The consumption of alcohol is looked down upon by several South Asian communities. Muslims and upper caste Hindus are particularly averse to alcoholic drinks in keeping with their religious beliefs. But the same doesn’t apply to many lower caste and tribal groups in the region. In fact, there are a number of indigenous Dalit (lower caste) and Adivasi (tribal) communities that consider alcohol an integral part of their lifestyle. Some even include it in their religious rites. The most commonly brewed variety of traditional liquor among South Asia’s indigenous groups might be rice beer. It is especially popular among the Austroasiatic and Sino-Tibetan communities that have been cultivating rice as a staple food crop for thousands of years. And like any other popular drink, rice beer has made its way into their folklore. Here’s a Santhal tale (from Cecil Henry Bompas’ ‘Folklore of the Santal Parganas’) outlining the effects of rice beer consumption:
The River Snake
Once upon a time a certain woman had been on a visit to a distant village. As she was going home she reached the bank of a flooded river. She tried to wade across but soon found that the water was too deep and the current too strong. She looked about but could see no signs of a boat or any means of crossing. It began to grow dark, and the woman was in great distress at the thought that she would not be able to reach her home.
While she thus stood in doubt, suddenly out of the river came a great snake and said to her, “Woman, what will you give me if I ferry you across the river?” She answered, “Snake, I have nothing to give you.” The snake said, “I cannot take you across the river unless you promise to give me something.”
Now the woman at the time was pregnant and not knowing what else to do, she promised that when her child was born, if it were a daughter she would marry her to the river snake, and if it were a son that, when the boy grew up he should become the juri or “name friend” of the snake. The woman swore to do this with an oath, and the snake took her on his back and bore her safely across the flooded stream.
The woman safely reached her home, and in a little time a daughter was born to her. Years passed away, and the woman forgot all about the snake and her oath. One day she went to the river to fetch water, and the snake came out of the stream and said to her, “Woman, where is the wife whom you promised to me?”
The woman then remembered her oath, and going back to her house she returned to the river with her daughter. When the girl came to the bank of the river, the snake seized her and drew her underneath the water, and her mother saw her no more. The girl lived with the snake at the bottom of the river, and in the course of years bore him four snake sons. Afterwards the girl remembered her home, and one day she went to visit her mother. Her brothers when they came home were astonished to see her and said, “Sister, we thought that you were drowned in the river.”
She answered, “No, I was not drowned, but I am married and have children.” The brothers said, Where is this brother-in-law of ours?” Their sister said, “Go to the river and call him.” So they went to the river and called, and the snake came up out of the water and went to their house with them. Then they welcomed the snake and gave him great quantities of rice beer to drink. After drinking this the snake became sleepy and coiling himself in great coils went to sleep. Then the brothers who did not like a snake brother-in-law took their axes and cut off the head of the snake while he slept, and afterwards their sister lived in their house.
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is an illustration of Kaa the Python (a character in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’) by the British book illustrator Charles Maurice Detmold (1883-1908). Charles and his twin brother – Edward were renowned for their striking portrayals of flora and fauna in a number of natural history and literary works. This particular image dates back to 1908.