Weekend at a 2400 year old Indian bar!

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

-- Prathik Sudha Murali

There is a famous Tantric couplet that orders its adherents to drink as much as they can. It reads, “PItvA pItvA puna: pItvA yAvat patati bhUtalE ! utthAya cha puna: pItvA punarjanma na vidyatE” which translates to “Drink ! Drink! May you drink again until you fall to the ground! May you get back on your legs and drink again, for this liberates you from the cycle of birth and death.”

Liquor has been a part of human civilization since time immemorial. From the immortal poems of Sangam literature to Harivanshrai Bacchan’s Madhushala, Wine has been an integral part of Indian culture and anthropology through the ages.

The Arthashastra:

Kautalya who lived in the 4th Century BCE wrote an extensive treatise on economics called Arthashastra, which serves today as a historic account of various economic activities and other cultural aspects of the Indian polity of that age. His work gives a detailed list of duties of the officer in-charge of liquor, which will be our subject of study on this Saturday night.

Kautalya’s Bar:

The bar of ancient India contained many rooms with comfortable beds and seats that are kept arranged. The shop was decorated with fresh flower garlands which themselves emanate good fragrance, in addition to which scents were sprayed. The décor of the bar changed according to the seasons, to make the customer comfortable.

There is also a narration of how merchants held casual meetings at a bar with half closed doors jovially witnessing a man fallen intoxicated with his mistress on the floor.

We claim that we’ve come a long way and try to bridge the gap by searching in the millions of books on history, but reading such texts do not seem to suggest as much.

Liquors served:

Beer, Wine, Vodka, Rum and Whiskey are recognizable to us, as were Asava, Prasanna, Maitreya, Harahuruka, Shvetasura etc., to an Indian who is 2000 years old. Kautalya discusses the details of their brewing techniques and the ingredients of various types of spirituous liquor.

‘A long island please’ is a phrase any visitor to a bar is familiar with. Cocktails have been in fashion not just today, but for millennia. Kautalya talks specifically about a cocktail, wherein two types of liquor called madhuka and prasanna are mixed along with sugar. This is supposed to give the cocktail a very pleasing colour. (Like Vodka assuming redness in bloody Mary)

Bar owner’s responsibility:

A Bar owner could not sell as much to everyone. Liquor was regulated and rationed. Kautalya uses the terms of a ‘quarter’ (ChaturbhAgam), ‘half’ (Ardha kudumba) and ‘full’ (Prastha).

Further, it was the shop owner’s responsibility to safely return any property of the cutomer. If a customer loses any of his belongings while being intoxicated, the bar owner was to make good the loss to his customer.

It was the government’s duty to appoint spies to keep an eye on the citizen’s average spending on liquor. The spies are also advised by Kautalya to check the amount of valuables the customers are going to carry home while they are intoxicated.

Home made wine:

From the fact that Kautalya specifically says that the government, may, during festivals, fairs and pilgrimages give the right of manufacture of spirit for four days to the people, we can deduce the extent of role wine played during such occasions. The Author can be contacted at sahagamana@gmail.com

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