Tuesday, August 21, 2018
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A home-made high

A home-made high

Indigenous home-made brews have been an ancient legacy that’s becoming popular again19 Aug 2018 | 12:55 AM

The Vedas often mention Somras, a drink that was worshipped as an elixir. Not much is known about Somras just that gods thirsted for it and it is not even certain that this was a swadeshi alcoholic beverage.

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Pushpesh Pant 

The Vedas often mention Somras, a drink that was worshipped as an elixir. Not much is known about Somras just that gods thirsted for it and it is not even certain that this was a swadeshi alcoholic beverage. But then ancient texts of Ayurved are replete with prescriptions and recipes for production of asava and sura (mritsanjivani sura and drakshasava to name just two) that involved fermentation and distillation resulting in natural alcohol production. There are innumerable references in Sanskrit, Pali-Prakrit, Tamil and literature in other languages that chronicle enjoyment of alcoholic beverages in Indian subcontinent. Shudrak’s Mrichchkatikam depicts scenes of Madanotsava, an uninhibited Bacchanalia. Mada is believed to be derived from madhu (honey) that in many civilisations was used to produce mead and madeira. Mahua, too, seems to have been named following the same logic. 

Swadeshi drinks

Ancient and medieval India had a rich heritage of indigenous alcoholic drinks but after the arrival of East India and company and subsequent conquest of India, the victors pronounced all local alcoholic beverages as illegal so as to promote their own  

liquor. Over 200 hundred years of colonial rule eventually made us  slavishly ape the manners of the victors even after we gained independence. The tendency to denigrate everything native and aspire for all that was imported eroded memories of our own drinks, beers, wines and other stronger spirits. 

We easily forgot how villagers and the tribesmen had for millennia enjoyed toddy tapped from the palm trees. Those who liked their liquor stronger distilled arak or sharab. Plebeian drinks of tharra and mahua had been traditionally looked down upon though many were unaware that princes in Pahari kingdoms had patronised brewers and distillers who produced indigenous alcoholic beverages of very high quality. There was paan ka tharra, prepared for the royals of Kathmandu before monarchy abolished it. It could hold its own against any single malt, Russian vodka or fancy gin.

From the valley of gods

In Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh they have an alcoholic drink called ghanti or chulli brewed and distilled from apples and apricots that grow here in abundance. It’s a clean, crisp, smooth vodka-like beverage with pleasant fruity notes. It is enjoyed almost daily and lifts the mood when temperature drops. 

Similar to sake, chhang is a rice beer that is brewed across the Himalayan and trans-Himalayan region. Low in alcoholic content, it has a strong smell and is a bit of acquired taste. But it is quite capable of combating the cold at high altitudes. The best thing about chhang  is that if a stronger drink is required then it can be distilled more to yield arak or sharab. 

In many tribal communities in the plains a rice beer akin to chhang is relished. In Jharkhand and adjacent parts of Bihar it is called handia and enjoys similar popularity. It was usually not produced for commercial purposes, as no one bought the stuff. People produced what they consumed. However, creeping encroachment of excise laws into the customary rights and traditional practices impacted the production and the consumption of handia. Though it is still possible to enjoy the velvety notes of handia at village fairs at times. 

In Orissa, too, handia is what gives poor people a high and at times a hangover. 

In Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, its mahua that reigns supreme. This alcoholic beverage, prepared with flower and fruit of Maduca Indica, is considered ambrosial. If folklore is to be believed, monkeys and wild elephants get tipsy by gorging on the fermented overripe fruit in season. 

Royal connection

The joys of home-made brew have not been restricted to the underprivileged. The Indian princes, notorious for their gargantuan consumption of Scotch, too, indulged in exotic liquors, especially those with a reputation of a potent aphrodisiac. The first to appear outside the borders of Rajasthan was eponymously named Asha (hope). In 1970s, it found its way to Delhi and remained in vogue as an after-dinner companion to dessert. Supply was erratic and soon it disappeared. Years later Vijay Mallya bought the Udaipur distillery and marketed Asha though it vanished. 

Even rarer to encounter was kesar-kasturi. As the name indicates it incorporates extremely expensive ingredients like saffron and musk. The zealously guarded recipe lists over 40 fruits, dried fruits, herbs, nuts, spices, condiments and aromatic substances. This is stuff dreams are made of and no moonshiner-bootlegger can dream of concocting in a hidden garage or basement still. The only problem is that ingredients like musk are on the banned list of the IUCN and trying to source these can bring you in conflict with the law of the land!

However, the Rajasthan Government has plans to revive these ‘heritage drinks’ as a part of its tourism promotion. Maybe there is hope for Asha and its lovers yet!

Heady notes 

Sikkim has a large population comprising mostly people of Nepalese stock. Hence chhang here has a large footprint. Zutho is the rice wine from Nagaland that resembles chhang. In Arunachal Pradesh, apo is a popular rice wine. Mizos prefer a stronger grape wine, sweet and fruity, called zawlaidi that is believed to be a love potion. Alcoholic drinks were an important source of revenue as mentioned in Kautily’s Arthashastra though Buddhist texts advise monks and novices to stay away from intoxicating alcohol as it leads to ‘heedlessness’. An advice that remains relevant even today. 

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