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Tracing the roots of spirits

Tracing the roots of spirits
Highlights

In a country that thrives on the politics of drinking alcohol calling it bad, taxing it heavily – leaving the end user high and dry – though not in...

In a country that thrives on the politics of drinking alcohol calling it bad, taxing it heavily – leaving the end user high and dry – though not in the literal sense; and ironically, makes highest revenues on liquor – certified wine sommelier Magandeep brings out fascinating stories. His book ‘The Indian Spirit – The Untold Story of Alcohol in India’ traces the love-hate relationship of the land of Somras with alcohol.

While he had embarked upon the near impossible task of scouring over the scriptures and ancient texts looking for the slightest mention or indication of the consumption of spirit the origin and habits; Magandeep brought together the at times, vague, at other times indicative and sometimes conclusive findings in his own inimitable manner.

Here are a few interesting snippets from his understanding and findings of the habit of drinking liquor in the ancient times:
The first mention of alcohol appears only with the Vedas, when the Rig Veda (1700 BC) talks about the intoxicants like Soma and Prahamana. The juice of Soma plant is considered an intoxicant, delivering an euphoric high (Soma plant is not to be found anymore and there are several theories around it).

The sweet juice of the Soma plant was drunk as is and was said to provide a divine connection to the gods. The brahmins and yogi elite believed that Soma provided them with more than just a hotline to the divine; it imbued them with supernatural power.
Alongside Soma there existed somarasa…my readings have inclined me to believe that this was perhaps the fermented Soma.
Hymns praising Soma have been found through the ages, and most importantly, they constitute the ninth mandala (book) of the (Rig) veda which in its 114 – hymn is entirely devoted to the purification of Soma. (Rig Veda has a total of 10 mandalas, most dedicated to praising deities).

Sukla Yajur Veda records sura to be made from rice meal, wheat, grapes, sugarcane and a host of other fruits.

On Alexander the Great, his India connection and wine:
A very curious story, one that has not been mentioned enough, is that of Alexander and his time in India. When he barged into Asia and finally invaded India. Alexander came across the city of Nysa, which as lore goes, had been earlier invaded and settled by Dionysus, the Greek god of wine…the king of Nysa met with Alexander requesting his not to disturb the city of Nysa. Dionysus had settled the city in the region called Nysa with people who had accompanied him in war but were too weak to return. The city was named after his nurse.

And proof of all this was that Nysa was the only city where Ivy (the vine, implying grape vine) grew. Alexander did indeed find vines in the region and must have been convinced not to meddle with a god’s dwelling for he left the city and its people alone. Historians have put its location somewhere around Punjab where this encounter must have happened. Meros is the mountain where Dionysus was supposed to have been born and in Sanskrit, Meru is the sacred mountain with five peaks and the centre of all universe. Now this is where the similarities between the two gods gets uncanny. Both Dionysus or Bacchus and Shiva are gods who are scantily draped in just a cloak. Both the gods freely administer and use intoxicants. Their followers too celebrate their respective gods by dancing and drumming.

Mention of Alcohol in Charaka Samhita
The chapter concerning alcohol starts with the fact that alcohol in any form is a toxin and one needs to prepare the body before consumption of the same…There was a time, place and a ritual for administering alcohol, one had to take into account age, diet, constitution, season, time of day, state of mind, and the doshas…Charaka Samhita also lists recipes for alcohol-based tinctures which were administered in tiny amounts. They were usually given after the meals as curative and preventive portions. These were called arishtas (fermented decoctions) and some of them can be found even today.

Arthashastra:
Think of it as the Indian equivalent of the Machiavellian Prince. But it also talks about the alcohol of the times.
Sale and taxing of liquor

Maurya’s times were one of the first periods in India when sale of liquor was controlled and even taxed. Designated areas for drinking were created and these were the early bars of our times. During festivals, public drinking was allowed for a period of no more than four days and anybody found flouting the rule on the fifth day would have been fined by excise inspector.

Post Vedic virtues
By AD first century, a lot had changed. It isn’t as if we suddenly went from making frugal concoctions to mixing world-class drinks but between Vedas (which were a few hundred years old already) and the detailed recordings of the visiting travelers (from AD 5 onwards), we find little in local texts to substantiate or mark any major development or evolution in our fermenting and brewing processes or in our drinking behaviour. So, when we contrast the two it seems that by the start of the first millennium the small changes had cumulatively added up there by leaving us to assume that over the time knowledge of alcohol and the many recipes had become more concrete. And also, had the variety! Prasanna (spiced beer), medaka (spiced rice beer), mahua (flower distillate), madira (high quality wine) were all to be found. Madya was the generic term for all high-alcohol content beverages.

British and Indian wines
Warehouses in Pouduke (Pondicherry) with amphorae (with two ears hinting the Roman style) replete with the manufacturers’ (Roman potters’) seals have been found indicating that wine was definitely a traded commodity. These facilities were built near ports and considering that they were almost 50m in length, it signifies the volume of trade that was being carried out then.
Apart from this and much, much later, Indian wine shone at the Great Calcutta Exhibition. This was made by the British in the regions of Kashmir, Golconda and Baramati. Unfortunately, these vineyards too were destroyed when an American louse called phylloxera attacked the vineyards of Europe (circa 1890)…the same louse managed to board a ship heading further East and came to India, where again, it demolished entire fields of vines. And with that the local wine industry was exiled into dormancy for almost a century.

Mahua - the survivor

If you are in the market for a strong laxative, fermented mahua will do the trick for you only too well. Our ancestors from pre-Aryan times figured this out and hence preferred to distil the beverage to attain a stronger substance. This packed more potency minus the involuntary loosening of bowels. It was a popular flower-based spirit and is the only one which has survived the onslaught of time. While most others have been lost or else relegated to miniscule production sector of India is trying to approach it. Armed with all the science and technology that the times can afford us, it appears that a bright heady future awaits mahua. The sanctity of a historic tradition, one that pre-dates our current civilisation, now stands to be protected and preserved. Just so long as some bright marketing type doesn’t come along and start a ‘chug it with salt and lemon juice’ trend.

And proof of all this was that Nysa was the only city where Ivy (the vine, implying grape vine) grew. Alexander did indeed find vines in the region and must have been convinced not to meddle with a god’s dwelling for he left the city and its people alone. Historians have put its location somewhere around Punjab where this encounter must have happened. Meros is the mountain where Dionysus was supposed to have been born and in Sanskrit, Meru is the sacred mountain with five peaks and the centre of all universe. Now this is where the similarities between the two gods gets uncanny. Both Dionysus or Bacchus and Shiva are gods who are scantily draped in just a cloak. Both the gods freely administer and use intoxicants. Their followers too celebrate their respective gods by dancing and drumming.

Mention of Alcohol in Charaka Samhita
The chapter concerning alcohol starts with the fact that alcohol in any form is a toxin and one needs to prepare the body before consumption of the same…There was a time, place and a ritual for administering alcohol, one had to take into account age, diet, constitution, season, time of day, state of mind, and the doshas…Charaka Samhita also lists recipes for alcohol-based tinctures which were administered in tiny amounts. They were usually given after the meals as curative and preventive portions. These were called arishtas (fermented decoctions) and some of them can be found even today.

Arthashastra
Think of it as the Indian equivalent of the Machiavellian Prince. But it also talks about the alcohol of the times.

Sale and taxing of liquor
Maurya’s times were one of the first periods in India when sale of liquor was controlled and even taxed. Designated areas for drinking were created and these were the early bars of our times. During festivals, public drinking was allowed for a period of no more than four days and anybody found flouting the rule on the fifth day would have been fined by excise inspector.

Post Vedic virtues
By AD first century, a lot had changed. It isn’t as if we suddenly went from making frugal concoctions to mixing world-class drinks but between Vedas (which were a few hundred years old already) and the detailed recordings of the visiting travelers (from AD 5 onwards), we find little in local texts to substantiate or mark any major development or evolution in our fermenting and brewing processes or in our drinking behaviour.

So, when we contrast the two it seems that by the start of the first millennium the small changes had cumulatively added up there by leaving us to assume that over the time knowledge of alcohol and the many recipes had become more concrete. And also, had the variety! Prasanna (spiced beer), medaka (spiced rice beer), mahua (flower distillate), madira (high quality wine) were all to be found. Madya was the generic term for all high-alcohol content beverages.

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