Napoleon once asserted, "On victory, you deserve beer; in defeat, you need it." For the tribal communities of northern and eastern India, life's simplicity transforms into excitement through a range of potent and magical beverages, used both in times of joy and hardship.In this rainbow of beverages that lighten and brighten the tribal skies of northern and eastern India, Handia (also known as Handi or Hadiya) has the brightest hue and lustre. Variously known by its several variants like Sekmai Yu in Manipur, Apong in Assam, Bangla in West Bengal, Lugdi in Himachal Pradesh, Kiad Um in Meghalaya; and Handia in Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhttisgarh, this rice beer enjoys a perch as ancient and exalted as civilisation itself. In the Bastar region of Madhya Pradesh where the tribal culture finds its most eloquent expression, Handia along with Mahua and Salphi brings cheer not only to their Ghotuls but even to their Quotidien life. Handia is accepted as a most sacred drink in the Munda and Santhal tribes, both claiming to be its inventors.
Its dominance over the social, cultural, and economic lives of its purveyors and consumers alike, finds few equals. It is more than just a drink; it is a tradition, a cultural emblem, and a livelihood for many. In this article, we delve into the history, preparation, cultural significance, and the challenges faced by this ancient elixir.
Handi-The Earthen Pot
The term Handia has been derived from the Hindi word ‘Handi’ that means an earthen pot, a deep, wide-mouthed cooking vessel, as it is in these modest earthen pots that this exquisite and potent liquor is brewed. Prepared from rice and a clutch of herbs, this rice beer is one of the most vibrant products of their indigenous culinary traditions.
Alcohol has played a central role in almost all human cultures since Neolithic times (about 4000 BCE). All societies, without exception, make use of intoxicating substances, alcohol being by far the most common. In fact, many ancient civilizations have Gods assigned specifically to the task of brewing alcohol.
Rice-beer is probably the oldest manufactured drink in the world. Over the years, it has grown into multiple types and styles. Indian rice beer is one distinct type, Handia among them being one of the most popular ones. Similar potions are prepared across the world known variously as sake in Japan, lao-chao in China, tape ketan in Indonesia, and khao-mak in Thailand.
Handia's roots burrow deep into the annals of history. The earliest evidence of its fermentation and consumption dates back to Indus Valley Civilization during Chalcolithic Period (3000 BC to 2000 BC). The excavations there produced earthen pots putatively used for brewing and consuming this liquor. The Vedas, the ancient Indian text, refer to a beer-like drink called ‘sura’, supposedly a favourite of the Indra-the leader of Gods. Kautilya has documented two intoxicating beverages made from rice called Medaka and Prasanna. And his treatise on statecraft also discusses the use of such liquors in the art of diplomacy. Around the same time, Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador to Maurya Emperor Chandragupta Maurya mentions about rice beer in his book ‘Indica’ where he mentions that Indians make wine from rice instead of barley. Curiously he also observed that Indians never drink rice wine except during sacrifice.
Crafting the Elixir: Ingredients and Brewing Process
The alchemy of Handia and its uniqueness arises from its simple uncomplicated method of preparation. The primary ingredients for making it include rice and a variety of indigenous herbs or roots that act as fermentation agents. The clutch of these herbs known as ranu tablets or Bakhar is a blend of 20-25 herbs acting as a fermenter. These ranu tablets, a critical ingredient, are mixed with boiled rice and left to ferment in humble earthen pots. The transformation unfolds over a week, resulting in a beverage with lower alcoholic strength compared to other Indian country liquors but adds to its flavour and nutritional value.
The fermentation process is crucial, and it can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on the desired taste and potency of the Handia. During fermentation, natural wild yeast and bacteria present in the environment initiate the transformation of sugars in the rice into alcohol, resulting in the production of the beer.
Bakhar, thus, becomes the defining ingredient to produce Handia. Liquor thus produced comprises of handia and rasi. Handia is the thicker gruel and rasi is the liquid top layer. Formerly, bakhar or ranu was prepared with more than 20 plants but with the depletion of many species it is now limited to less than 10. These are roots of samarkani, ankanadi, chaulia, kanga alu, patal garuda, habin jhad and bark of sal bisal, kuluchi with the whole plant of kalibahu. Equal quantities of these ingredients are ground together and sun-dried for an hour; the mixture is then dried in shade for few days, after which small tablets are prepared.
The first step in making Handia is to cook rice in water in 1:2 ratio; the cooked rice is then sun-dried, then stored in an earthen pot. Then 2-3 bakhar tablets are added per kilogram of rice in the pot, the pot closed and left in semi-darkness. In a few days, depending on the weather, the content of the pot ferments, making a hissing sound, which then settles down, signalling that the process is over.
The liquid layer, the rasi is separated and consumed directly or diluted, depending on the preference. The semi-solid handia is filtered using a bamboo or metal filter and served, again adding water if required.
Handia is best accompanied by a chutney of tamarind, chilli, and salt. Bakhar is reputed to have several medicinal properties, especially against malaria, against liver ailments, blood pressure and dysentery. Both handia and rasi are health drinks and the tribals believe that it keeps them cool and protects them from jaundice.
Bakhar Faces Threat
The sustainability of Handia's key ingredients, however, poses a concern. The indiscriminate collection of plants for Bakhar, without conscious conservation efforts, threatens both the cultural and health aspects of this elixir. In regions without forests, adulterated Bakhar has become a sad reality. As urbanization lures Adivasi communities away, the knowledge of Bakhar and Handia faces a perilous decline. Urgent attention is needed to safeguard this cultural and health drink from imminent threats.
In the next part of this article, we will delve deeper into the cultural significance and the intricate dance between Handia and the lives it touches.
(To Be Cocluded…)
(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)