Despite all the shrill debates about Hindustan and its culture, its dramatic and suffering core – call it Hindustaniyat if you will – is gradually being swallowed by the mists of that artificial and grammatically incorrect term, Hindutva.

The unique beauty of our syncretic culture is that it has always been a sort of holding company for various ethnic groups and their own unique cultures, languages, dialects, along with a huge body of believers, rationalists, and heretics. People who suppose that these little cultures were basically imitative and can be easily subsumed within one Big Culture, are dead wrong. The perspectives and cultural values the champions of Big Culture offer – from vegetarianism to using the Roman script for various Indian languages – are completely at odds with ground reality.

India now seems to be heading towards a nanny state. But this is a nation in which people below the age of 40 constitute 80% of the total population. What totalitarian arm of the state can successfully straitjacket this vast and hormonally-explosive mass to craft a cultural monolith that will force them to abstain from wilfully eating meat, drinking alcohol, going out in the streets, or seeking the attention of members of the opposite sex?

As Narada, the divine messenger, tasked by an irate father to snuff the love between two young lovers, cries out in Padmavat: “Na Naarad tab roye pukara, Ek Julahey se main haaraa! [Ah, for all my wisdom, I stand beaten by a lowly heretic weaver (Kabir)!]”

Indus Valley ‘distillery’

The alcoholic beverages that the neo Puritans heading various state governments seem intent on banning have been around forever. From clay items such as a complete set of distillation items and vats recovered from excavation sites, it is clear that as far back as the Indus Valley civilisation, the people living in the region that comprises modern India and Pakistan, practiced both fermentation and distillation of beverages using sweet and starchy items.

The Rigveda frowns upon drinking. But perhaps realising the uselessness of imposing total prohibition, it creates a set of rules to guide prudent drinking. It prohibits alcohol for Brahmins and students, but soma, a fermented beverage, is offered to gods who love it.

A little later, when the sutras were written, we have its unknown writers permitting the downing of alcohol on happy social occasions such as the arrival of honoured guests, or when a new bride first enters her husband’s home.

By the time of the later Vedic culture, things got more liberal. In this period, there are references to various kinds of fermented drinks – kilala that was made out of a cereal of the same name; masara, made out of a filtered rice gruel, or kanji; and parisruta, various fermented beverages made out of the juices of certain flowers and special grasses.

Four types of liquors are mentioned in Valmiki’s Ramayana, while Kautilya’s Arthshastra (fourth century BCE) mentions a dozen. The Arthshastra also mentions the existence of taverns in most villages replete with seats for regular customers.

The ancient physicians also adopted a prudently balanced view of drinking. They warned against excessive drinking, noting that alcohol was prone to increase pitta (bile) and cloud one’s judgment. The physicians also believed that the excessive intake of alcohol may damage physical appearance and vitality by subjugating the kapha and vata elements in the human body. (According to Ayurveda, vata, pitta and kapha are the three biological energies in a person’s constitution). The physicians pragmatically concluded that a light wine mixed with fruit may be enjoyed with friends during the winter and spring months. They advised that alcohol should be avoided during the summer and rainy season.

Medical treatises of Charaka, one of the principal contributors to Ayurveda, list 84 such intoxicating beverages made from grains, honey, sugarcane, sap from the coconut and palmyra trees, and from fruits like grapes, mangoes, dates and ber, and flowers like mahua and kadamba. Of these madhira, or wine, was made using natural sugar such as honey, jaggery or molasses as a base to which the juices of dhataki flowers were added for flavour. Asavas (an infusion) were created out of extracts of flowers and fruits. Three types of distilled drinks are mentioned: sura, madya and shidhu.

Mahua flowers are still used to make liquor in Adivasi areas in central India. Photo credit: Lvcrn/Flickr [Licensed under Creative Commons by 2.0]

There was an obvious caste-class divide in the ancient customs of drinking. The royalty was forbidden to drink grain-based liquors, but enjoyed maireya, a spicy wine made out of fruits and flowers with a natural sugar base. This is the drink offered to Sita by Rama in the Valmiki Ramayana. And later, after they are banished from Ayodhya for 14 years, with hands folded in benediction, Sita offers a thousand pots of the alcoholic drink sura along with meat cooked with rice to the great river goddess Ganga, upon their safe return (Sura Ghat Sahastrena mans bhutodanen cha/Yakshye tvam preeyatam Devi, pureem punrupagataAyodhya Kand-89.)

Imported Roman wine

The Indian nobility also imported white and dark wine. There are mentions of wine made out of two kinds of grapes – kapisyani (light) and harihuraka (dark), imported from Afghanistan. Archaeological finds reveal that South of the Vindhyas, the nobility, already involved in robust trade with Rome, were also importing Roman wine in amphorae.

What of the ordinary folk? As they say, “Yatha Raja tatha praja [The subjects follow the King].” In ancient texts, there are various references to widespread alcohol consumption from Kashmir to Assam and Kerala.

Devotees and priests of the Tantrik Shakta goddess cult in Assam, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal routinely offered the goddess panch makara, which included madira (alcohol), maans (meat) and matsya (fish). Understandably, after the ceremonies, the devotees partook of the offerings as prasad. This practice continues today.

India’s Adivasi and tribal communities have a long history of brewing alcohol too. In Assam, they brewed a beer called Lao Pani, which is still prepared, while Adivasis in the central regions of India brewed, and still do, potent brews made out of mahua flowers, fermented rice and barley.

In the seventh century, during King Harsha’s reign in the North, Huen Tsang, the Chinese traveller, referred to caste-based drinking. He wrote that the nobility (Kshatriyas) drank fruit or flower wines, the rich Vaishyas preferred to drink strong distilled liquor, while the Brahmins mostly stuck to fruit juices. Around the same time, a merry Pallava king Mahendra Varman wrote his immortal one-act comedy, Matt Vilas Prahasan, a spoof on the drunken orgies of rascally holy men.

Fragments of Roman amphorae, such as these museum pieces, were found in Kerala. Photo credit: gordontour/flickr [Licensed under Creative Commons by NC-ND 2.0]

Merry Varanasi

Varanasi, the seat of high learning, is also the city of Shiva, a truly egalitarian god (Adi Deva), respected by both practicing Hindus and heretics. Shiva, the great animal lover (Pashupati), and a symbol of all art and yoga, is also known to favour intoxicants like bhang (an edible form of cannabis) and the potent datura, a plant from the deadly nightshade family. Under Shiva’s spell, Kashi has over the centuries remained a city of highly learned, liberal eccentrics. Bhairava, a form of Shiva, is said to be the chief guard, or nagar kotwal, of this lovely city. Since all guards must be propitiated first, alcohol is offered to him not only in Kashi but also in Ujjain and in Delhi’s Bhairava temple located in the Purana Qila.

Kashi has been a merry city of endless festivities and colourful festivals since Buddha’s time. In one Buddhist Jataka – part of a body of literature on the former lives of the Buddha – there is a reference to Madirotsava, also known as Surakshana, a Bacchanalian festival celebrated by the people of Kashi. During this festival, the king of Kashi offered free alcoholic drinks to all his subjects. During one such orgy, the Jataka says, some holy men got drunk, and went around creating mayhem after reaching their resting place. They threw sheaves of paddy at each other, shouted and had fist-fights before they finally dropped into a stupor and fell asleep.

According to the Varanasi scholar Dr Motichandra, the vestiges of the festival of Madirotsava can still be seen in the present-day Piyala ka Mela, a fair held in Varanasi on the first Tuesday or Saturday, in the month of Agrahayana (which corresponds to the period stretching from the last week of November to the last week of December) at Chauka Ghat and Shivpur. At this fair, the first toasts are offered to Kalika Brahmani and Satya Chamarin – two women from either end of the caste scale who presumably loved their liquor – before the daylong merry making begins.

Another Jataka tale refers to how one alcohol seller observed happy hours through the day leading to rioting by drunks in which many were injured.

In the South, the scene has been equally merry. The preferred drink for commoners here was toddy, brewed from the sap of the palmyra tree. And the steadiest customers along the peninsula’s long coastline were sailors. The Purananuru, a work of Sangam literature, speaks of toddy flowing like water in the port town of Muziri on the Malabar coast.

We hear that the best toddy came from Kuttanad in the now dry state of Kerala. Arrack distilled from toddy was also a drink much favoured by sailors. A Tamil proverb ascribes to the palm “801 kinds of uses which meet almost all the needs of a man”. Apart from toddy, beverages brewed from rice called thoppi were also popular. This was made by fermenting rice grains in “strong mouthed jars” for two days after which they yielded a highly-flavoured wine. Wealthier consumers would add fragrant dhataki flowers to enhance the taste and aroma of the drink. Wine brewed from honey in the mountainous regions was also matured underground in tightly-lidded jars to produce a much sought after wine.

An Indian toddy tapper in Telangana’s Nalgonda district. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP.

Mughals to colonisers

When the Muslims arrived in India, despite the Islamic ban on alcohol, right from the Sultanate period starting in the 13th century to the grand Mughals, the nobility and many of the rulers imbibed liquor regularly.

The Mughal emperor Babur referred to his periodic bouts of abstinence followed by drinking alcohol and consuming bhang in the Baburnama: The New Year, the spring, the wine and the beloved make one happy. Enjoy them Babur! For the world is not to be enjoyed a second time.

According to Father Monserrate, the Jesuit missionary who visited Akbar’s court, the emperor rarely drank alcohol, preferring to imbibe bhang instead. The ruler enforced a no-drinking rule in court but permitted foreign visitors their tipple. Akbar’s son, Jehangir, was a hearty consumer of alcohol and drank well and long. His successor, Shah Jahan, was a moderate drinker, but Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s son, was a teetotaller. His unmarried sister Jahanara, however, liked her drink.

Mughal Emperor Jehangir with a cup of wine.

In colonial times, the Portuguese added feni, distilled out of the cashew fruit, to the list of alcoholic drinks found on the subcontinent, while the British noted the widespread use of toddy and quickly taxed it, instead of attempting to ban alcohol.

The entrepreneurial Parsi community, ever ready to take up production of sound marketable items, brewed liquor on the small island of Udan near the port of Bombay, and later started distilling spirits with the guidance of the British. Parsis have had a long association with brewing and distilling liquor. King Jamshed of Persia is believed to have invented grape wine as a beverage of medicinal value several millennia ago. It is still referred to in the community as Shah Daru, or the royal medicine.

The first distillery in India was set up to make rum for the Army in 1805 in Kanpur, in Uttar Pradesh (then the United Provinces), followed by another unit in Rosa in Shahjahanpur, in the same state. By 1901 there were 14 registered distillers, and by Independence, the number had risen to 40.

The second colonisation

Today, the arguments against the free sale of alcohol and public drinking are many, and doubtless many of them need scrutiny.

But one thing stands out. Over the years a total ban on liquor has proved to be a failure in several states including Maharashtra, Nagaland, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh. All of them had to withdraw prohibition after a while because apart from a big shortfall in excise revenues, there was also a spurt in illicit bootlegging and spurious liquor production that killed thousands.

It is not drinking that kills, but lax regulations and corrupt enforcement authorities who should see to it that existing laws against the location of liquor shops in close proximity to schools and places of worship, and strict checks on the distribution of free alcohol to entice voters, are enforced strictly.

Our highways, likewise, must be patrolled constantly to check drunken driving. Using various kinds of subterfuge, those who are habitual drinkers are already subverting the Supreme Court-imposed 500-metre restriction on the location of liquor shops near the highway.

As for domestic violence, we all know that it gets its biggest boost from a tacit social sanction for violence against women, examples of which are seen in the public lynching of young women dragged out of homes for the so-called sin of being in a relationship with a young man.

The arguments for total abstinence look absurd, but they are less stupid than they are revealing. The invasion of homes and parks by the state police and the self-appointed guardians of public morality in the name of saving Hindu culture, who have the tacit approval of the police, is not only the victory of dogmatic Hindutva over liberal India, but also the definitive annexation of our beloved country by the so-called civilisation of a synthetic and totalitarian Hinduism. I mean civilisation, not the political system nor the state.

This is because the India of Shiva and the Sufis and the Kabirpanthis and Kanphatas embodies another culture foreign to the new Hindutva colonisers. At the same time, India is showing military teeth to neighbouring countries, it is regressing culturally towards its own murky past that led to its colonisation by a multinational company in the 19th century.