The mahua tree, commonly known as the Indian Butter Nut Tree, mahuwa, mowrah, madhūka, mohua, illupe and elupa is an endemic tree that can be found dotted throughout India. Unbeknownst to the urban population, each part of this tree has medicinal properties in abundance. Tribal people all over India regard it as the ‘Tree of Life’ because it covers their four basic requirements viz. food, medicine, fodder and manure.
What is Mahua Oil?
Mahua oil is extracted from the seed kernel of the butter nut fruit. The fat content in the oil is very high, giving it a butter-like texture. As with ghee and coconut oil, it solidifies at low temperature.
How is it made?
Once the fruits are harvested from the tree, the seeds are removed. Each fruit bears one seed at its core. The seeds are then smashed with a stone or pestle to remove the external covering. The remaining seed kernel is left to dry in the sun after which it is pounded into granules. These granules are sun dried as well.
The ground mahua seeds are wrapped in a cloth and subjected to steaming for 15–20 minutes. Oil is expelled by grinding them in a mortar and pestle using circular motions. The granules are hand-squeezed to extract the oil. Sometimes, the oil is filtered through a cloth and boiled to purify it.
For the tribals of India, mahua oil is by far the most important tree seed oil. It is to tribal people what coconut oil is to most traditional Keralites.
8 Ways tribal people use mahua oil
- For cooking: The oil is largely used for cooking. It has a low smoke point, so the cooking process has to be expedited. It is good for health as it is rich in antioxidants like tocopherol (vitamin E). In a 2005 study, mahua oil showed higher antiradical potential than olive oil.
- As a ghee substitute: Due to its butter-like consistency, it is often used instead of ghee to make traditional sweets and as a spread on rotis.
- As a massage oil for babies: It is an excellent massage oil for babies. When massaged into the skin, it emits a soothing warmth; thereby, facilitating better blood circulation.
- As a pain reliever: Mahua oil’s therapeutic properties come from its chemical composition, viscosity and low melting point. They make it an effective pain reliever when topically applied. Its intrinsic warmth loosens tight muscles and stiff joints while the emollient agents keep the skin moisturised.
- As an insect repellent: The oil emits a mild smell that repels insects. People in tribal regions light diyas filled with mahua oil to protect them from mosquitoes.
- For treating skin diseases: Owing to the richness of emollients i.e. oleic acid, stearic acid, palmitic acid and linoleic acid, mahua oil is applied as a salve to treat skin disorders like eczema.
- As a hair oil: The oil's natural emolients and abundant antioxidants help repair damaged hair and deeply moisturise the scalp. It is kept on the hair for an hour or two and then washed off.
- To rub down bullocks: A day before Bail Pola—a Maharashtrian festival in which bullocks are worshipped—the animals are first rubbed with a paste made of turmeric and mahua oil. Turmeric acts as an antimicrobial agent whereas mahua oil moisturises the animals’ fur and helps keep insects at bay. The next day, it is washed off.
Mahua oil can be used to substitute cocoa butter in chocolates and confectionary products for tropical regions. It can also be used as a base for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Additionally, it can be incorporated in ice cream, cheese, coffee cream and whipping cream as well as the manufacturing of laundry soaps and lubricants.
With benefits abound, the future applications of mahua oil are immeasurable. But for today, it remains the champion of the tribals.