India has a complex history with both alcohol consumption and abstinence, says British professor James McHugh
a Sanskrit scholar who loves chewing sada paan and popping chickpeas in betweensips of Old Monk in India. In an interview, the British professor of South Asian religions at the University of Southern California recounts
about an eighteen-armed liquor goddess and the best drinking cup according to the Kamasutra
Well, there are good studies, articles and sections of books, but given the complexity of this ancient drinking culture, there are very few. Historical scholarship, both in South Asia and elsewhere, both academic and popular, has often focused on texts associated with communities that avoid or disparage alcohol, which may have led to a bias in the how people imagine the history of alcohol in ancient India.
I soon realized that my own personal experience of English beer or French wine culture was insufficient to understand many of these beverages. So I found it useful to observe various methods of brewing in India and elsewhere. The people I met producing traditional drinks in India, such as toddy, were often proud of their craftsmanship and their products and generous with samples. I have to add that all of these traditional drinks were extremely well made and delicious, which is more than I can say about many trendy ‘natural’ wines.
Is it true that a certain liquor goddess
There is a goddess of alcohol in some Hindu and also Buddhist texts called Vāruṇī Devī or Surā Devī (she appears at the churning of the ocean of milk). In one of the texts, I have translated, she has eighteen arms, carrying nine pots and nine cups, with which she serves to drink to the gods. The drops fall to earth and become all the intoxicants humans possess, from wine to cannabis. And I thought maybe it would be good to use that as the structure for the book, nine cups instead of nine chapters. But anyone who manages to finish the book may feel overwhelmed.
Were our ancestors heavy drinkers? What were their favorite poisons?
From the start, it was a complex culture of drinking and abstinence. But those who drank had access to many different beverages. There are different named varieties of grain-based surā. Then sugar cane drinks such as sidhu and mairieya – the latter getting a second dose of sugar, jaggery in fact, much like champagne does today. Then there are many āsavas with sugars, herbs and fruits. You still get them today in Ayurveda.
can we call
Soma – the drink that dominates the appendix of your book – the king of Vedic good times?
Soma, a god/plant/drink of Vedic rituals, is an intriguing mystery. It was not, as some imagine, an alcoholic drink because there was not enough time for fermentation in the ritual. It was made from the crushed stems of a plant with water added, filtered and mixed with milk. Drinkers experienced an altered state of mind and body. I don’t know what the plant was, but it seems that in the Vedas it was a prestigious drink that gave joy of life and vigor to those who had access to it. It is opposed to an alcoholic drink, surā: soma is gods and surā is humans.
How can we judge your book by its cover – a painting of three young Indian women
under a tree
have a drink
I chose this image because it conveys both sides of the story: the association of alcohol with pleasure and eroticism as well as a parallel tradition that disapproves of alcohol and drunkenness. It looks like a jamun tree to me, so maybe they drink jamun wine?
Were such representations of female drinkers commo
In some texts and also in the visual arts, we find depictions of tipsy women. For example, in the drinking binge of the 12th century Sanskrit text Mānasollāsa, the ladies of the harem all get drunk and sing, cry, laugh, and generally disorderly and confused, vying for the king at the center of everything. So, certainly in some genres, the confused drunk woman, or group of women, was definitely a centerpiece for writers to create an erotic or humorous atmosphere. There is also some evidence of female brewers.
Was drinking considered a vice or a sin in pre-modern India?
Many texts, tales and religious laws relate the harmful effects of alcohol. The general idea is that alcohol makes you do humiliating and dangerous acts, but with Varna Brahmins there is the added element of their knowledge of the Vedas and their potential association with the soma ritual, which should not not be polluted by alcohol. For Jains, billions of living beings appear inside fermented drinks, so drinking beer is both murder and can make you do murderous things. Interestingly, in classical Hindu law for Manu, certain communities are permitted to drink, and Kshatriyas and Vaishyas are only prohibited from taking the grain-based surā drink. In a word: it has always been complicated.
What does the Kamasutra say about alcohol consumption?
Apparently the drink was a prelude to love, a mental preparation for the act. The couple also drank afterwards. In other texts, we very often read that the best possible cup is your lover’s mouth.
What can modern mixologists do
Drinks were served with spicy snacks and we have recipes for those. Drinks were served garnished with flowers, such as jasmine. Drinks were often complex and mixed from the start – for example, you see drinks made by co-fermentation of honey, jaggery and spices. Also, South Asia had, and still has, a rich tradition of making beverages from starches using molds (like you have with Japanese sake), as opposed to using malt enzymes in European-style beers. I think there are already initiatives underway to develop this kind of thing and to market mahua alcohol, for example.
How do you walk the line between exotic and investigating India’s earthly history
My initial audience for this book was actually readers in England and America, so I do quite a bit of cultural translation in those worlds, which might stand out somewhat to readers in India. But I think the main trend you get in places like the United States, whether it’s in a yoga studio in Los Angeles or in academia, is a stereotypical view of India as a land of mystical substances exotic and altered states. In the case of ancient Indian culture, you have to keep in mind that most people I meet in, say, a cafe in LA, have often only heard of Kamasutra, yoga and, maybe sometimes from the Bhagavad Gita – whatever your politics, this is clearly an overly simplistic idea of the area. So in a lot of ways I was trying to get away from that kind of oversimplifying exoticism in the book and over-complicating the picture.
How did people regulate the alcohol trade in early India?
The Arthaśāstra contains a wonderful chapter on the regulation of the liquor trade. There were state permits for operating a liquor store, standards for ingredients and quantities, and rules for taking drinks off the premises and home brewing. These drinks were also a source of revenue for the state.
In 2012, you published a book on Indian herbs entitled “Sandalwood and Carrion”. Was it on this trail that you sniffed another book on ancient South Asian liquors?
In part, yes. I have always been interested in substances and recipes in Sanskrit texts and this is a bridge between the two projects. But there is a fabulous Sanskrit text from the 12th century, the Mānasollāsa of Someśvara III, which contains recipes for perfumery as well as a chapter on how to organize a drinking party. Once I was done with my perfume search, I had time to watch this chapter and was intrigued.
Feel or drink differently
I put more attention and money into appreciating scents these days, like good quality agarwood incense or nice itrs. And I really enjoy a much wider range of drinks from around the world. I enjoy snacks even more than before, especially Indian snacks.