Reigniting the Bhaati: Cultures of Alcohol Brewing in Bengal

in Overview
Published on: 30 March 2020

Arunopol Seal

Arunopol Seal completed his M.Phil in Development Practice from Ambedkar University Delhi. He is currently a Teaching Fellow at Ashoka University. He anchors a learning space in Bankura, and is a sport climber with a belly for mountaineering.

Since my childhood I have come to associate the word brewing with an image of a serving tray with a steaming pot of ‘Darjeeling tea’ in white bone china cups. It was not until my early adulthood that I learnt to associate the word brewing with alcohol—brewing as a sophisticated process of cooking, fermenting and distilling.

In April 2012, Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that the Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission (India), Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia had said that tea would be declared as the national drink by April 2013.[1] In every household that I have visited across the length and breadth of Bengal since my childhood I have been offered tea, with or without milk., whether it be at Buxa duar in Dooars or Noakhali in the South 24 Parganas or a village in Bagmundi, Purulia. A pertinent question is, what made the drink of the colonial elites such a universally important drink? What other drink and what other culture did it overshadow on its way to becoming the 'national drink' of the nation?

This article is an inquiry into that shadowy history before the tea came to be popularised in Bengal. I wish to explore what brew(s) were served or are still served (often secretly) to an intimate guest or during rituals amongst the various communities of Bengal. I will attempt to connect the dots to see whether the rise of tea is only a symptom of the gradual domination of a moral, industrial and urban bourgeoisie culture over various regional, subaltern cultures of brewing and serving brews; whether tea becomes the signifier of ‘high’ civilisation and whether the shift from the ‘other’ brews to tea is only a manifestation of the progressive gentrification of the subalterns.

Colonial Roots of Tea Brewing in Bengal
Food historians such as Colleen Taylor Sen tell us about how the British decided to break the monopoly of Chinese green tea and started supporting European planters interested in developing tea estates in the Indian Himalayas after they discovered that tea grew as a wild shrub in the Northeast and was used as a fermented pickle or as an infusion.[2] Around 1841, Dr Campbell established the first nursery of tea shrubs in Beechwood, Darjeeling.[3] Following that numerous tea plantation estates came up in Darjeeling, Dooars and Assam. Tea became cheaper in Britain and Europe as green tea and black tea from India flooded the British market. Gradually tea became the drink of choice for the masses in Britain. In an India Today article Shreya Goswami tried to investigate what made tea the preferred recreational drink of the masses in Britain. She indicates that the trend was a culture promoted by factory owners during the Industrial Revolution. The drop in price of tea coupled with its stimulating properties made it popular amongst factory owners who always demanded skilled and alert workmanship from their employees; hence they preferred serving tea instead of beer during breaks which often made workers tipsy, under-productive and prone to accidents.[4] She also points out that this practice made its way into the life of the employees working in British companies in their Asian colonies. Colleen Taylor Sen opined that tea still remained a drink of the urban anglicised elite in India until the 1950s when the India Tea Board, faced with a surplus of low-grade tea, launched an advertisement campaign to popularise tea, especially in the north where the drink of choice was milk. I was told by Gopal Soren, a sixty-five-year-old Santhali from Chachaanpur, a village in Bankura, that during his childhood he often saw tea leaf merchants brewing and offering tea for free to the Adivasis who came to the weekly haats (weekly markets) to exchange their goods for salt and spices, thereby introducing and inducing a tea drinking habit amongst Adivasis and the rural population.

The cumulative history of tea is not older than 150 years and there is a need to find out what was brewing in Bengal before the advent of tea.

Disappearing Toots: The Residual Cultures of Alcohol Brewing in Bengal
My journey started in Darjeeling and Dooars of North Bengal, both known for its tea estates of the colonial era. Kajiman Goley is a tea garden labourer from Dooars who later gained prominence in the area as a Tamang poet and a cultural activist. He maintains a museum in his small quarters as an act of preserving memories and cultural practices of the past. He showed me around his museum which amongst many other things had brewing pots and distillation flasks in which the Tamangs, Drukpas, Bhutias and also Nepalis brewed chhang, jaanr and raksi. These drinks were traditionally brewed by fermenting millets, barley or rice in bamboo barrels called a dhungro. Barm or yeast was added as a fermenting agent and the millets were left to ferment for two to three days. The fermented grains were called glum or jaanr. The jaanr was then passed through bamboo strainers and diluted with either hot or cold water depending on the season for consumption. Kajiman Goley said that although they serve CTC tea boiled in milk these days to guests, an old relative would expect chhang as a welcome drink.

Babit Gurung, a friend who lives in Samsing block of Darjeeling district, told me that jaanr in Darjeeling is similar to chhang but the fermenting agents are different. Marcha (amylolytic starters) molds of various kinds are used as fermenting agents and the process of fermentation is prolonged.

To make jaanr, finger millet seeds are cleaned, washed, and cooked for about 30 minutes, excess water is drained off, and the cooked millets are spread on a bamboo mat for cooling. About 1–2 per cent of powdered marcha is sprinkled over the cooked seeds, mixed thoroughly and packed in a bamboo basket lined with fresh fern (Thelypteris erubescens), and then covered with sackcloth. The mixture is fermented at room temperature for 2–4 days.[5] The saccharified mass is then transferred into an earthen pot or an airtight bamboo barrel and fermented for over a week. As the grains ferment for longer, the alcohol produced gets matured and the taste gets smoother. Some villages store it for a few months before consumption. The jaanr is served in a vessel called tongba, warm water is poured and then the fermented grains are soaked for a few minutes before a blind-ended wooden pipe of narrow bore, with fine holes on its sides is used to suck in the alcohol from the hot broth. More warm water is added when the fermented grains go dry, until all the alcohol gets consumed.  

Both Babit and Kajiman Goley informed me that unlike chhang or jaanr, raksi is a distilled spirit. Raksi is a common term in Nepali to refer to a distilled alcoholic drink. The Limbu community alongside other Nepali communities brew raksi. It is a colourless spirit produced through distillation of fermented kodo (finger millets) or rice. Fermented masses of millets, buckwheat, potato, canna, and cassava roots are distilled in a large cylindrical metallic vessel measuring 40 × 30 × 25 cm for 2–3 hours continuously over firewood in an earthen oven called bhaati.[6] A perforated container locally called phunga is placed above the main cylindrical vessel inside which a small metallic collector called poini is kept on an iron tripod called odhan to collect the distillate called raksi. Another metallic vessel with cold water is placed above the phunga as condenser. The bottom of the condenser vessel is plastered with mud with the tip of the phunga to prevent excess ventilation during distillation. Water is replaced three to five times after it gets heated. Raksi prepared after replacing condensing water for thrice is known as teen pani raksi; this contains a high amount of alcohol and is traditionally prepared for religious purposes. Raksi prepared after replacing the condensing water five times is known as panch pani raksi and is a common alcoholic drink. The traditional distillation apparatus can distil 2–4 kg of jaanr to get 1–2 litres of raksi after replacing condensing water thrice. Raksi is usually stored in bottles capped with a piece of dry corn cob. Sometimes, petals of Rhododendron flowers are mixed during distillation to give a distinct aroma to raksi in Rhododendron-rich regions of the Himalayas.[7] The alcohol content of raksi is 22–27 per cent.[8] Raksi is drunk directly without addition of water along with accompaniments such as fried meat or meat curry.

Jaanr and raksi are essential to solemnise the marriage ceremony of non-Brahmin Hindu Nepali and the Buddhist tribes. Marriage by elopement is a common practice in the Himalayas. Traditionally relatives of the boy, usually after three days of eloping, pay a visit to the girl’s parents with bottles of locally prepared raksi as an act of respect towards the verdict of her parents and pay the penalty for elopement. Once the girl’s parents grant the consent, freshly prepared raksi is served to signify the union of two families and the marriage is thus solemnised.[9]

Such practices of bridging the gap between two families through an alcoholic drink, although common among the Himalayan people, are slowly disappearing. Ethnic alcoholic beverages are also offered to family gods and ancestors, and they are also used in treating cases of spirit possession. Those who come to offer condolences at a funeral or a memorial service are served alcoholic beverages. Distilled liquor is offered during the construction of a new house, preferably poured in the first foundation pillar, by non- Brahmin Nepalis and Tibetans.

Both Babit Gurung and Kajiman Goley expressed their concern about the disappearing art of preparing traditional alcohol. People are forgetting their family’s secret recipes for preparing marcha as well. Microbiologists and fermented food enthusiasts, Jyoti Prakash Tamang, Namrata Thapa, Tek Chand Bhalla and Savitri mention in their article, Ethnic Fermented Food and Beverages of India, the tradition of keeping the knowledge of marcha preparation a secret amongst the Limbu's and Rai's of Nepal.

In Indian Himalayas, the production techniques of ethnic starter cultures to make alcoholic beverages are usually kept secret, and the indigenous knowledge of processing is not easily passed on.

However, the protected hereditary right of making ethnic mixed starters is passed to daughters by mothers, and she carries the indigenous knowledge to her in-laws after marriage. Traditionally women exclusively do the preparation of ethnic mixed starters, and marcha is prepared by the Limboo and Rai castes of the Nepali. Marital status is a strong determinant in the preparation of marcha by the Rai castes of the Nepali who allow only widows or spinsters to make marcha.[10]

Both Gurung and Goley said that with modernity came modern customs and modern drinks. Fewer women are learning the art of preparing marcha as most families today prefer drinking bottled soft drinks, foreign liquor or tea over the traditional alcoholic drinks. They observed that, over the past few decades, drinking traditional brews have systematically been vilified by the state, and consequently there is a certain taboo towards traditional alcoholic brews. It is often seen as a marker of backwardness amongst the hill tribes of the Northeast. On this note Kajiman Goley also added that such judgments would never apply to the harmful effects of foreign liquor or bottled soft drinks.

As I travelled south from the Himalayan slopes towards the Gangetic delta the stories of the traditional fermented drinks were more hidden. Fear of the excise department (locally addressed as the abgari daptor) was so high that people barely spoke about their brews. After long hours of persuasion one of my acquaintances agreed to talk about the various traditional drinks that they brewed.

Kajal Patra lives in a village close to the industrial town of Haldia. She spoke about how various brews were prepared out of fermented rice (called dheno), fermented potatoes and fruits (locally called pawchai), molasses (called cholai) and also out of a variety of cactus (locally called baj baron) which grew in the swampy bogs of the Gangetic delta. Today, most of these household distilleries have been shut and bhaatis have been broken. Most people buy their liquor from the state-regulated country liquor shops.

However, amongst the Santhals of Bankura the fear of the excise department has not blunted their spirits for brewing. Without much persuasion, Gopal Soren, a brewer and a shaman from Chachaanpur village of Bankura, spoke at length about their brewing practices. Gopal Soren mentioned three kinds of drinks which are of primary importance to their community—hadiahadiya, mahua and tari. While hadiahadiya is a fermented rice brew, mahua is a distilled spirit obtained from distilling fermented mahua flowers, and tari is the tapped tree sap of date palm.

Gopal Soren was busy brewing hadiya as he narrated how the brew is at the core of creation of the Santhals. He recalled the mythical story of the original ancestors of the Santhals—Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Burhi. While Gopal Soren washed the rice and started cooking it in a clay pot which they call tukui, he narrated how Marang Buru (the eldest god of Santhals) taught Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Burhi the Santhal way of life. Amongst many things, he also wanted them to engage in a sexual act and procreate. Since they were both mythically born out of the same pair of geese, and since they were brothers and sisters, they would not engage in sexual activity. Marang Buru taught them how to identify roots and herbs to assist in fermentation—while Pilchu Haram was taught how to chop wood, dig the earth and make clay ovens and pots, Pilchu Burhi was taught how to identify the roots and herbs and how to crush them with rice grains to make ranu (an amylolytic starter). Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Burhi finally managed to cook rice and ferment it with the ranu to make hadiya. They intoxicated themselves by drinking hadiya and then engaged in sexual acts. With a smile on his face, Gopal Soren said, “Without hadiya we would not have existed; that is why we need to offer hadiya to our ancestors during all festivals, and brew it at least during the four major festivals throughout the year.”

Similar to Kajiman Goley and Babit Gurung, Gopal Soren was concerned about the disappearing resource and the skill of making the starters. He said, “Half the jungles have disappeared, with them the roots and the herbs too, so have the skills of those who could identify them; these days many people brew hadiya with commercially available yeast but that is harmful to drink as the nature of fermentation is different.”

Our conversation went on to the habit of drinking and offering tea these days, Gopal Soren had an interesting response, he said that the sense of satisfaction has changed these days, “In the past when our relatives and friends came over for a function they would expect hadiya or mahua, and not much of the fancy food that we eat today. Unless one hurts ones nose after falling head on over the ground while returning from a feast, it would be considered that the guest wasn’t offered enough. Tea and biscuits are imports which the tea traders taught us while we exchanged tetul (tamarind), dhuno (sal tree sap used as incense), lac and other forest produce for salt and spices. Tea was never our drink. Even today if you offer tea or even foreign liquor to an old guest he will feel offended as we have not offered him the drink of our forefathers.”

Uncertain Futures: Brewing in the Industrial Age Civilisation
A counterpart of these narratives was given to me by a veteran industrial distillery owner from Kolkata. Ranjan Mukherjee and his family have been running industrial grade distilleries for over three generations. He explained to me how the state from the colonial era has been trying to control consumption and production of alcohol. He asked me to look through the 1909 Bengal Excise Act and the consequent amendments to get a better picture of the state's slow and steady progress towards gaining control over procurement of resources, production and distribution of alcohol. He said that there was a period in the commercial history of Bengal when state excise would control the trade of molasses (which formed the main ingredient for brewing alcohol) and also controlled the distribution of alcohol through controlling licensed vendors in each area. The state excise department has been trying to organise and control both the production and distribution of country liquor, and now it has managed to bring it completely under industrial control.

What appeared interesting to me is the coincidence of control over alcohol brewing through the state excise department (the Bengal Excise Act 1909) and promotion of tea estates. Tea estates were given aid to form regional associations, which would then be affiliated with national exporting/trading associations. For example, the Darjeeling Planters Association was formed and affiliated with the Indian Tea Planters Association in 1910. Synchronously, the state took active interest in establishing processing plants within the plantation estates to increase productivity. It may be assumed that because tea had a huge export value, it received a lot of state patronage. With greater production of export quality tea also came a great stock of low-grade/export reject tea which had to be dispensed off. The market in India, which was majorly a rural one, had no demand for tea. Instead people would drink milk or their traditionally brewed fermented drinks. Control over the production of alcohol within households and at the same time promoting the culture of drinking tea as a gesture of becoming more ‘civic’ were perhaps one amongst many other ways through which the market for the low-grade tea was created.

At the same time the excise department aimed at maximising their revenues on alcohol by licensing production and distribution, which lead to banning of production of alcohol beyond a certain limit within households. Decades of implementation of such bans have contributed towards a fear, denial and a practice of brewing in secrecy. People turned to bottled country liquor distributed through state-controlled vendors. Sale of bottled country liquor shot up, and today, Ranjan Mukherjee claims, 2 to 5 lakh bottles of a single brand of bottled country liquor gets sold per day.

The space of domesticity, however, underwent the most notable transformation. The space, which was once the very site of production, consumption and celebration of alcohol, started purging it out of its boundaries. It was as if the clouds of Victorian morality were slowly drifting from the urban colonial centers towards the rural countryside of Bengal, and tea was perhaps the only sanitised drink which one could drink to fill in the absence of locally brewed alcohol.   

[1] Press Trust of India, ‘Tea will be declared a national drink, says M

[2] Taylor Sen, "The Europeans, the Princes and their Legacy.’

[3] Indian Mirror, ‘History of Darjeeling Tea.

[4]  Goswami, ‘Tea was meant to be a replacement for beer.’

[5] Tamang, Thapa, Bhalla, and Savitri, ‘Ethnic Fermented Foods and Beverages of India.

[6] Tamang, Food Culture of Sikkim.

[7] Tamang, Thapa, Tamang and Rai. ‘Indigenous Fermented Food Beverages of Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim.’

[8]  Tamang, Food Culture of Sikkim.

[9]  Ibid.

[10] Tamang, Thapa, Tamang and Rai. ‘Indigenous Fermented Food Beverages of Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim.’

Goswami, Shreya. ‘Tea was meant to be a replacement for beer; a short history of tea as a beverage.’ India Today, December 15, 2016. Accessed February 22, 2018.….

Indian Mirror. ‘History of Darjeeling Tea.’ Indian Mirror. Accessed February 22, 2018.….

Press Trust of India. ‘Tea will be declared a national drink, says Montek.’ The Hindu, April 21, 2012. Accessed February 24, 2020.

Tamang, J. P. Food culture of Sikkim. Gangtok: Information and Public Relations Department, Government of Sikkim, 2005

Tamang, J. P., Namrata Thapa, Tek Chand Bhalla and Savitri. ‘Ethnic Fermented Foods and Beverages of India.’ In Ethnic Fermented Foods and Alcoholic Beverages of Asia, edited by J.P. Tamang. India: Springer, 2016.

Tamang, J. P., S. Thapa, N. Tamang, and B. Rai. ‘Indigenous fermented food beverages of Darjeeling hills and Sikkim: Process and product characterization. Journal of Hill Research 9, no. 2 (1996): 401–11.

Taylor Sen, Colleen. ‘The Europeans, the Princes and their Legacy.’ In Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, edited by Collen Taylor Sen, 208–37. London: Reaktion Books, 2015.