The sura-beer in Vedic and Brahmanic India (1500 BC 600 AD).


Location of India

For more than 5000 years, the Indian subcontinent has seen many brilliant civilisations flourish, particularly in the Indus and Ganges basins, on the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. From the mountains of Pakistan to the jungles of Bengal, from the Himalayan peaks to the island of Ceylon, the geographical and cultural mosaics are so profuse that even an overview of such a limited subject as the Indian history of the fermented beverages can only scratch the surface.

Our very schematic chronological framework is centred on the basins of the Indus and Ganges rivers and their tributaries.

The South, East and Centre of the Indian subcontinent require separate studies.


Beer and beer brewing during the Indus and Ganges Civilisations

Civilisation of the Indus 3300- 2600

Ancient civilisations of the irrigated plains (Indus and tributaries).
Prosperous agriculture (wheat, barley, eleusine)

 Urban cultures : Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Dholavira, Lothal, Rakhigarhi. 2600- 1750

First big cities. Sanctuaries and palaces.
Writing and advanced urban culture.
Expansion towards the east (Ganges) and south-east.

Archaeological remains relating to the brewing of beer: jars, filters, large storehouses for grains

Decline of urban cultures 1750- 1500

Collapse of the Indus city-states. No archaeological data.

Arrival of the Indo-Ârya from north-west 1500- 1300 Waves of semi-nomadic pastoralists from Iran
 Classical Vedic Period 1300- 300 Expansion of the Indo-Aryan tribes: Indus and Ganges basins.
Numerous kingdoms. Flowering of the Vedic culture (4 Vedas).
Beer (sura) is attested in ancient Vedic texts..
So-called Brahmanic Period -500  +600 Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Tantrism. The references to beer sura accumulate in religious texts and the political treatise Arthasastra.



This long period saw the foundation of great empires, interspersed with periods of fragmentation into independent kingdoms. The empire of the Maurya (322~185 BC) controls practically the entire subcontinent, then that of the Gupta (ca. 320~ ca. 420). The beer brewing in the imperial organisation of the Maurya is the subject of a separate chapter, as we have an essential text concerning it (Brewing under the Maurya empire).

The highly urbanised cultures of the Indus have all the economic and social characteristics of the great beer civilisations. But a scientific proof of its presence has not been sought to date.

The texts of the Vedic period provide a more firm foundation. The beer is called in Sanskrit sura (surā). The term refers both to all fermented beverages and to beer in particular. The most important fermented beverages are indeed based on cereals. The surā beer is used in every spheres of social life, both religious (Vedic rites) and secular.

The Indian sub-continent, like central China at the same time (1st millennium BC), is of particular interest. Two brewing techniques are used: saccharification by malting grains (wheat, barley, millet) and saccharification with amylolytic ferments (rice, dry legumes such as peas and beans). The Ganges basin seems to serve as a bridge between a western tradition coming from Iran as early as the 3rd millennium (malting of cereals) and an eastern Asian tradition (Chinese?) coming from Bengal or the north-east of the Tibetan plateau. This hypothesis must be confronted with two other possibilities : (1) both brewing techniques originated in India or (2) they came from China.

The so-called Brahmanic period bears witness to the fusion of these traditions, the diversification of brewing processes and the multiplication of the beer usages. The practical texts are eloquent: medical compendium, government treatises (Sura-beer and Brahmanism) or agricultural guides, Vedic and Brahmanic rituals, Buddhist precepts of conduct. All of them testify that beer is a beverage in common use and spread throughout the Indian continent in the 1st millennium BC.


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10/04/2013  Christian Berger