No easy way out

Historical and anthropological evidence from the People of India project and other sources points to the existence of alcohol consumption in India from time immemorial.

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

In a toddy shop near Thrissur in Kerala. Consuming liquor is a long Indian tradition.

In a toddy shop near Thrissur in Kerala. Consuming liquor is a long Indian tradition.

In an atmosphere where some proscription on the epicurean, sartorial or other habits of people is becoming the rule rather than the exception, it is worthwhile to look at home-grown studies, both historical and ethnographic, that show that banning food and consumption habits will have little impact in a society that has shown a wide threshold of tolerance for precisely those habits that governments or courts seek to proscribe. While the practicalities of banning alcohol consumption in the highest per capita alcohol consumption States may be one issue to contend with, it may not be possible to uproot the historical underpinnings of such consumption. Therefore, a closer look at evidence that shows that banning smoking, drinking alcohol or the eating of certain forms of meat may not exactly work out is merited.

One of the most significant documents to be produced in post-Independence India is the People of India (POI) project, a publication of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI). The objective of the project, launched on October 2, 1985, was to generate a descriptive anthropological profile of all the communities in India, drawing out the linkages, the commonalities and the effect of changes on them. The project identified diversities of all types—linguistic, cultural and ecological.

Unlike ethnographic studies conducted during the colonial era that confined themselves to certain princely states, this project covered the entire country and, in the process, was able to locate, discover and study 4,635 communities. Indisputably, the project became a comprehensive information system involving thousands of people in the search for ethnographic and other detail and was seen as having the potential to influence cultural policy and social science research.

“Ours is a country very rich in diversity and there is often talk of tolerance of diversity. I think this is not enough. I think we should appreciate that our glory lies in our diversity. There is a certain amount of homogenisation going on, but I have faith that this great ancient and resilient culture will survive all the changes, and regional identities will remain, ethnic identities will remain and a certain amount of uniformity will also remain, which will keep increasing,” wrote the late sociologist M.N. Srinivas in the foreword to the introductory volume of the People of India report.

The project, running into 72 volumes, was steered and authored by the late Kumar Suresh Singh, formerly of the Indian Administrative Service. It was under his stewardship as Director General of the ASI (1984-1993) that the research and fact-finding were conducted, resulting in the first pan-Indian ethnographic study of all the communities in the country.

In the introductory volume and in the chapter titled “Communities, Ecology and Resource Use”, K.S. Singh writes that vegetarianism was connected with the spread of Jainism and the rise of Vaishnavism, particularly the Bhagwat cult. It was associated with Sanskritisation, a term coined by M.N. Srinivas. The data generated by the POI project busted many myths, including some surrounding the dietary habits of people. After all, such an authoritative study’s findings could not be taken lightly. The data, writes K.S. Singh, suggested that “contrary to the general impression and in spite of the higher value attached to vegetarianism, only about 20 per cent of Indian communities were vegetarian”. He writes that there was vegetarianism of all shades and nuances in deference to the compulsions of ecology, value systems, availability of food, etc., but there were vegetarians who took eggs, fertilised or non-fertilised; there were vegetarians who abstained from onion and avoided garlic; and males were mostly “non-vegetarian”. Another singular male trait was the consumption of alcoholic beverages, occasionally in 2,469 communities and regularly in 1,106. Women, he writes, “occasionally consume alcohol in 1,037 communities”. Smoking was very common; chewing of tobacco and the use of snuff was also widespread. Chewing betel was equally common in many communities. All this led K.S. Singh to conclude that “we are, therefore, largely a drinking, smoking and meat eating people”. He also reported a shift from vegetarianism to non-vegetarianism in some of the communities and also a shift from non-vegetarianism to vegetarianism among the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities.

In the volume on Scheduled Castes, K.S. Singh writes in the introduction: “The Scheduled Caste communities are non-vegetarian except such sections of them as have been influenced by Bhakti movements. The number of Scheduled Castes who are non-vegetarian are 404 (53.8 per cent). A number of them consume cow beef—104 communities (13.8 per cent) whereas 117 communities (15.6 per cent) consume ox beef; others eat pork (358 communities) and carrion (27 communities). Meat is their source of protein. In all these communities, alcoholic drinks are occasionally consumed; by men in 457 and by women in 284 communities. These alcoholic drinks are mainly purchased from the market, as only 20.8 per cent take home-brewed drinks.”

About the dietary habits of Scheduled Tribes, he writes: “Except for the bhagats, almost all the tribal men and a considerable number of women (occasional 49.8 per cent and regular 22.8 per cent) in tribal communities consume alcoholic drinks which are generally home-made. They are, however, now becoming increasingly dependent on the market for alcoholic drinks. Our study shows that 385 tribal communities who constitute 60.5 per cent of the tribal population are dependent on the market for the purchase of alcoholic drinks.” Clearly, by restricting the sale of alcohol to five-star hotels, the Kerala government is in danger of discriminating against the customary drinking habits of its tribal and other communities.

Historical evidence

But what do historical texts say about ancient and medieval Indian habits of alcohol consumption? K.M. Shrimali, former Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi, whose area of specialisation is ancient India, recalls a 14th-century text called Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi , written by the political thinker and historian Ziauddin Barani. The book documents the second ruler of the Khilji dynasty, Alauddin Khilji, taking steps to ban alcohol following concerns that intake of alcohol led to a conspiratorial nobility. But, as it turned out, Khilji himself never gave it up. “My data is essentially confined to the pre-Turkish era and I can say that there was hardly any genre of writing where we do not find evidence of intoxicants and their consumption. Whether it is the Vedic corpus, medical and philosophical treatises, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, the Kama Shastras—there’s hardly any genre of writing that does not mention intoxicants,” he told Frontline . Shrimali identified 50 types of liquors, not just the common ones. There were specific names for liquors based on the material that was used to brew them. For instance, the flower-based ones were called Madhuk and Dhataki; there were fruit-based ones, mainly from grapes, dates, coconut and even mango (Sahakar Sura); sugarcane-based ones and ones based on rice, barley and wheat which were blended with spices and yeast. “It was not just consumed by the Rakshashas (the demons) and the Vanaras (monkeys), but by our gods and goddesses as well,” he said.

The fondness for somras, or alcohol, of Indra, the king of the gods, was well documented in a hymn in the RgVeda, which is translated and reproduced in A.L. Basham’s The Wonder that was India . The hymn where Indra is bragging about his cups goes thus: “Like wild wind, the draughts have raised me up; have I been drinking Soma? Frenzy has come upon me, as a cow to her dear calf. Have I been drinking Soma? The heavens above do not equal one half of me. Have I been drinking Soma? In my glory, I have passed beyond the sky and the great earth. Have I been drinking Soma?” In fact, one entire section of the RgVeda is devoted to the preparation of Soma, said Shrimali. Similarly, the warrior goddess Durga was fond of drinks, especially of a type called Sidhu which was brewed from sugarcane, Dhataki, and meat. Tantric cults used liquor in a big way and Mahua (a drink brewed from the mahua flower) was offered to Bhairon (another name for the ascetic deity Siva). “For early Vedic society, Som was very central to Aryan thought. It was almost a kind of a mascot. In fact, archaeologists have been able to trace evidence of this liquor (brewed from the roots of a plant, Ephedra distachya ) in Togolok in South-East Turkmenistan,” he said. There are references to ale houses in early medieval Bengal called “Ganja”.

Further, the use of liquor was prevalent in various Vedic rituals. One particular ritual, a fertility rite called Vajapeya, involved ablations of food and drink and the one who performed the ritual was called Vajpayee. Shrimali said that the epics, too, had copious references to alcohol. In the Ramayana, when Rama is asked to go into exile, the city of Ayodhya was described as a tavern deserted by drunkards. When Bharata returns to Ayodhya, he remarks about the absence of Varuni, a kind of liquor. In some manuscripts of the Ramayana, Sita herself is supposed to have enjoyed “Maireyaka”, a kind of wine made from various spices and jaggery. She also promises to worship the river goddess with one thousand pitchers of wine. “These two allusions are not in the critical versions of the epic,” said Shrimali. The Mahabharata, too, has innumerable examples of alcohol consumption; for instance, Krishna drinking with Arjuna; or Yudhishtira performing the Ashwamedha sacrifice, which is likened to a sea of “Mariyek liquor”. There is also a reference to liquors like “Sura” and “Mariyek” being distributed to the poor and the disabled during festivals on Mount Raivatak. The Buddhist Jatakas too narrate several stories of caravan traders and shops of liquor in the market. Clearly, a lot of drinking was happening among the classes and the masses. Textual literature did talk about the evils of drinking, said Shrimali, but it was more like the statutory warning on cigarette packets.

He added that P.V. Kane, an expert on the dharmashastras who was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1963, has written about offerings made to female ancestors accompanied by libations of Sura and other fermented liquids. In some of the dharmashastras, hard and strong forms of liquor were served to guests, especially when people entered a new house. It was served to women when a bride arrived at the groom’s house and served to women dancers at the time of marriages. Shrimali, who has taught social, economic, cultural, religious and archaeological history, pointed out to an interesting contradictory feature in the Manusmriti where Sura is described as a sin and an impurity and therefore banned for Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. And Sura, it says, is of three types: Goudi, Paishti and Madhavi. In the same vein, the text also says that Brahmins should not drink any of these three. The other two castes were presumably left out. “It was written by Brahmins. Hence, it served to assert the superiority of that community,” he added. The various types of alcohol that have existed from ancient times include Mariyek, Sura, Madira, Prasanna (made from rice meal and spices, referred to in Kautilya’s Arthashastra), Arishta (in Samhita Sushruta, the medical treatise), Kharjur (from dates), Mardavik (from grapes, also mentioned in the Arthashastra), Avadatika (in Panini), Kashaya (in Panini), Narikel Asav (from Coconut, mentioned in the Vishnu Dharmasutra), Maasar (made from rice and spices and mentioned commonly in Vedic texts) and Kadambari (from the Kadamb fruit).

Need for well-considered policy

While there is ample ethnographic and historical evidence, contemporary and ancient, that shows that the people of India have not been averse to consuming spirits on all occasions, Professor Nimesh Desai, Director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, told Frontline that there was overwhelming evidence suggesting that prohibition did not work. A psychiatrist by training and profession, he said a knee-jerk response was not the solution. “Governments and governing systems throughout human history have been ambivalent about an issue like alcohol. There should be detailed studies of whether prohibition works,” he said, pointing out that some liquor policy has to be followed. He said there was no doubt that prohibition would lead to bootlegging and illicit vending of liquor and the crime rate relating to bootlegging would go up. The U.S. example, he said, was there for all to see. “There was a connection between the Great Depression of the 1920s and prohibition,” he said. “There is a class issue as well here. Why allow it in five-star hotels?” he asked, referring to the selective approach of the Kerala government. What was required was a well-considered policy, he said. “Bootlegging will go up in a State like Kerala.” About the possibility of people going into throes of depression because of the ban, he said that there would be no problem on that front as “somehow they would manage to get it”. Professor Desai said that being an advocate for a rational alcohol policy and having been a public health specialist and having worked for the last 20-25 years in prevention of alcoholism, he felt that a high literacy rate, greater affluence and better development indicators did not necessarily translate into healthy habits. This was a concern, he said, but prohibition was no solution.

Therefore, since dietary habits are, after all, a matter of taste, the principle of de gustibus non est disputandum (in matters of taste, there can be no disputes) should be followed here. One man’s meat can be another man’s poison. But, clearly, the ban has more to it than meets the eye but the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government in Kerala is blindly aping the present votaries of the “ban” culture.

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