planes and move out of the forest to experience city life. And grown women who spent their nights together singing about the importance of love and women’s rights.

Young boys and girls who went to school and developed a love for science even questioned the existence of god. However, they didn’t make their religious opinions evident around their `god loving’ elders. The children’s lives outside school were all about running barefoot through the forest, climbing trees and picking mahuas, to swimming in streams, playing local games and making topis out of Sal leaves.

Young Priyanshu Kushwaha is a little over 10 and he wants to become an engineer some day Young Priyanshu Kushwaha is a little over 10 and he wants to become an engineer some day

When I visited Mahan forest, the mahua collection season was going on. I was living in the village Budher, with the villager Bhajandari Kushwaha’s family of five. They represent the members of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, a group that works alongside Greenpeace, fighting for the rights of the villagers and working towards the prevention of coal depletion.  Over the years, the fragrant mahua fruit had become not just a primary source of food for the tribal communities including Kushwaha’s family, but also their chief source of livelihood.  A month of living in the forests and collecting the fruit allows a household to make Rs 40,000 a season.

Village children playing marblesVillage children playing marbles

During the mahua collection season, it’s customary for Kushwaha’s family members from neighbouring districts to travel to Budher to live with them, pick mahuas and celebrate the season together. Mahua as a fruit is used for everything from rotis to sweets and alcohol.

Young girls help with laying out and drying the mahuas Young girls help with laying out and drying the mahuas

Throughout the day, the villagers are preoccupied with farming activities, village panchayat meetings to discuss local political issues like control by corporate entities and balancing family life. This includes cooking meals, feeding children, collecting groundwater at 3:00 a.m. and singing songs to their deity – Dih Baba, the forest god of Mahan. This defines family life in the forest.

Jai Prakash collects water. In a bid to earn additional money, he works at the Essar Group power plant Jai Prakash collects water. In a bid to earn additional money, he works at the Essar Group power plant

My days began at 5:00 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., often accompanied by the faithful nameless village dog, who slept at the foot of my deep purple sleeping bag on most nights. The homes in Mahan forest are made of brick and mud just like the Kushwaha's residence. There are four rooms in the home, including a storage room for random paraphernalia, which consisted of farming tools and food supplies like rice grains. The floor plan of their homes is similar to those mentioned during the Harappan civilization, where a few rooms surround a central, open courtyard. I slept under the stars on the mud floor, in the central courtyard, alongside the young girls and women folk related to the Kushwaha's.

Bhajandhari Kushwaha’s wife begins her morning prayers Bhajandhari Kushwaha’s wife begins her morning prayers

The nights were always pitch dark. Before I could hear the birds tweeting or any calls from the wild, the villagers had risen. It was 3:00 a.m. Ground water collection was their primary concern. I would roll out of my sleeping bag only two hours later. By around 5:00 a.m., my bottle of water was filled and I would head into the forests, ready to take a dump or pee behind the trees. This is far more exciting than one can imagine. No one is going to tell you exactly how gratifying it is to begin your morning, taking a piss or unloading a great pile of poop in the wild. Bathing in the courtyard usually happened later in the afternoon or evenings, unlike the customary morning shower I was so used to.

Kushwaha’s wife chilling Kushwaha’s wife chilling

Breakfast followed shortly after my morning loo routine. Cutting chai made by one of the women and my mother's granola bars kept me going till lunch. I would head out with one of the Kushwaha's to pick mahuas till the afternoon. This was when I met neighboring villagers of all ages, from enthusiastic students home for their summer holidays to 80-year-old grandfathers reciting tales from their heydays.

By noon my stomach would rumble loud enough to get noticed. The food was simple and delicious, rotis would be dropped into my plate straight from the chulha. Specific tribal sects were non-vegetarian and ate various kinds of meat, but the Kushwaha's whom I lived with were strictly vegetarian. Lunch and dinner were usually a mix of rotis, rice, lentils and any locally grown vegetable that was available, like carrots, beans and potatoes.

Rupa's older sister brushes her hair towards the evening Rupa's older sister brushes her hair towards the evening

Evenings were usually quiet, unless the women folk decided to launch into group singing mode, which usually involved songs of love, war, family bonding and forest life, usually accompanied by giggles and gossip during song breaks.

It was during these evenings that I met neighbouring families including the father-son duo Ram Singh and Jawaharlal Singh who sang songs of freedom and war as they picked mahuas.

Ram Singh, a local villager has been picking mahua since his childhood days Ram Singh, a local villager has been picking mahua since his childhood days

The gender divide at the workplace appears to stem from rural and cultural beliefs that are ingrained into our psyche. Even here, in Mahan forest, the women appear to work separately during the mahua collection process and tend to take turns with who works on the field, while another remains home to cook lunch for the family. At the Kushwaha’s modest home, Bhajandari, the wife was home for the day to cook lunch and was assisted by an extended family member Chinamati, who came to visit during season time. Even the young girls Swati, Aarti, Rupa didn’t mingle with the boys in the forest and stayed indoors to help with the dishes, take care of the infants, play with the goats and pick berries in the backyard. But the woman who stands out among the rest is Anita Kushwaha, daughter of Bhajandari Kushwaha. She freely voices her opinion on gender equality, freedom for the forest dwellers from corporate entities and the right to girl child education.

Swati offers me berries picked off their backyard tree Swati offers me berries picked off their backyard tree

While the mahua collection season symbolizes a time of coming together for many in Mahan forest, the most important thing one can learn from the Kushwahas is their ability to share their wealth with others. “When we invite extended family into our homes they all take equal portions of the mahua collection back home to their villages. It’s a time of the year that everyone looks forward to. We usually come together during marriages or the mahua season,” said Anita Kushwaha.

Village kids having lunch Village kids having lunch

For these people, the long fight for their land and access to their forest resources has now been resolved and they finally live a life of peace and unity, in harmony with nature and their fellow man.

Sunset at Mahan Sunset at Mahan



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of

By Sasha Klaatu 
Photographs by Sasha Klaatu