“Humankind was built on beer. From the world’s first writing to its first laws, in rituals social, religious, and political, civilization is soaked in beer.”
William Bostwick. Beer Critic for the Wall Street Journal.
More than being a deliciously compelling beverage, Handia is an integral and inseparable part of the culture and history of many tribes and communities in India, especially in the eastern and north-eastern regions. It occupies a central place in their social, cultural, and economic lives. No tribal festival is complete unless this potent potion that brings cheer, joy and abandoned elation, is partaken. In some communities like Santhals and Mundas, it is regarded as a sacred drink. It is a symbol of hospitality, friendship, and celebration and a source of livelihood for many rural households who sell Handia in local markets or roadside stalls.
Handia, therefore, is a drink that connects people with their roots and their history. And the roots are deep and firm. For example, among Santhals, it is very much connected with their very creation. Santhals believe in one “supreme being” whom they call Thạkur Jiu (Life Giver) or Marangburu (Great Mountain) who is the “supreme” among all the “religious beings”. According to this myth, the Supreme deity, ‘Maran Buru’, taught the first human pair of Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Budhi how to prepare Handia. Maran Buru brought the Soma to them, who in turn made a bowl of green leaves and offered a drink to ‘Maran Buru’. Handia, thus, is no ordinary drink, its divine and sanctified by their very Gods.
Fermentation-An Early Tradition
In the corridors of time, fermented foods and beverages emerge as silent witnesses to the evolution of culinary and cultural practices. The annals of the Harappan civilization whisper tales of clay pots crafting fermented potions during the Vedic period. From the Indus Valley to the Middle East, from the Egyptians to the Romans, fermentation transcended borders, leaving its mark on the palates of civilizations.
Born out of necessity, fermentation transformed into an art that not only preserved but elevated flavours. The Rigveda, a hymn to ancient wisdom, unveils the first steps of fermentation in the preparation of Soma juice. Post-Vedic eras witnessed a kaleidoscope of beverages - medaka, prasanna, asava - dancing on the tongues of the connoisseurs and commoners alike. Handia, thus, emerges as a continuum, a marriage of pleasure, health, and economic promise.
Social and Cultural Pivot
The cultural and social sphere of tribals resonate with the purity and passion of these drinks. Festivals and ceremonies are occasions where Handia paintsremains irreplacable, both as an offering to deities and a companion in communal feasts. In the dances of marriage, festivals, and daily life Handia takes centre stage, a libation that offers both ecstasy and sustenance.As it breathes life into tribal identity and becomes part of their customs and rituals, it also evolves as a symbol of hospitality, greeting guests with this elixir and extending warmth and friendship.
Tradition's Evolution into Commerce
Beyond its cultural contour, it also becomes a source of livelihood, with some communities venturing into its small-scale commercial production, supplementing an otherwise modest means of a truly simple people. Once confined to the grandeur of marriage feasts, Handia, for economic reasons, transcends its ceremonial roots, finding a niche in the daily commerce of tribal communities. Women, guardians of tradition, now grace roadsides during weekly haats, purveying the elixir to the curious passers-by. Handia's economic significance, a parallel narrative to its cultural salience, weaves threads of sustainability for those partaking in its creation.
Whispers in Folklore
Handia’s place in tribal folklore is more like an elusive spirit, which embellishes the cultural narratives of tribal communities. While direct sagas might elude documentation, oral traditions paint a canvas where myths and rituals intertwine with the brewing of this traditional rice elixirs. Mythical tales abound around a deity bestowing the art of Handia brewing upon the community, portraying the drink as a divine gift.
And cultural heroes emerge, celebrated for championing tribal traditions, with Handia becoming a symbol of resistance, unity, or jubilation. In the fabric of tales, the healing elixir finds its place, credited with miraculous properties that soothe communities in times of sickness or hardship. Handia, in these narratives, becomes not just a drink but a spirit watching over the tribe, a guardian in times of adversity.
Handia as a Healer
Handia over time has emerged not only as a potion but as a healer, endowed with medicinal properties deeply rooted in tribal beliefs. While the scientific gaze may not have fully embraced these claims, communities ascribe to Handia, benefits that range from power to improve digestion, boost immunity, and alleviate stress.
Its anti-malarial potential is put to test in many regions, where Handia, fortified with herbal ingredients, is believed to repel the shadows of this ancient foe. The elixir becomes a tonic for liver health, a guardian against blood pressure imbalances, and a shield warding off the spectre of jaundice. Though approached with caution, these tales reveal the deep integration of Handia into the health narratives of the tribal tradition.
Navigating Challenges, Seeking new Horizons
Yet, during its seamless evolution, challenges do linger. The unbridled production of this elixir sometimes treads perilous grounds, veering into apprehensions where quality and safety standards waver. There have been tragic consequences and therefore, recent endeavours, seek to standardize production, ushering in an era where safety and quality walk hand in hand.
In the broader landscape, increasingly a renaissance is unfolding, as entrepreneurs and organizations embrace the allure of traditional and indigenous beverages. Handia, once confined to tribal domains, tantalizes taste buds beyond, beckoning markets both within India and across borders. As the wheels of commerce turn, challenges of regulation, quality control, and packaging loom. Yet, in overcoming these hurdles, Handia stands poised to enchant a global audience, a cultural emissary from the heart of tribal India.
A Timeless Tradition
Handia, in the heartlands of tribal India, ceaselessly weaves its tale. More than a beverage, it is a heritage handed down through generations, a social adhesive binding communities, and an economic beacon lighting the path of sustenance. As Handia embarks on a journey from tradition to commerce, it carries with it the essence of cultural diversity, a sip of authenticity in a world thirsty for heritage.
In each glass of Handia, history, culture, and tradition converge, creating a symphony that echoes through time. As the elixir touches lips, it whispers tales of gods and cultural heroes, of healing and celebration, and of a timeless tradition that refuses to be confined. Handia, the brew of tradition, flows not just in rivers of celebration but in the veins of a culture, breathing life into the legacy of tribal India.
(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)