Sacred Spirits of the Warlis: Mahua, Tadi, and the Tappers

in Overview
Published on: 20 February 2020

Namrata Toraskar

Namrata Toraskar is an architect and independent researcher currently based in Mumbai. She recently completed her Masters in Interior Architecture & Design with a specialisation in Crafts and Technology from CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Through an interdisciplinary use of photography, illustrations and writing, she strives to evolve creative approaches to intervene in the built environment of the rural communities and the position of their empirically evolved livelihood practices in the society. Her articles, illustrations and research papers have been published in national magazines and international journals.

Tethe suryesar deva
Tyaca ujeda padala
Tetha jagisara deva
Tetha bijesara deva
Jyaca bija padala
Hota navarica ra deva
Tyaca mavala
Tetha bijesara deva
Tyaca bija phutala
Tetha dhomesara deva
Tyaca dhome hutala
Tetha tadesara deva
Tyala tadamada rana
Tetha ambesara deva ...

The Sun God was present
He gave us light
The God of Space was present
The God of Lightning was present
He gave us lightning
He was the God of the Bride
He was pleased
The God of Seeds was present
His seeds burst
The God of Clouds was present
His clouds burst
The Toddy God was present
His is the forest of toddy trees
The God of Mangoes was present...[1]

Warli dhavalalveri (priestesses) and suhasinis (married women whose husbands are alive) sing this song of intoxication in chorus and invoke all the gods and goddesses of their tribe to attend their family wedding to bless and protect the couple from the evil spirits. The lyrics that includes the god of nature and god of toddy, in a way, sums up the Warlis’ life in their native environment. Any documentation of the tribe is incomplete without taking into account the complex role alcohol plays in their daily living and their intimate relationship with the forests. 

Flanked by the Arabian Sea on the west and the Sahyadri Hills dotting its eastern belt, the Warli tribal belt in the state of Maharashtra stretches across the talukas of Dahanu, Jawahar and Nashik. Dahanu and Jawahar taluka fall under the newly formed Palghar district while Nashik taluka is under Nashik district of Maharashtra. ‘The eastern half of Dahanu, otherwise called “Junglepatti”, is a tribe-dominated hilly area with rich forest cover. The western half is known as “Bandarpatti” and is mainly comprised of low-lying coastal zone, dominated by orchards and other agricultural lands.’[2]

To the east of Dahanu, Jawahar taluka is a hilly range country punctuated by deep gorges of stream valleys. Dotting these valleys are small hamlets of Warlis who have evolved their dwellings and lifestyles in harmony with their surrounding environment. Though the origins of the Warlis are obscure, the word varal (a piece of cultivable land on which the Warlis prefer to build their house), as referred by Dr Wilson in the Thane Gazeteer in 1876, is probably where their name comes from.[3] 

Incorporating the spiritual and material, living and non-living as one integral whole, the culture of the Warlis and its holistic concepts are evident from their myths and daily life. Personification of nature as Lord Hirva and his worship reflects the importance of the forests in their lives. 

Originally hunter-gatherers, Warlis worshipped the goddess Dhartari (Mother Earth). Legends tell the story of how when once the tribe stopped caring for the land, the goddess took it as a personal insult and spelled the death of many. ‘After Dhartari, probably with the commencement of settled agriculture, the most revered goddesses of the Warlis are the Kansari (Goddess of grain) and Gavtari (Goddess of cows)...The jungle on which they depend for many of their basic needs is revered in the form of Palghat, the Goddess of trees and fertility.’[4]

Prior to the British rule, the Warlis practised ‘barter economy, where “money” grew on trees’.[5] They roamed the forest, extracted rewards from it and at the same time revered, maintained and protected it in a holistic manner. While non-timber produce was used for medicinal purposes, alcohol brewing, making household products and fishing articles, timber was predominantly used as a building material. Their dwellings essentially comprised a simple earth foundation, a timber frame structure with wattle-and-daub-made walls.  Karvi stalks from the forest were used as wattle while the daub was a mixture of cow dung and mud. The forests also provided firewood to the Warlis. As their traditional economies and knowledge systems are linked to their forest resources, the Warlis set an advanced example of sustainable lifestyle. 

However, with the arrival of the British, they were compelled into the Western model of the cash economy as the British were unable to extract revenue from the barter system that was followed. The new rulers ‘chopped down trees for their navy, railways and military requirements...[they] also cleared the forests because they believed that they were the cause of disease, particularly malaria.’[6]  ‘It is believed that after British came to India, they wanted to exploit the forests around Bombay and Thana for timber. They slaved these tribes to settle down along the fringes of the forest and designated a piece of land to them to start agriculture.’[7]

The Warlis were denied free access to the remaining tracts of their own forests. The new rulers started charging them for collecting produce and grazing their livestock in the forest lands. Eventually, with the decline of green cover, the Warlis had to adopt cash economy for daily necessities. 

Spirit of the People
While colonial interventions disrupted the traditional knowledge systems of the Warlis, one of the systems most tragically affected was the domestic production of spirits. 

In the Warli tribal belt of Palghar district, tadi and daru are the two dominant liquors. While tadi is a mildly fermented sap of palm trees, daru is distilled alcohol. Jeremy Seabrook and Winin Pereira’s Asking the Earth highlights the deliberate intention of the British to impoverish the Warlis, by restricting the production of the two liquor varieties along with imposing taxes on the trees that were tapped.[8] The remoteness of the villages, with no excise officials around, made it difficult for the British to tax the Warlis. This resulted in the setting up of central distilleries in each province and licensing the retail shops, pulling the Warlis into the wage economy by conveniently overlooking the nutritive, medicinal and ecological virtues of these spirits and their sociocultural relevance. 

In present times, one of the many identities of the tribal villages of Palghar is the different species of palm trees growing on the fringes of paddy fields, scrublands and towering against idyllic hillsides. As tadi is extracted from palm trees, it is the tadi-tapper’s job to collect the sap from the trees. In the tribal villages, it is a morning ritual for tadi-tappers in non-rainy seasons to climb 30–50-foot-high palm trees and fill up their small earthen pots that are fastened to the sliced tip of an unopened palm flower. They climb the tree twice a day, in the morning and afternoon. 

The whitish cloudy liquid that is initially collected in the morning just before sunrise tends to be very sweet and non-alcoholic, and is called neera. Neera as a beverage is ‘high in nutritional value and is a good source of vitamins, minerals and amino acids.’[9] It is brought down from the top of the tree in either earthen pots or vessels, and then poured into stainless steel containers and bigger vessels after being filtered through a fine mesh cloth. Neera is kept at lower temperatures and lime is added to it to prevent it from fermenting. Within two hours, the sap ferments to yield an aromatic, sweet and mildly intoxicating wine known as tadi, with up to 4 per cent alcohol content in the sap.[10] The wine is sometimes allowed to ferment longer, for up to one day more, to yield a stronger and sourer taste. In their book, Pereira and Seabrook have mentioned the nutritive benefits of drinking tadi. According to them, besides providing essential calories, vitamins and minerals, tadi has medicinal value and aids in digestion. Moreover, it is essential for survival in the hot, dry seasons from March to May, when cultivated food and clean water are scarce.

Daru, on the other hand, is brewed from the flowers of the mahua tree, available fruits like jambhul (Java plum) and chikoo (sapodilla) as well as jaggery. The large number of naturally growing mahua trees in the surrounding forests and their multifarious uses in providing food security and raising supplementary income during the harsh summer months, make mahua the most commonly brewed spirit across the majority of Warli households. 

The mahua tree blooms from March to May, and its drink is prepared from the dried corollas of its flowers. It is a summer ritual among Warli tribals to leave their homes as early as four in the morning, to collect mahua flowers from the forests. These flowers are never plucked, but picked from among those that have fallen off the trees. They are dried in the sun and stored for use throughout the year. The mahua tree provides a plethora of non-wood food products (NWFP) like oil cakes, oil, laddus (ball-shaped sweets) and bhaji (vegetable preparation), but the most common of its conversions is the spirit brewed from it. 

To brew the liquor, the dried mahua flowers are put in ­a handa (earthen or metal pot) filled with water, and left to rest for two days; its brim is packed with a cloth before it goes into brewing. Once there are bubbles in the water and the molasses start smelling, the fermented flowers are deemed fit to be kept on the hearth for further distillation. Another handa is placed on the one containing molasses, which has a wooden pan to collect the distilled spirit. This is followed by a third filled with cold water and placed at the very top. The junctions of these pots are tightly sealed by a cloth. Vapour passes through the middle handa and strikes the bottom of the upper pot, whose temperature is lower because of the cool water it contains. The cold droplets trickle into the wooden pan, which has a tube attached to ensure the liquid empties into a bottle or a pot. The water in the upper pot is frequently changed to maintain the quality of the spirit. 

It takes around five to six hours to obtain liquor from the molasses. Warlis carry out this entire process of distillation unrestrainedly in the backyards of their dwellings. The brewing is primarily carried out by the Warli womenfolk, who protect the brew from the male members of the household to get adequate returns. 

Interestingly, even today, Warlis use dried mahua flowers to barter for groceries and vegetables. Since the sale of unlicensed domestic liquors like mahua is an offence, the collectors end up selling the dried flowers to the middlemen who then sell it to the distillers. Eventually a vicious trade cycle evolves, where ‘the buyer of the liquor is…the flower collector.’[11] 

Ritual Significance

Chowk lila ge kaya ge riti 
Chowk lila ge raya re riti 
Mandava kila re kaya re riti 
Mandava kela re raya re riti 
Mandavashi daru piya re bara

What is the reason for writing the chowk
We are writing because it is a convention
What is the reason for making the mandapa 
We are making because it is the convention 
It is good time to drink liquor served in mandapa[12]

The spirits brewed by the Warlis are passed down generations owing to the significant role liquor plays in the various rituals of the tribe. In his book Mythos and Logos of the Warlis: A Tribal Worldview, Ajay Dandekar says that the lifecycle rituals, joli-lagin-dis (birth-marriage-death), involve the use of the locally brewed liquor as an offering to deities and so do the agricultural and dwelling-related rituals of the Warlis.[13] 

During the course of research, various residents confirmed the importance of mahua in their cultural and religious lives. A Warli woman from Murbad village in Dahanu, who requested to remain anonymous, informed that for their marriages, even food is not as important as tadi and moha-chi-daru (liquor brewed from mahua).[14] Sunil Kumbhare, a man from the same village, reaffirmed the role played by indigenous alcohol in various ceremonies, be it birth, divorce or death. Elaborating on the ritualistic sacredness of these spirits in the sakarpuda (engagement) ceremony, he stated, ‘Before having the liquor, it is customary for us to sprinkle it on the floor as an offering to Mother Earth . . . However, now it is an honour if “English daru’’ instead of our ‘‘desi daru’’ [indigenous spirits] is served.’[15] He spoke of the gradually evolving shame associated with local liquor in comparison with the market-bought licensed distilled liquors among the Warlis.

Liquor plays a pivotal role in the various celebrations of harvest, especially before the threshing when the Warlis worship Vaghdeva, the tiger god. ‘During the puja, the bhagat (priest) sits in front of Vaghdeva and performs the rituals. Semi-circling the bhagat (devotee) and Vaghdeva, the men of the tribe drink tadi and, circling all of them, tarpa dance is performed. The entire clan comes together to relish the newly harvested grain for the first time and then joyously dances, sings and drinks.’[16]

The ritual significance of alcohol in the lives of the Warlis reaffirms their bond with the forests. These exchanges are not monetary alone. Which is why, this relationship needs to be looked at through a more nuanced lens than allowed by the modern society’s taboos around liquor consumption.   

While the Warlis once had their ‘own distinctive, forest-based habitats and a confident modern economy’[17] , various prohibitions introduced by the British reduced them to being outcaste in their own land. The PESA act of 1996 did ease it a little, allowing the people to store up to five litre of alcohol for domestic purposes. However, their selling of alcohol remains a criminal offence. Ending this discrimination will take new laws and amendments, but it will also require understanding cultural relations which are alien to the majority of the population divorced from nature.      


 Dalmia, The Painted World of Warlis.

[2] Semlambo, ‘Re-construction of a Community.’

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pereira and Seabrook, Asking the Earth.

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Semlambo, ‘Re-construction of a Community.’

[8] Pereira and Seabrook, Asking the Earth.

[9] Misra, ‘Neera: The coconut sap: A review.’

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dhamorikar, Of Mahua and her People.

[12] Dalmia, The Painted World of Warlis.

[13] Dandekar, Mythos and Logos of the Warlis.

[14] A woman from Murbad village, in conversation with the author, September 15, 2018.

[15] Sunil Kumbhare, in conversation with the author, September 14, 2018.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Echanove and Srivastava, ‘Marketing Indigenous Drinks.’


Dalmia, Y. The Painted World of Warlis, Art and Rituals of Warli Tribe of Maharashtra. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Academy, 1988.

Dhamorikar, A. Of Mahua and her People. 2014. Accessed February 20, 2020. 0

Dandekar, A. Mythos and Logos of the Warlis: A Tribal Worldview. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1998.

Echanove, M., and R. Srivastava. 'Marketing indigenous drinks, spirits of the world unite.' The Hindu, January 8, 2018. Accessed February 20, 2020.

Misra, B. ‘Neera: The coconut sap: A review.’ International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition 1, no. 4 (2016): 35–38.

Pereira, W., and J. Seabrook. Asking the Earth: The Spread of Unsustainable Development. Mapusa: The Other India Bookstore, 1996.

Semlambo, Adam. A. ‘Re-construction of a Community: A sustainable attempt at alternative opportunities.’ International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research 9, no. 5 (2018): 1–89.