In Aparna Sen’s film Sati, the Brahmin girl portrayed by Shabana Azmi is made to marry a banyan tree to circumvent the terrible predictions in her horoscope. In real life, girls happily marry the mahua tree—it’s a tradition in certain Adivasi regions of central India.

There’s a glowing description of wedding rituals among the Kudmi Adivasis in the book The Unrest Axle: Ethno-social Movements in Eastern India, edited by Gautam Kumar Bera. Before her “real" marriage, the book tells us, a bride-to-be first commits herself to a mahua. She circles the tree seven times, and wears a bracelet made of its leaves. Later, songs are sung around the tree.

Found in the arid regions of north and central India, the mahua, also known as the tree of the poor, is best known for the powerful liquor (called Tichiya Lata locally) that is obtained from its flowers. But, the white blossoms are also a staple for many.

“In these parts (Lohgarh, Rewa district, Madhya Pradesh), the Kol Adivasis use almost every part of the mahua tree. From the dried gohi (fruit seed), they extract oil which is used for cooking, frying and medicinal purposes. The oil is a great pain reliever and the longer it is kept, it becomes even more potent to deal with aches and pains," says Bhola Prasad, an activist based in Dabhaura, Rewa, who runs a non-government organization, Manav Vikas Seva Samit. The flowers are also consumed with milk and sattu for breakfast.

A fully grown mahua is as thick and branchy as any well-nourished peepal or neem, and it can produce up to 300kg of flowers in season, i.e. February-April.

According to Prasad, mahua trees take 30-40 years to flower and give fruit, and each tree bears fruit for about 350 years.

In his forthcoming book Jungle Trees of Central India: A Field Guide For Tree-Spotters, environmentalist and film-makerPradip Krishen, who directed the 1985 film Massey Sahib, devotes a section to the mahua: “If there’s a single emblematic tree of Central India’s jungles then it is surely this one! Even when the jungle is cleared for farming, you will see mahuas as the only trees left standing because they are far too precious to be felled."

Krishen notes in his book that the tree “is a critically important source of nutrition for millions of India’s poorest tribal people". The sacred tree also finds mention in a colonial-era book. “It (mahua) bursts into blossom at the very beginning of the hot weather, at the time when the fortunes of the people are yearly approaching their lowest ebb," wrote English civil servant and author Francis Bradley Bradley-Birt in his little-known travelogue, Chota Nagpur, A Little-Known Province of the Empire. “It is the slack season among the cultivators, and the gathering of the mahua forms a welcoming task, the whole village often turning out to bring in the crop."

Krishen, who has also authored Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, goes on to say: “Mahua trees look loveliest when their leaves emerge dusty pink and then slowly turn through tints of red and brown before settling into midnight green."

Seema Chowdhry contributed to this story.