The Sri Ram Sene, or Lord Ram’s army, whose self-appointed guardians recently dragged young men and women out of a pub in Mangalore and thrashed them for drinking in public, may be disappointed at what the scriptures say.
Contrary to what the Sene believes, Hindu scriptures are full of references of gods, goddesses, kings and queens enjoying their drink.
Ramayana has it that Ram offered Maireya, a favourite wine of the royalty, to his bride Sita. And later, when on their exile, while crossing the Ganga, Sita vowed that if they survived the 14-year ordeal and returned unharmed to Ayodhya, she’d pour a thousand jugs of wine into the river as thanksgiving. When the couple did return, says Valmiki, author of the epic, the city celebrated with binge drinking and happy slogans. A delirious Ayodhya, writes Valmiki, reeked of joy and wine for days.
True, the Rig Veda frowns somewhat on alcoholic drinks and says they may cloud one’s judgement and lead minds astray. But a little later, the sutras (treatises on the Vedas) say that people may swill alcoholic drinks on happy occasions such as the arrival of an honoured guest, entering a newly built house or the arrival of a bride into the family. The sutras also lay down a caste-based list of who shall drink what. They forbid the warrior castes from drinking grain-based liquor, but permit them to drink wine brewed from fruits and flowers.
Traders and sailors and non-caste folk could drink what they liked. Later, Vedic literature mentions several popular drinks such as Kilala (a sweet fermented alcoholic drink), and Masara (filtered rice gruel liquor much like the Handiya still drunk by the tribals in central India) and Madira (a honey-based drink).
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Ramayana refers to four types of liquors, Kautilya’s Arthshastra (fourth century BC) mentions a dozen and Charaka, the medicine man, refers to 84 kinds of alcoholic drinks. Kautilya mentions that in his time, there were liquor vends in most villages and janpads (districts).
Rice, barley, honey, sugar cane products, sap of coconut and palmyra trees and numerous sweet fruits (ber, grapes, mangoes and dates) and flowers (Mahua and Kadamba) were used to create intoxicating brews. Dhataki flowers were used to tinge extracts with eye-catching red colour.
Not content with the home brewed, by the beginning of first century AD, our ancestors were also importing at least two kinds of grape-based wines from Afghanistan (Gandhar). The chief minister of Karnataka, so vociferous against the pub culture in his state, would do well to know that the southern states took the lead in importing and exporting alcoholic drinks as trade with Rome grew. Ports in southern India were importing large quantities of Roman wines delivered in containers called amphorae, when their northern brethren were still making do with crude brews extracted from grains. Toddy or taadi, distilled from palmyra and coconut palms, remained the aam admi’s favourite drink down south. Arrack, a distilled version of taadi, was especially beloved of sailors who frequented the coastal regions. Kuttanad (in Kerala) was voted the producer of the best kind. Another favourite was thoppi extracted from fermented rice. The flavour of this extract was enhanced by distillers who poured the brew into hollow bamboos and buried it in the earth to mature. In the mountainous regions, honey was fermented similarly to produce an expensive alcoholic beverage for the elite.
Records of around seventh century AD include drinking traditions of Kashmir and the North-East. Chinese traveller Huen Tsang notes warriors favoured fruit and sugarcane-based drinks, while traders enjoyed strong distilled liquor. Some Brahmins were happy to imbibe alcoholic beverages in the company of women.
Despite the ban on drinking in Islam, there are references from the Sultanate period to drinks being served at gatherings of nobility. Among the Mughul emperors, Babur enjoyed wine as did Jehangir and Shahjehan; Aurangzeb was a strict teetotaller.
The first distillery was registered in Kanpur in 1805. Today each district and village has either a licit or illicit distillery. Gujarat tried prohibition but failed to eradicate alcohol. N.T. Rama Rao, the charismatic founder of the Telugu Desam Party, rose to power in Andhra Pradesh by promising the women of alcohol-ravaged families that he would ban the sale of arrack if voted to power. He banned it for a brief while, but revoked the ban when he was reminded that the amount of revenue generated by the liquor trade was vital for state coffers. Ditto with Haryana. Devi Lal was petitioned by irate farmers’ wives to ban country liquor vends. He promised that if voted back to power as chief minister, he would. He didn’t. The main reason being that several sons and sons-in-law of powerful politicians ran large distilleries and accepted bulk orders for supplying cheap liquor in pouches, especially during district and state level, and of course the national elections.
Babur is the best guide to the subcontinent’s ambivalence towards alcohol. He is said to have had periodic bouts of abstinence when he broke all his goblets and swore never to touch wine, only to resume after a while.
“The new year”, he writes, “the spring, the wine and the beloved are pleasing. Enjoy them, Babur, for the world is not to be had a second time”.
Yediyurappaji, Ramadossji, Gehlot sir, are you listening?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com