A short history of India's drinking culture

[Book extract] From the Vedic period to the time of the Persian invaders, the country has had a heady past.

 |  Singh for your supper  |   Long-form |   06-10-2017
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Alcohol came to India way earlier than anyone would guess. It ebbed and flowed with the powers that governed, sometimes rising to popularity and at other times slinking away into the shadows.

To correct that first statement, it didn’t actually "come" to India; alcohol was as much a homegrown essential as any other staple. We were among the first civilisations to discover the science of distillation and put it to good use. However, some historians dispute the claim that the Easterners were among the pioneers in distillation and state that it was invented by Europeans in the twelfth century.

Although ferments don’t feature as widely or popularly in our ancient past, many historians argue that the beverages mentioned in the Vedas were never stated to be distillates. There could be many reasons for this: we didn’t have the right ingredients for ferments, viz grapes or barley (although, in my research, I did find a mention of masara, a pre-Aryan rice, grass and barley drink that was consumed by the hill tribes of the northern provinces of our country).

Ferments deteriorate fast whereas spirits can hold for much longer which could have served as an incentive to quickly distil and concentrate the life-giving virtues of the ingredient at hand. Another possible explanation is that since early days the obsession with alchemy attracted us more to distillation as a science which may also explain why we had so many drinks and perfumes before everyone else. Still no gold from lead though.

We can’t also discount the notion that we may have lost some concoctions and recipes along the way – even our knowledge of the distillates is mostly educed from our findings of containers and utensils which were possibly used in the process. As for what our ancestors drank and how it tasted, one can only hazard a guess.

So our journey begins here, pour yourself something suitably stiff and settle in.

Pre-Vedic potents

The Aryans arrived in India circa 1600 BC and displaced the Harappans who had established one of the earliest civilisations here in 3000 BC. Excavations from both these periods have yielded clay pots. Scientists and archaeologists have been able to rearrange somewhat rudimentary but complete distillation set-ups from these findings.

Various metals too may have been used. Mankind had been busy honing its skills at extracting and forming them into useful shapes, fashioning everything from tools to weapons to receptacles. Metallurgy contributed much to man’s pursuit of the process of distillation as did clay pots and utensils.

The early distillates were mostly made from Bassia latifolia aka Madhuca indica, or the mahua flower as it is popularly known today in places where it is grown, stretching from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, and including Chhattisgarh. It grows wild all over the country save for the extreme north. Mahua flowers soaked in water and then left to ferment yielded a drink high on glucoside (and glycoside) which serves as a laxative. Glucosides are glucose precursors ie they yield glucose (a form of sugar) upon being broken down.

Without this conversion, they act like roughage which can cleanse out the system. Glycoside, or more precisely senna glycoside, is a laxative that can empty out the large intestines rather quickly. Both of these are often found in the same plant sources, flowers mainly.

So indeed, mahua is a very strong laxative which may have deterred our ancestors from indulging too much in it. It can hardly be a party if within twenty minutes every guest is queuing up for the bushes with an agitated bowel.

So it was the distillate that was preferred. The spirit, as it comes off the still, has a foetid (mousy) odour. Not a very pleasant flavour to hold down, really. Ageing helps alleviate this rankness so utensils must have been required to hold the beverage while it homogenised and became more palatable.

But, as mentioned above, whatever little we know of times then is purely based on smart assumptions and logical deductions from what remains and that which we have managed to collect. It’s the reassembling of a puzzle with missing jigsaw pieces. Any picture we are seeing is still largely incomplete.

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The Vedas

The first mention of alcohol appears only with the Vedas when the Rig Veda (1700 bc) talks about intoxicants like soma and prahamana. The juice of the soma plant is considered an intoxicant, delivering a euphoric high. It sounds very similar to the Incan ayahuasca, a plant-based drink which has hallucinogenic properties (thanks to dimethyltryptamine, or DMT).

DMT is a psychedelic compound which was traditionally consumed by the Ayahuasca natives for its healing properties but also for its divinatory relevance. This most powerful of hallucinogens is also the one found very commonly in nature. Not only is it found in plants but there are traces of it in the human body as well (albeit in very small doses). Dating back centuries, this ayahuasca drink has managed to survive to this day while the soma plant is not to be found any more.

Of what we can gather from textual descriptions, soma had long stalks, tawny in colour and fifteen leaves (although the Vedas record this plant as being leafless). Some point out that it was possibly a creeper (somalatha is a candidate for this, still found in the Himalayas) with a bulb but it couldn’t have been the source of the juice as it is toxic to humans and, strangely enough, white ants. How one found that out will perhaps remain the bigger mystery.

The secreted juice was almost milky in nature and obtained by the pressing (and even pounding) of the stalks and stems. It was common to mix this with milk and honey. Although it grew commonly and widely in the Himalayan reaches, nobody knows where it came from or where it was native to. But it was known to be big on the trade circuit; so it could have just as easily arrived in someone’s backpack and then found its root here with much commercial success, which then would have further boosted its popularity as a commodity on the trade route. What does remain are entire strings of songs (well, prayers more correctly) offering apologies to the gods for the loss of this plant and its marvellous elixir. Rhubarb has been cited as a substitute, but that again, wasn’t a native plant.

There are other contenders for what could have been the original soma plant: from American milkweed (some species are toxic to humans, don’t know about their effect on white ants though) to ephedra which has medicinal (anti-allergy) properties and is also a cardiac stimulant (not to mention illegal sports performance enhancer). Some have even nominated Cannabis sativa (aka good ol’ weed) for the position but it remains the least plausible candidate.

Sushruta recorded in his famous medical compendium, the Samhita, that he who drinks soma will not age and will be impervious to fire, poison or weapon attack. He can master all the Vedas and will find success wherever he goes. Furthermore, it could imbue the drinker with the energy of a 1000 elephants! On certain evenings I have felt exactly like that with mere alcohol but then woken up the next day to inexplicable bruises on knees and shins.

But the trouble was that one really had to prepare to drink soma — not before imbibing it but for the period which followed right after. A drinker was prescribed an unusually long ritual which dictated what he was supposed to do to counter its effects as well as explained what the person would feel for each day after consuming soma.

From building a house with three chambers and living in each progressively to throwing up worms from all orifices, having fixed meals and drinks at predetermined times of the day, it was almost 120 days before the person was stable enough to be reintroduced into society again. Now I’ve had a few nasty hangovers in my time and I know all about that feeling of not wanting to see anybody the next day out of the sheer shame of the evening before (there’s, in fact, a word for it, veisalgia).

But four months is too long a quarantine even by my decadent standards. Also, it would make it well-nigh impossible to meet up with all your friends for general weekend catch-ups over the course of a year.

The sweet juice of the soma plant was drunk as is and was said to provide a divine connection to the gods. The Brahmins, the yogic elite, believed that soma provided them with more than just a hotline to the divine; it imbued them with supernatural powers. For example, they could simply look at a living being and make them fall dead.

The only reason they didn’t exercise them all the time was because, thanks to soma, other yogis were equally powerful. And as for dropping the ignorant dead, the sages knew what Spiderman’s Uncle Ben taught him much later, about great power involving great responsibility and as such, they kept their strength to themselves.

Alongside soma, there existed somarasa, and while few places outline a clear difference, my readings have inclined me to believe that this was perhaps fermented soma. In the process of acquiring alcohol, the juice lost some of its (hallucinogenic) properties. It also acquired a sharp acrid taste, one which needed toning down with curd, honey and grain (gruel).

But rather than its drinkability, its other usages were more sought after: in its unspiked form, somarasa was strong enough to be used for washing metals and was applied in the purification of mercury as also in the production of pure zinc. It was also used as a dye and a solvent.

So the fermented version clearly had many uses. In fact, so scientific and precise was its making and extraction that there existed a name for every stage of the product starting from day 1 to day 15, and maybe more. Hymns praising soma have been found through the ages and most importantly, they constitute the ninth mandala (book) of the (Rig) Veda which in its 114- hymn entirety is devoted to the purification of soma. That’s a lot considering there were only a total of ten mandalas and most were dedicated to praising deities, cosmology, or the importance of charity.

Many other names have been found for the drink(s) of the times: madhu (mead), subhra, gorjika, vivakasa, and one of particular anecdotal interest, sukra.

Astrologically speaking, "Sukra"(meaning white) is Sanskrit for Venus. In Vedic lineage, he was a pure brahmin of the highest order and a guru of the asuras (demons), who were in constant battle with the devas (gods). Sukra knew the mantra to revive the dead. This was of much concern to the devas so their teacher Brahaspati (aka Jupiter) sends his own son, Kaça, to study under Sukra, alongside Sukra’s daughter Devayani. The plan was to somehow get Sukra to teach Kaça the chant of immortality.

The asuras come to know of this infiltration and immediately kill Kaça, at which point Devayani goes and tells her father about the goings-on and he, using the chant, immediately brings Kaça back to life. Sukra’s reasons for bringing the boy back to life were based on the principle of the teacher’s duty to protect his disciples.

The demons kill him again, Devayani complains once more, and shortly, he is alive again. This cycle goes on for a bit, like a loop, till the demons come up with a devious plan. They kill Kaça, grind him up and mix him into Sukra’s wine which the latter then drinks. This time when he tries to revive Kaça, he experiences a severe pain in his stomach.

Only when Kaça speaks up from inside him Sukra realises what has happened. Unwillingly, he teaches Kaça the mantra so that when he rips through and comes out of Sukra’s tummy, he can revive Sukra. But in the process, the chant now comes to be in both camps of the battle.

Why is this story of interest to us? Because this is the birth of the reason why Brahmins don’t drink wine. And yet, Sukra is a name that was used to describe one of the Vedic drinks.

Sura

Could sura as a name have been derived from Sukra? There is no evidence to suggest so. Also, if Sukra was drinking soma, then it couldn’t have been sura for the latter has been recorded as a distillate. Unlike ferments which are simply a product of a natural reaction where yeast acts upon sugars present in a substance and converts them to alcohol (thereby releasing carbon dioxide), distillation is a man-made process to separate and concentrate specific components from any given liquid based on the principle that different compounds boil at different temperatures. The first mention of sura being distilled is found in the Rig Veda.

The Sukla Yajur Veda, however, records sura to be made from rice meal, wheat, grapes, sugarcane and a host of other fruits.

It could have been a brew (and not a distillate) but it was popular among the warriors and the working class. As these sections of society (the non-god types basically) were only allowed to consume distillates to unwind at the end of a stressful day, chances are that it may just have been a spirit.

But then it was also Lord Indra’s favourite drink and he won many a battle after consuming it. Considering the ingredient list, I wouldn’t have minded a cup or two myself. Another recipe I found mentioned germinated barley and rice which sounds more like a refreshing modern-day beer, really. But remember Lord Indra was a god so he also drank soma for its possibly hallucinogenic high while sura, now sounding more and more like a distillate, was to help with the drudgery of life in general.

Parisruta is another drink mentioned in the Vedas and was said to be made from flowers and grass. The word also means to trickle or ooze, so most likely it was a ferment made from collected sap. Unlike fruit juices, saps are natural secretions found in the trunks (and barks) of trees and plants.

Alexander the Great, Bacchus and Shiva

A very curious story, one that has not been mentioned enough, is that of Alexander and his time in India. When he barged into Asia and finally invaded India, Alexander came across the city of Nysa, which, as lore goes, had been earlier invaded and settled by Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Nobody knows when this might have happened. Or how given the terrain that had to be covered to reach India from Greece; even Alexander must have doubted this as another tall tale.

As the story continues, the king of Nysa met with Alexander, requesting him not to disturb the city of Nysa. Dionysus had settled the city in the region called Nysae with people who had accompanied him in war but were too weak to return. The city was named after his nurse. And proof of all this was that Nysa was the only city in India where ivy (the vine, implying grapevine) grew.

Alexander did indeed find vines in the region and must have been convinced not to meddle with a god’s dwelling for he left the city and its people alone. Historians have put its location somewhere around Punjab where this encounter must have happened. Meros is the mountain where Dionysus was supposed to have been born and in Sanskrit, Meru is the sacred mountain with five peaks and is the centre of all universes.

The city that Alexander must have come across would have been in the region where the inhabitants were probably followers of Shiva. Now, this is where the similarities between the two gods gets uncanny. Both Dionysus (or Bacchus) and Shiva are gods who are scantily draped in just a cloak. Both the gods freely administer and use intoxicants.

Their followers too celebrate their respective gods by dancing and drumming. And, here’s the last one, both the gods believe in the cycle of birth and rebirth, or reincarnation by any other name. So do we possibly worship the same god in another interpretation? Not too far-fetched to imagine given the empirical data.

Many centuries later, when the English made wine in India (to coincide with the International Exhibition in Calcutta in 1883–84), the regions they chose were Kashmir and modern-day Sindh which would have been part of the greater area of Punjab back then and even today they share borders. The vine would have once again returned to the region with the English settlers this time.

Alexander and the Indian Drinking Olympics

While still on Alexander, allow me to digress a bit further; my research threw up this very interesting anecdote and since I have nowhere else to put it, here it is. Alexander always believed that he had earned the wrath of Bacchus by killing his best friend when drunk and also by not making the requisite sacrifices when he had razed the town of Thebes which was under the protection of the same wine god. So he always sought out ways to buy his way into the Lord's good books. This act here was one such effort.

Calanus (or Kalanos) was a native of Taxila (in Rawalpindi district of Pakistan). He had accompanied Alexander on his voyages and Alexander had a deep regard for his interpretation of Greek philosophy. It is said that this great Indian philosopher self-immolated when he felt his cycle of life was coming to a close. 

As this happened in India, it prompted Alexander to organise (funeral) games in his honour, much on the lines of the Olympics back home in Greece. Except these weren’t your regular sports competitions; one of the games involved copious amounts of drinking. I guess Alexander saw us as being built more for comfort than for speed. Also, with these games not only was he trying to celebrate the memory of the pious Calanus but also maybe appease Bacchus.

Whoever could drink the maximum amount of unmixed wine would be declared the winner. Should have been quite the party except that thirty-five people died almost immediately after ingesting ridiculous amounts of alcohol. Shortly after, six more succumbed to this binge fest. The one who won (or rather, survived) celebrated his victory for four days before joining the others in the afterlife.

As for buying Bacchic benevolence, guess the ploy failed for the march back home was disastrous as many soldiers died or were lost in the desert, and it all ended with Alexander’s own death upon reaching Babylon. Strangely enough, the last words of Calanus to Alexander, as he sat unflinchingly atop his burning pyre, had been, "We shall meet in Babylon." Some say Alexander died after drinking eight horns of unmixed wine but most likely it was poison that did him in. In other words, no matter how powerful you are, you don’t mess with the god of alcohol!

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Medicinal Alcohol

While alcohol for revelry and celebration was always a moot point, alcohol being used for other purposes was never a problem. Alchemy was a growing interest and purification of metals required alcohol. It was a ready solvent and good for preservation. Alcohol also had antiseptic properties. The Charaka Samhita (Charaka’s compendium), the most exhaustive tome of the day on medicinal sciences, was unbelievably detailed about alcohol and its consumption.

The book is a compilation of parts of that had been destroyed or lost under other circumstances at various points. It wasn’t written by one person as such but compiled and taught by many sages over time. Çaraka or Charaka was possibly the last one to edit and revise the text and it is mostly this version that has survived (with some parts being added by another sage, Dridhbala, as they had been lost over time, and it was he who put together this final compilation).

So the Samhita as we know it today has texts from various authors from different eras on the subject and the final compilation contains almost 120 chapters discussing everything from the human body to symptoms and cures of diseases.

The chapter concerning alcohol starts with the fact that alcohol in any form is a toxin and one needs to prepare the body before consumption of the same. The sages clearly left no room for ambiguity on their feelings towards intoxicants. There was a time, place and a ritual for administering alcohol.

One had to take into account age, diet, constitution, season, time of day, state of mind, and the doshas (Vedic classification of a mix of physical, mental and emotional characteristics derived from the natural elements — earth, air, water, fire — that make up our conscience). Fail to follow these precisely and you risk bringing misery upon yourselves. Their words, not mine.

The use of alcohol, especially by a mind which was not in a state of balance gave the momentary illusion of happiness but in the long run was detrimental to both physical and mental health. A person who was angry, grieving, tired, starved, paranoid, or scared should refrain from having alcohol as it would only worsen their condition. How could they have known, for all those words describe precisely the last few rememberable moments of a modern-day Saturday night bender... before one wakes up past noon the next day on a strange sofa!

The Ayurveda texts don’t just stop here; they have detailed notes on when to drink and subsequently, how to wean someone off an addiction to substances. Ayurveda decrees, in what can only be called contorted logic, that it is okay to have alcohol with mango juice but it is best to avoid alcohol during summers or when it rains. Isn’t that precisely the season when mangoes are in abundance?

That’s like declaring that you can order a drink as long as there’s no bar involved! As for those who were hitting the liquor-laced earthenware hard, satmikarana is the process of gradually reducing the dosage of intoxicants over time before one can be declared free from its clutches. Think of it like rehab minus the social trolling that accompanies it today.

The Charaka Samhita also lists recipes for alcohol-based tinctures which were administered in tiny amounts (48ml or one pala, generally). They were usually given after meals as curative and preventive potions. These were called arishtas (fermented decoctions) and some of them can be found even today. Almost eighty-four alcohol-based recipes can be found for arishtas and asavas (fermented infusions).

Together they were used to balance the doshas (there’s that word again!) of an individual. Alcohol increases the pitta while reducing the vata and the kapha elements of our constitution. Both arishtas and asavas were prepared in hermetically sealed earthen pots using natural ingredients and a fermentation starter. They could be stored and were administered as per the advice of the physicians who usually studied the pulse of the patients to determine the dosha imbalance and then decided what mix was needed to restore total equilibrium.

Sushruta Samhita

This was the other compilation on the medical advancements of the day. Sushruta is the same gentleman who also delved into surgery and is considered the first Indian plastic surgeon. He performed operations from amputations to rhinoplasty and even more complicated procedures.

In his compendium, he listed over 500 drugs with curative properties. Of these almost sixty-four were mineral based and involved intricate handling and washing of various metals and their salts. All this alchemy required alcohol as a major tool to aid in the extraction, isolation and/or conversion processes.

But apart from being the father of (Indian) surgery he may just have been the first sommelier too for he left notes about where the best soma came from: his appellation of preference was the Upper Indus valley (in the reaches of Kashmir) chosen from almost twenty-four types of drinks of varying potency that he had defined and classified as part of his (tasting) notes.

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Arthashastra

Another tome of extensive knowledge of the times, covering everything from political governance to social customs, is the Arthashastra. The title roughly translates to "Science of Political Economy/Gain". It was written by Chanakya, or Kautilya, who was the teacher-cum-adviser of King Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Maurya dynasty in India.

He wrote the entire script on palm leaves and for the most part of our history, it was lost to us till it was found again in 1904 and published. The found manuscript wasn’t the real McCoy but it was largely an edited version, true to the original work. The language of the book is measured and logical without giving in to emotion or passion. Think of it as the Indian equivalent of the Machiavellian Prince. But it also talks about the alcohol of the times.

Chanakya mentioned the asavas and the arishtas but he also wrote about kapasayani, which was the name given to white wine, and, harahuraka, the red wine, from the region of Kapisi, just north of Kabul. Today the region is called Kafiristan but harahura is the term used for black raisins even today. The red wine was often used as a draksha, which were supplements to aid in digestion.

Maireya was a spiced sugar-based liquor that was drunk exclusively by royalty in those days. For the commoners there was kilaka, from cereals, and masara from a mix of rice and spices. Avadatika, jathi (from flowers), parisruta, s(h)iddhu (dhataki flowers which were also used for asavas/arishtas), varuni (strong liquor)... all these may just seem like names to you and me but these were possibly the most used words when they clanged last orders in the tavern.

Oh by the way, for trivia sake, ever wonder what they ate to accompany their drinks in those pubs? Salt! That’s right. Good old table salt: keeps you thirsty, keeps you going. Pretty hard-core stuff that, if you ask me.

Maurya’s times were one of the first periods in India when the sale of liquor was controlled and even taxed. Designated areas for drinking were created and these were the early bars of our times. During festivals, public drinking was allowed for a period of no more than four days and anybody found flouting the rule on the fifth day would have been fined by the excise inspector.

An important thing noted in the writings of the times is that although they mention the use of soma for religious ceremonies, it was excluded from domestic rituals and substitutes were listed instead. One of the reasons for this could be a growing paucity of the hallucinogenic plant which would have made the amount of juice available limited and thus precious; a clear indicator of the general decline of soma, an eventual loss for all of us.

Anno Domini: Post-Vedic virtues

By ad first century, a lot had changed. It isn’t as if we suddenly went from making frugal concoctions to mixing world-class drinks but between the Vedas (which were a few hundred years old already) and the detailed recordings of the visiting travellers (from ad 5 onwards), we find little in local texts to substantiate or mark any major development or evolution in our fermenting and brewing processes or in our drinking behaviour. 

So when we contrast the two it seems that by the start of the first millennium the small changes had cumulatively added up thereby leaving us to assume that over time knowledge of alcohol and the many recipes had become more concrete.

As also had the variety! Prasanna (spiced beer), medaka (spiced rice beer), mahua (flower distillate), madira (high-quality wine) were all to be found. Madya was the generic term for all high alcohol-content beverages (spirits). The recipes too became more intricate (and elaborate) using ingredients beyond the basic: from honey and treacle to all sorts of flowers, roots, barks and fresh spices for flavouring fine distillates.

Sugarcane beer was another common beverage. In fact, many of the beverages which were formalized in the scriptures of the day have continued to exist to this day and are still made and consumed in remote parts of our country.

The trouble is that these advancements weren’t confined to a geographic location. It all happened simultaneously over the entire subcontinent. What we do know of them is through records of the day which were maintained by the local historians or by the travelling/visiting types. And safe to assume that, sadly, a lot has been lost in translation. So while many believe madira to be a distillate, one description labelled it as fine wine.

Asava, a medicinal fermented infusion, has been interchangeably listed as a generic name for sugarcane beer. Worst loss yet were the recipes themselves, especially the ones which detail the production of various alcohols. And lastly, the measurement units changed over time so what was one drona (10kg by my research) at one point could have meant something different a few decades earlier, or after. And we still don’t know how much exactly is a

And we still don’t know how much exactly is a choe of unmixed wine even if we do know that the winner of Alexander’s drinking game drank four of them (which killed him, precisely four days after).

Fast-forward a century and this ambiguity was much tamed. Detailed recipes for fermentation starters have been found. One certain yeast recipe was called kinra. It wasn’t just local produce that was popular and growing. Coins have been found with Roman seals (of the kings of those times) suggesting a flourishing trade. But Roman money (denarius) back then was the most stable currency and was used in trade even within India. So finding coins wouldn’t be enough to suggest an ongoing trade.

But warehouses in Pouduke (Pondicherry) with amphorae (with two ears hinting at the Roman style) replete with the manufacturers’ (Roman potters’) seals have been found indicating that wine was definitely a traded commodity. These facilities were built near ports and considering that they were almost 50m in length, it signifies the volume of trade that was being carried out then.

Apart from this and much, much later, Indian wine shone at the Great Calcutta Exhibition. This was made by the British in the regions of Kashmir, Golconda and Baramati. Unfortunately, these vineyards too were destroyed when an American louse called phylloxera attacked the vineyards of Europe (circa 1890). The small bug travelled to Europe and infested the vineyards, decimating them in a matter of years.

American Vitis varieties were resistant to the critter but the European Vitis vinifera genus wasn’t. The entire European wine-production industry nearly shut down (as also did Cognac’s). Then, this same louse managed to board a ship heading further East and came to India, where again, it demolished entire fields of vines. And with that, the local wine industry was exiled into dormancy for almost a century.

Mahua

If you are in the market for a strong laxative, fermented mahua will do the trick for you only too well. Our ancestors from pre-Aryan times figured this out and hence preferred to distil the beverage to attain a stronger substance. This packed more potency minus the involuntary loosening of the bowels. It was a popular flower-based spirit and is the only one which has survived the onslaught of time.

While most others have been lost or else relegated to minuscule production in the heart of remote tribal settlements, mahua has survived and is now seeing a resurgence as the organised alcohol production sector of India is trying to approach it. Armed with all the science and technology that the times can afford us, it appears that a bright heady future awaits mahua.

The sanctity of a historic tradition, one that pre-dates our current civilisation, now stands to be protected and preserved. Just so long as some bright marketing type doesn’t come along and start a "chug it with salt and lemon juice" trend.

Travellers and Indian Hospitality (5 AD–1400 AD)

Another very rich account of our heritage is to be found by studying the colourful records of the many travellers who visited and documented their journey through India. Megasthenes was among the first to arrive, in circa 300 BC, sometime around the death of Chandragupta Maurya. The first king of the Mauryan dynasty ruled over a kingdom spanning the stretch of the Indian subcontinent from just beyond the Indus valley in the west to the Gangetic plains in the east.

Megasthenes was most likely an envoy of Seleucus I Nicator, a general under Alexander who had established his empire after Alexander’s death in the east bordering Chandragupta’s empire. The two had fought for two years before Seleucus conceded some territory to the Indian king. It was perhaps sometime then that Megasthenes arrived in India, a little before the death of the Mauryan king.

Megasthenes saw wine as a sacrificial offering rather than a commodity for quotidian consumption. Indians, he wrote, were frugal drinkers. And mostly vegetarians. They led simple lives. Except for the city of Nysa which had been conquered and established by Dionysus, the god of wine, no less. Here not only did people know how to make wine but it was also freely drunk and traded.

Looks like Megasthenes got the tourist bubble visit and wasn’t really allowed to mix with the locals else he wouldn’t have given so sober an account of the subcontinent. It reminds me of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where planet Earth and the entirety of its history and civilisation were summed up in two words, "mostly harmless."

But he wasn’t the only one who saw the shy side of Indian tipplers. Another visitor was Fa Xian, who walked his way to India in search of better translations of Buddhist books circa ad  400. He too spoke of India’s abstinence. He also mentioned that "all through the country" Indians don’t eat onions or garlic and don’t harm (let alone kill) any other living organism. Sounds like a sweeping generalization but, in his defence, his entire trip lasted around fifteen years so it couldn’t have been a rush job.

Xuanzang came in ad 600 and reported similarly; his journey lasted over seventeen years. Yijing, who came in 671 AD, didn’t speak at all about drinking but did express surprise at the fact that Indians ate only using their right hand unless ill when they could use (rudimentary) cutlery; that and the realisation that only China used chopsticks!

A common strain runs through these three visitors — they were seeing India through the prism of Buddhism. They had come here to take back the essence of Buddhism to China. This helped budding Chinese monks and aspiring Buddhists who didn’t have the resources to undertake such a tedious travel to India.

These travellers were trying to imbue a certain sense of sanctity to the Buddhism of China. So their interactions may have somewhat constricted their exposure to the myriad melee that was the Indian diaspora even back then. That or their involuntary selective perception discounted a lot of what may have been going on around them. For all other records point at meat and alcohol being popularly present in society at all levels.

But their views are once again confirmed by Al Masudi, the Arab historian and geographer (also the unique one to apply a scientific approach to his recordings) who noted that Indians "abstain to maintain clarity". This is fairly logical and understandable. He did not deny the presence of alcohol, merely commented on the way Indians perceived it.

He arrived in 947 AD, during the reign of the Hindu rulers of the Shahi dynasty who were more occupied in protecting their territories from invasions from the north-east and devoted little time to the finer arts. They were defeated and replaced by Mahmud of Ghazni who was an extremist in every sense; everything came second to his lust for gold, riches and power.

One of the most extensive accounts of the drinking culture of India was documented by Al Biruni, the famous Iranian scholar, traveller and historian who visited India in ad eleventh century. He noted that the brahmins abstained from intoxicants but they were the only ones to do so. They had fruit juice instead. The warriors drank wine as also did the businessmen. Honey- and flower-based distillates were the only types allowed among spirits. The lower castes (shudras) could drink spirits but were not allowed to trade in it.

By contrast, while the journals of Ibn Batuta, the famous Moroccan traveller who visited India in ad 1330, said nothing negative about our festive rituals, he pretty much skipped the bit about alcohol being a part of our society at any level. Being a favourite of the king, he was privy to many a lavish feast hosted for visiting dignitaries or when the king won at war or, simply because it was an otherwise dull Tuesday. And yet nowhere does he mention alcohol (the king was a follower of Islam so that could be a reason too).

Even those elaborate feasts to celebrate the return from a hunt had dancing girls on high platforms (to get up to the height of the elephants where the king and his troop were perched) serving syrup water to everyone. A special drink he talks about was called fuqqa, a mix of barley water and sugar. His travelogues make for a lovely read, save for the fact that he prefixes all non-Muslim entities with "infidel" each and every time he refers to them, like a series of irritatingly frequent jolts in an otherwise poetic passage.

But the absence of alcohol from his detailed writings (which give a first-person account of everything from tax collection to the practice of sati) seems rather conspicuous and hints at a deliberate and conscious omission rather than an innocent oversight.

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Magandeep Singh Magandeep Singh @magandeepsingh

Magandeep Singh is India's first French-qualified sommelier.

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