Long before European countries woke up to the ‘incredible taste of fermented grape juice’, prehistoric Indian communities were fully conversant with the intoxicating wines they could distill from plants and fruits. Beginning with the Rigveda, the first among India’s ancient Vedas, and ending with the poetry of Mirza Ghalib, eminent Urdu poet of the 18th century, India’s tradition and history prove that the temporal joys offered by a glass of wine and its complex spiritual symbolism were equally familiar to generations of Indians!
Mythology, say scholars, is the cornerstone of India’s ancient civilization. It successfully holds a mirror to societies that lived in this subcontinent long before the first book of history was written. What is more, the history of this country almost runs parallel to the thousands of legends spawned by the rich treasure of its mythology. Often, the strands of mythology and history are woven so intricately, that it is difficult to separate truth from fantasy. Thus, tracing the origin of wine drinking in India takes us on a joyful, evocative ride through various ages – both of mythology and history.
Rig Veda, the first among the four compendiums of wisdom from the earliest civilization of India, pays homage to Soma, liquor that was appreciated highly by the gods. Researchers point out that the ninth chapter of Rig Veda devotes 114 verses in praise of Soma, the ambrosial liquor, considered to be the ‘elixir of immortality’. Different sources from Vedic literature suggest that this liquor was extracted from the milkweed and was offered to the gods as libations during worship. The sources also mention that both priests and hosts were given to drinking Soma during Yagyas or fire rituals when holy chants praised Vedic deities of Nature. This practice, say scholars, gave rise to the belief that intoxication helped a drinker achieve a state of mysticism and brought him closer to a revelation of divinity. Indeed, Soma was the name of the Moon god, who in Hindu mythology is the lord of all herbs and plants.
In the practice of Yogic meditation too, Soma, the nectar of life, was considered to bring about a higher consciousness. The aim of many Yogic practices is the union of the ‘sun’ and the ‘moon’ energies – i.e. the hot and cool elements in a human body. This practice is equivalent to ‘drinking Soma juice (Amara-Varuni) or immortal wine’.
Indeed the word Varuni – or wine – tells its own story. Among the legends that are the pillars of Indian mythology, one that takes pride of place is Amrit Manthan, or the churning of the ocean to obtain Amrit. The legend appears in the Vishnu Purana and describes how the gods on one side and the demons on the other, churned the ocean to discover Amrit, the elixir of immortality. Among the ‘14 jewels’ that the ocean delivered during the churning, was: Mada or Sura, goddess of wine who married Varun, the sea god and became Varuni. Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune and beauty, Uchchaisravas, the wonderful white horse, Airawat, the heavenly elephant; Kamadhenu, the divine cow signifying plentitude; Soma, the moon; Parijat, the tree of golden flowers; Kalpavriksha, the tree that fulfils wishes; Rambha, the celestial nymph; Shankha, the conch of victory; Gada, the mace of sovereignty; Dhanu, the magic bow and arrow of power; Ratna, jewels from the ocean, among which was the priceless Kaustubh diamond; Dhanvatanri, the physician of the gods and lastly, Amrit, the nectar of immortality carried by Dhanvantari. The ocean also threw up the final poison, which Lord Shiva drank up to save the universe from destruction!
In pursuance of this legend, Varuni became the oft-used word for wine or liquor in ancient literature. Cultural motifs that emerged after the Vedic and Puranic ages, described her as ‘the purifying nectar of immortality, the agent of transcendental wisdom’. Other sources in mythology said that Varuni did not always bring on divine meditation. In the Mahabharat, for example, the drunken Yadavas caused the destruction of their entire clan after the Nirvana of Shri Krishna. So also, the Kauravas, in drunken stupor and arrogance, committed unpardonable mistakes that led to their annihilation.
With the combined impact of these positive and negative aspects of intoxication, wine became a popular motif in Indian mythology. It was considered that the ‘fermented juice of grapes’ produced a beverage pleasant to taste and created profound physiological changes in the drinker.’ Wine drinking, over the millenniums, became a powerful symbol of life, death and rebirth and represented a medium through which the drinker could ‘enter the presence of divinity’.
This has not changed through various ages of Indian history. In the excavations of the earliest pre-historic civilizations of Mohen-Jo-Daro and Harappa, there is ample proof that wine drinking was a common practice. In the Sanghol Museum, which stands on the highway between Ludhiana and Chandigarh, there are 15,000 antiquities of the Harappan civilization, among which are sculptured images of voluptuous women called Surasundaris, holding wine flasks in their hands as well as women drinking wine from elongated vessels. Monuments and records of the early empires of India – the Maurya, the Gupta, the Chalukya, the Chola, the Solanki, the Vijayanagar and many others – amply prove that wine drinking was a royal prerogative and was a symbol of the power of the king and his courtiers.
Indeed, other cultures that came to India in the early years of the first millennium, endorsed these beliefs powerfully. When the Sufis came to India from Persia in the 12th century, they brought with them the mystical poetry of philosopher-astronomer Omar Khayyam (1048-1122 A.D.). His Rubaiyat, with its famous verse (A flask of wine, a book of verse and thou beside me singing in the wilderness, and wilderness is paradise enow) became the anthem of wine drinkers who sought a state of ecstasy to ‘remove the veil’ that separated the individual soul from the universal soul. Poets and mystics who followed the concurrent Bhakti Movement in India, as well as rulers who patronized the burgeoning arts of India, found the theme of ‘removing the veil to unite with divinity’ fascinating. The poetry of Hindu poets like Meerabai, Surdas and Kabir used the symbolism of ‘the elixir of love’ copiously in their poetry.
Long before any Europeans came to India, Sufi imagery of wine drinking and dancing to create a state of super consciousness created a profound impact on Hinduism and brought about a fusion of Islamic and Hindu cultures that enriched India’s literature, art and philosophy. Wine drinking was equated with ‘drinking a glass of love (prem ka pyala) and devotion’ and these images became common in both Islamic verse and Hindu bhajans through the centuries.
If the Sufis influenced Indian thought, the Mughal monarchy took it forcefully forward by making wine drinking a refined art in their courts. The wine cup and verse, featured in Mughul court poetry and paintings, was an allegory for ‘the realization of the divine world’. In time, it acquired a political nuance – it was called a ‘world in miniature’ with wine or ‘the elixir of life’ poured into it. The words ‘filling the cup’ meant living a full life of power and success or joy. This symbol was used by the Mughuls to create the theory that they were universal and immortal rulers of their empires! Historical records say that despite the fact that Islam bans intoxicating drinks, Mughal emperors like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jehan not only followed the tradition of royal drinking, but also opened public bars in their kingdom. The ornate wine cups they made in gold with precious stones, are described in many documents of their eras.
But as the Mughul Empire approached its twilight years, the wine cup too changed its symbolism. In the empire’s decadent age, it became a symbol of eroticism. It created the lore of voluptuous courtesans dancing and singing while wine glasses passed from the ‘veiled saqui’ – who carried ornate flasks – to the drinkers. Mughul art – particularly miniature paintings – portrayed hedonistic scenes in which women served wine to the king and his courtiers. Court artists created wine cups from precious stones like onyx, jade or even rubies and emeralds. Several Indian museums, including the famous Bharat Kala Bhavan in Bhopal, display priceless wine cups carved out of precious stones, crystal and metals, carved with delicate wine leaves and creepers. The immortal poetry of Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869 A.D.) echoed the melancholy of this age. It bemoaned the loneliness of man; the indescribable sorrow of losing ‘the beloved behind the veil’ and the poet’s yearning for death through an otherworldly imagery.
Today, despite the burgeoning spread of the Western party-and-hospitality culture in the country, in good old Indian parlance, wine or liquor is still known as Varuni, Soma Rasa, Madya, Madhu or Mai. The bar – variously called ‘Maikhana’, ‘Maikada’ or ‘Madhushala’ – continues to be a symbol of man’s search for a higher consciousness and elevation to divine spaces. Two modern poets – one a Hindu and the other a Muslim – have contributed greatly to this continuing idiom. Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s masterpiece Madhushala has been immortalized through its rich, baritone recitations by his famous son, Amitabh Bachchan! And Nobel nominee Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s (1911-1984) touching lines (below) continue to mesmerize millions of Indians!
“Before you came, all things were what they are…
The sky was sight’s boundary…
The road, a road…
The glass of wine, a glass of wine!”