The concept of alcohol was introduced in India long before you can imagine. The culture of alcohol has been a colourful concoction of many factors. Let’s look at how alcohol was introduced in India and what different types of alcohols were consumed by people.
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Most of you are only acquainted with the modern-day famous alcohol names. But the culture of drinking alcohol in India is way older than you would think. Alcohol wasn’t introduced to India by foreign invaders. On the contrary, it was an essential homegrown staple just like any other important spices or milk products made in India for centuries. The Indus Valley civilisation was one of the first in the world to discover the process of distillation and how to use it for the production of alcohol. Although this is a claim that has been contradicted by many European historians, Indian historians still believe that it is true.
There has been almost no mention of distillates in our Vedas. Fermentation wasn’t a popular process in India and one of the major reasons was we didn’t have the right ingredients for the process like grapes and barley. One of the most significant Vedas in India that describes or mentions anything about alcohol is the Rigveda. The Rigveda talks about some intoxicants like soma and prahamana. It also talks about the limited consumption of alcohol and a guide towards sagacious drinking. Brahmins and students were prohibited from consuming alcohol. Soma is one fermented beverage that was offered to specific gods who love it. Thus alcohol had different interpretations and usages in ancient India.
A little time after Vedas, sutras were written by unknown writers who described the usage of alcohol on celebratory occasions like the arrival of a new bride or guests in the house. Things started to become more liberal towards the later Vedic period. During this period, there have been multiple references made to various fermented drinks that were made out of filtered rice gruel, kanji, and parisruta. Some beverages were also made out of fermented juices of certain flowers and fruits. Kilala was one famous fermented beverage during that time.
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People who are interested in Indian mythology know that there are two versions of the story of Lord Rama. One is written by Maharishi Valmiki and the other is written by Tulsi Das which is called the RamCharitManas. The version of Maharishi Valmiki’s Ramayana mentions four types of different liquors. One of the most celebrated books in the history of India that is Kautilya’s Arthashastra written around the fourth century BCE mentions more than a dozen different varieties of liquor. Arthshastra also mentions the existence of different alehouses across the villages that became popular during the specific period.
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From the readings of ancient physicists, one can easily analyse that the potential harms of alcohol were known to the public from the old times. The physicists warned the normal public against excessive drinking and its contribution towards increasing bile and decreasing one’s prudence. The physicians also believe that the excessive consumption of alcohol can distort the physical appearance of an individual.
It was during that time that the concept of light wine mixed with fruit became popular. The physician suggested that this combination is less detrimental to health and can be enjoyed during the winter and spring months. Generally, the physicians were against the norm of consuming alcohol during the winter and rainy seasons.
The medical treaties of Charaka which is one of the major contributors to Ayurveda. Also mentions about 84 such intoxicating beverages that are made out of ingredients like sugar cane, sap from coconut trees, grapes, mangoes, deeds, honey, greens, and flowers like Kadamba and mahua. Madhira which was a popular alcoholic beverage among the aristocrats of India was the type of wine that was made out of natural sugars, such as honey, jaggery or molasses used as a base. To this, the juices of dhataki flowers were added. Asavad is what is created out of the extract of flowers and fruits. There has been a mention of three types of such distilled drinks. These are sura, madya and shidhu.
Just like the rest of the things in India, alcohol was also influenced by the caste divide. The royalty of India usually did not drink grain-based liquors. One of the most popular drinks among the Royals of ancient India was maireya which was a spicy wine made out of fruits and flowers and had a natural sugar base. As per the Valmiki Ramayana, Goddess Sita offers this drink to Lord Rama during one of their meetings. Later on, when Lord Rama and Goddess Sita were banished from Ayodhya, Goddess Sita offered a thousand ports of alcoholic drink surah to the great river, goddess Ganga upon their safe return.
Other than in-house production, Indian nobility also imported wines from the rest of the world. Two types of wines were imported from Afghanistan that were made out of light and dark grapes. Modern-day archaeologists have also found signs of trade from the Southern part of India with Rome. It has been found that nobles from the Southern part of India were importing wine from Rome.
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In the states like Assam, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Bengal, alcohol has been offered to gods and goddesses for many years. The Adivasi community of India has also a long tradition of brewing alcohol. A beer called Lao Pani has been brewed by a community in Assam for many centuries and is still very famous in Assam.
There has been mention of thousands of such alcoholic drinks in India in texts that are hundreds of years old. This signifies that alcohol is not an element that was introduced by people of other countries. Indian people have been drinking alcohol for many years. There are different types of alcohol brewing recipes in every part of the country. Some thousands of years-old recipes are still alive and cooked by various Adivasi tribes in India who are carrying these ancient traditions into the future.