History is a very interesting subject. Sitting in a history class might be boring for some but it is in fact one of the most important aspects in everyday life. I mean look at the endless debates about events, evidences, claims and counter claims. Everything in history is shrouded with so much of mystery that it is difficult not to be amazed by it. When that is the case is it not important for us to dive into the history of beers. Well, more or less we might have numerous accounts of it already online and history of beers in general is not what this blog is about. This is specifically about the History of Beer in Ancient India.
At some point of time in our lives there is every possibility that we could have come across the intoxicant named Somras or Somabhanam. It is regarded to be a highly spiritual drink. It is said to be consumed by only the elite and for very special purposes. Descriptions of the experience include hallucinations and deep spiritual insights along with very high anti-oxidant properties. Still the true nature of this drink and its ingredients is to be established correctly. But it also had a distant cousin. It is named as Sura or Surabhanam. It was a civilian drink and the drink of the masses. It was available for people of all classes and its description perfectly fit what we now call as an alcoholic drink. What is more is that it is made out of wheat, rice or barley and is fermented using yeast. Sounds familiar? Of course it was our very own beer. Probably the oldest in written history in ancient India. There are numerous references and texts about the use of both these drinks but for us Surabhanam is more significant because it is undoubtedly a beer. Even in the Mahabharata, the Kshatryas have taken this very drink before going to fights, it is said.
Now, the next thing we should try to understand is the social status of these drinks. Sombhanam was of course revered. It was considered to be the drink made by Brahma himself and although it is only perception, the drink might be something similar to Ayahuasca found in South America with healing and spiritual properties attached to it. Surabhanam was more of a recreational drink something similar to beer and other alcoholic beverages which are available now. Also over the period of our history there are extraordinary amounts of references about intoxicant drinks and how it is blended with our culture.
But Surabhanam is a controversial drink nonetheless. It was not believed to be a very good habit to be drinking these drinks. Much like how alcohol is perceived in India today, it was most probably the same in those days as well. There are texts which condemn the act of brewing and drinking the brew. Also it was punishable. And some even discussed about its ill effects of consuming it. Maybe the perception of alcohol stemmed from these beliefs. Maybe they were not wrong. But I am not here to debate if it is so or not. But isn’t it interesting to observe that it was not the Britishers who first brought beer to India but it was our very own people who were more than familiar with it and had enjoyed it as much as anyone has ever done? And speaking of the Britishers, of course they are the ones who brought in modern beer to India. It is a very interesting story. But that is for another day……….