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How Northeastern tribes drink rice beer to win gods, foster harmony and influence others

Rini Barman
Rini BarmanJan 22, 2015 | 16:32

How Northeastern tribes drink rice beer to win gods, foster harmony and influence others

Rice beer fermentation was infact done by keeping in mind the bond between mankind and nature in the Northeast.

There is a very popular and hilarious folk tale in Assam centered on the difficult lifestyle of an old couple who manage to deceive a group of seven young brothers. These rogues try a couple of times to steal their poultry and other old-age assets but are fooled each time through lunch invitations. The wise old man orders his wife to cook up rice beer in pots along with a lavish meal, and while the feast is on, they are dissuaded from burglary. Childless old couples, drunk on rice beer are often seen quarrelling in folk narratives but this tale is an exception; the refrain of serving rice beer unites this old couple who have few more years to endure.

In 2007, Ravi Singh (WWF India) mentioned in a news report about drunken elephants being electrocuted in Assam. The report stated, “They have a sharp sense of smell, so they are attracted by the pungency of the rice beer. It’s not the alcohol; it’s the smell from the fermentation process that attracts them.” An example of the classic environmental debate involving rural and urban divides; these incidents show rice beer processors in a negative light. Some even have to pay the price of sacrificing their ritual. However, there can be no denying that the loss of wild habitats has been largely contributed by rich, urbanised officers and their ever-growing interference in forested areas, their inhabitants and local cultures. 

A retrospect on some of the folk tales, idioms and songs in the Northeastern region of the country tell us that the rice beer fermentation was infact done by keeping in mind the bond between mankind and nature. As such, these anecdotes are flavoured with impeccable taste and humour. It is remarkable how through the act of drinking local beer, the old teach the new; storytelling, indeed, begins here. From village to village, community to community, the knowledge of rice beer travels and so do stories, myths and rituals where drinks perform a major role.

This Bhogali Bihu, festival of harvest and community feasting in Assam, I had the fortune of being a part of rice beer preparations in a small Mising village in Disangmukh. Being an urban “outsider”, if you may say so, I was stunned at their welcoming hospitality. Every thread of “urban-ness” in me and a German scholar, who was gathering anthropological data, got diluted into the rice beer serving dola (a round bamboo utensil).

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Bottles of rice beer.

The Mising tribe ferments rice with dietary sincerity, in the olden days, so their forefathers claim, the intake of Apong (local rice beer) was restricted to the immortal gods. Some stories from Arunachal Pradesh, where river dwelling Misings often trace their geographical lineage, reveal how the “secret ingredient” was rescued by the mortals. Way before maps and clocks were invented, fearless Misings aspired for equality, and today, though the brewing of rice beer is considered sacred in ceremonies, they believe true holiness is achieved by coming together to sip rice beer, overcoming one’s communal barriers, joys and sorrows.

Apong is of two kinds: Po:ro and Nogin and a successful harvest is a matter of great pride for the women folk. Folk songs, especially those sung on weddings, allude to the richness of rice beer as a mark of fertile union between the newly-weds. Many a times, elderly men use this opportunity to ridicule and tease the beer harvesters if it tastes sour. Miscellany is at the heart of wedding songs. For the Bodo tribe, reverse is the case - elderly women sing verses to mock the bridegroom if the Jou, their local rice beer, turns out sour or insufficient in the ceremony.

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Preparation of mod pitha (beer cake).

“Oi howa majang, nangni habani

O aiyoi, jaualai khoithing thing”

O good bridegroom,

the rice beer of your marriage tastes sour

(O mother), tastes sour.

Rice beer also allows inter-tribal mixing as much as it provides space for attenuating the tribal/non-tribal binary. A drink (or three) on the sly has led to many elopements, on and off the screen. Take the case of Jab We Met or Tanu Weds Manu; one often encounters scenes of drunken elopement, followed by men with guns/swords, searching for the errant couple. However, in this small Mising village I had visited, young men and women elope by default. As the months of the harvest arrive, rice beer is offered as seeking forgiveness and family ties are not severed forever.

In Ali-Aye-Liyang, a festival that marks the onset of the agricultural season and Porag (post-harvest festivity) local beers - Rohi, Sanj, Laopani, Sai Mod, Horlong are used as identity markers. Sanj is also known to increase your life span and purify blood. That’s not all. In the monsoons, when the Disang river floods, most rice beers are preserved with medicinal potions fetched from the neighbouring herbs. Brewing rice beer is regarded as an elixir to Mother Nature, the newborn is also fed with a few drops.

A test of overcoming difficult times through rice beer can be understood in the context of lovers too, the river-dwelling Misings have made the subject of the epic Jonkey-Panei love story in Assam, written way back in 1895. So whether or not factory processed beer help ugly people make love, the best beer is where poor lovers and the gods go to drink.

Last updated: August 19, 2018 | 18:17
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