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Thatched huts, 6ft high, stylized to resemble traditional houses, made up the backdrop at the Veterinary Ground in Khanapara, Assam. In the foreground were stalls set up by ethnic communities who had come all the way from places like the North Cachar Hill district (now called Dima Hasao district) to exhibit their indigenous attire, food, beverages, music and dance at Rongali, a three-day festival in February organized by Trend MMS, a sociocultural outfit supported by Assam Tourism and others.

In line with events over the past few years, the focus at this festival, too, was on promoting rice beer. An integral part of the tribal culture for centuries, the beverage is now seeking a wider market.

Jai Pallav Naiging welcomes visitors to the noh-dima, the traditional Dimasa house. He has introduced ju-dima to many festivals over the years but never ceases to be bemused by the perennial curiosity about the indigenous liquor. Quickly recognizing that I am not a tourist, he abandons an attempt at broken Hindi and hands me a bamboo glass of ju-dima. The brew is warm, pale yellow in colour, and has a sweet-sour, pungent flavour.

Ju-dima is the indigenous liquor of the Dimasa tribes, part of the broader Kachari group. In Assam, all ethnic communities—Bodos, Karbis, Mishings and Rabhas, among others—have unique and creative ways of making rice beer. Rice beer, for which each tribe has its own name, functions as an elixir, a beverage, a muscle relaxant and more. For the folklore enthusiast, it carries a contentious but multifarious history, written and oral. It throws light on the organic practices of tribals, whose habitats and culture are in a state of tremendous flux.

The rice thing

Rice, the staple of the state, lends itself to many iterations, from pithas (rice cakes) to poita bhaat (fermented rice), so it’s only natural that it has been adapted as a beverage as well. The Dimasas favour bora saul (glutinous or sticky rice) though they also consume maizu, a smaller grain. Both are used to make ju-dima. “Knowing the patterns of paddy, the availability of herbs and their climatic variations are crucial to making ju-dima," says Naiging.

The ingredients of rice beer vary from tribe to tribe. For the Dimasas, it is the bark of the Acacia pennata plant, locally called thempra. Found in the wild, it is supposed to cure headaches and ease the alimentary tract. It is meticulously collected, chopped, sun-dried, and then mixed with ground rice powder to form a sturdy starter rice cake, humao. Shaped into a disc approximately 100g in weight, the humao dries in seven-eight days. Thereafter, rice is cooked in a clay stove—the characteristic smokiness is a coveted quality—the humao is introduced to the mix and the concoction is stored in covered pitchers. Once the ju-dima releases a distinctive aroma, it is passed through the banana leaf-lined bamboo ju-khatai—and the filtered liquid is ready for consumption. Patience is essential to the process.

“The secret (to a good beer) lies in the rice cake," says Naiging, and each tribe has its unique take. The river-dwelling Mishings, for instance, make their rice cake—called e’pob—with ripe jackfruit, bay leaf, satmool (Asparagus racemosus), titaphool (Phlogacanthus thyrsiformis), sugar cane and a range of herbal plants and dry them for up to seven days in a dola (bamboo tray), depending on the weather conditions.

A beverage instantly reminiscent of good, smooth wine, the Mishing apong is primarily of two kinds: nogin and po:ro. Nogin is the simpler, fermented preparation; po:ro apong requires time, skill and perseverance. In Mishing Folk Tales (Sahitya Akademi, 2013), Tabu Taid describes po:ro as a blackish kind of beer. It is also known as sai mod since it uses the ashes (sai) of semi-burnt rice chaff and straw with partially cooked rice.

The Bodos’ traditional beer, jau/jaumai, is served to the Bathou Borai (principal deity) before being consumed at social functions and weddings. They call the rice cake amaw, grinding uncooked rice with 10-12 flowers of a wild plant called mokhna, leaves of pineapple, jackfruit and roots of agarcita (Plumbago zeylanica). In A Study In Cultural Heritage Of The Boros (Bina Library, 1998), Kameswar Brahma says tribe members rub older amaw on to new cakes, which are usable once they have been stored for three-four days in earthen pitchers called dabkhas or maldangs. Like the ju-dima, the jau is ready to be drunk three-four days later, after the bamboo filtration process.

The Naga version of rice beer is known as ‘zutho’. Photo: AFP
The Naga version of rice beer is known as ‘zutho’. Photo: AFP

The water of life

How integral is the beverage to tribal lives? Consider this: A Dimasa newborn gets a taste of ju-dima before he/she is introduced to the outside world. Drinking is an intrinsic part of festivities, aimed at bringing tribes together. During Busu-Jidap, a three-day harvest festival, the winner of the traditional shot-put game, longthailemba, has to serve guests rice beer and meat. For festivals like Ali-a-ye Ligang, marking the start of the agricultural season (on the first Wednesday of Phalgun, the arrival of spring), apong is prepared in large quantities.

Both among Dimasas and Mishings, the task of making rice beer is largely the responsibility of women. A great deal of cooperation is necessary at every stage to keep this indigenous food processing technology alive. In recent times, though, this knowledge—the prerogative of women—has come under increasing public scrutiny as an area not aligned with “modern" or “scientific" processes, so to say.

Historically speaking, upper-caste scorn for indigenous liquor has often led to the ostracization of tribal communities and even the appropriation of their culture. In his book, Confronting The State: Ulfa’s Quest For Sovereignty, Gauhati University’s Nani Gopal Mahanta interpreted the United Liberation Front of Asom’s (Ulfa’s) drive to “cleanse" society of liquor as “dictated by a caste Hindu ideology...and an attempt to isolate the culture of the tribal people for whom drinking was an essential part of their cultural life". Many surrendered members of the outfit (Sulfa) demanded that the government give them foreign-liquor licences, thereby othering tribal cultures and encouraging a rather distorted image of alcohol consumption among the upper middle classes.

It is interesting that, once again, liquor has begun to shape Assam’s political discourse. In the 2017-18 state annual budget, health-finance-education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma suggested hologramming and bar-coding locally brewed rice beer to improve tribal livelihoods and add a “heritage" value to their beverages. In last year’s budget, he had held up Goa’s feni—which got its GI (geographical indication) tag in 2009—as an example.

Taking up that line of thought, Shyamkanu Mahanta, organizer-in-chief at Rongali, says: “We have requested the hoteliers to use the label ‘heritage drinks’, though we are still expecting the relevant legislation. By promoting its herbal content and branding its authenticity, we want to make ju-dima and sai-mod more acceptable among tourists."

With branding indigenous liquor, of course, comes additional responsibility, not only during the actual processing but also during bottling, licensing and transportation. “Meetings are under way within our council regarding the bottling process," says Prasanta Kumar Bori, executive councillor, Mising Autonomous Council. “We are trying to find a way to bottle the liquor without compromising on the taste and quality. The medicinal value of traditional liquor is what gives it a unique health quotient. No chemicals are used in the manufacture. If we can sell it effectively, it will help promote our indigenous culture."

While indigenous beers are not usually aged, bottling can sometimes be used to enhance the flavour of rice beers, says Uttam Bathari, who is associated with the Youth Association of Development and Empowerment Trust in Haflong. But plastic bottles are out and glass-bottling is an art that needs careful education.

Though urban consumers may be happy at the prospect of getting these beers, one senses a fear among the tribals, largely pinned to apprehensions of the impact increased demand will have on a product that cannot—or, rather, should not—be hurried. Already, there are some “ethnic" restaurants that dilute rice beer beyond recognition, possibly to expunge the characteristic aroma.

As I sip my beer at Naiging’s cottage, he takes questions from Assamese teenagers who are curious to know if rice beer “stinks". Then I’m asked to step aside so that Naiging can feature in a selfie with them, with the rice-beer vessel on his back.

I am happy that a maker of ju-dima is probably going places with photographs, and so are his bottles of rice beer. But the perplexities just won’t go away.

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