Arthashastra and brewing in India around 320-185 BCArticle 2 of 3 The brewing tradition in India 1st millennium BC.

Description and composition of beers in the Maurya Empire (India, 320-185 BC).


The Arthashastra lists and describes the composition of the fermented beverages of its time with an outstanding precision. Such technical accuracy concerning the making of beer was only achieved in the Chinese technical documents of the 6th century and later in Europe. The document speaks about 7 different beverages, beside various beer ferments and spices. The number and diversity of the spices used is astonishing. Some of them are used for technical reasons: addition of sugars and preservatives. Others serve as condiments and modify the flavour of the beverages. It is difficult to ascertain the completeness of this inventory, and it is unlikely that it could exists for a such wide territory as that of the Maurya empire.

The presence of the amylolytic ferment kinva links the ancient Indian brewery to the Chinese and Asian brewing traditions in general. The central historical question is posed. Did one tradition influence the other, Indian tradition ⇔ Chinese tradition? And if so, in what direction?

It would seem, subject to further study, that each of the brewing traditions is not as unified as it is believed to be at 1st millennium BC. In China as in India, several technological paths for beer brewing coexist: malted beers, beers with amylolytic ferments, and probably also beers brewed with acid-alcoholic fermentations and anothers with insalivated loaves from cooked starch.


The Arthashastra speaks about 7 fermented beverages: the medaka, the prasanna, the svetasurā, the ásava, the arista, the maireya  and the madhu.

The first 3 (medaka, prasanna, svetasurā ) are rice, barley or millet beers brewed with the amylolytic ferment (kinva) made with cooked grains or beans[1] .

The next 3 (ásava, arista, maireya) are palm, fruit or sugar cane wines.

The last (madhu) is a mead, sometimes mixed with sugar cane wine as a substitute for honey.

   Usual units
1 drona = 13,2 kg
1 ádhaka = 3,3 kg
1 prastha = 825 g
1 palas = 51 g

Here is this long in-extenso inventory. Its text is of difficult reading but essential to understand the richness of Indian food techniques at that time as well as the sophisticed beer brewing methods. We can see that the brewery is at the crossroads of many techniques. The preparation of the 3 kinds of beer requires many vegetable ingredients (the conversion of the ancient Indian measures is given in the commentary after the text). The identification of plant species is taken from R. Shamasastry (1915) (Maurya Empire, note 2) :


« Of various kinds of fermented beverages (surā) such as medaka, prasanna, ásava, arista, maireya, and madhu:

  • Medaka-beer is manufactured with 1 drona of water, ½ ádaka of rice and 3 prastha of kinva (ferment).
  • 12 ádhakas of flour (pishta), 5 prasthas of kinva (ferment), with the addition of spices (játisambhára) together with the bark and fruits of putraká (a species of tree) constitute the prasanná-beer.
  • 100 palas of kapittha (Feronia Elephantum), 500 palas of phánita (sugar) and 1 prastha of honey (madhu) form ásava.
  • With an increase of ¼ the above ingredients, a superior kind of ásava is manufactured; and when the same ingredients are lessened to the extent of ¼ each, it becomes of an inferior quality.
  • The preparation of various kinds of arishta for various diseases are to be learnt from physicians.
  • A sour gruel or decoction of the bark of meshasringi (a kind of poison) mixed with jaggery (guda) and with the powder of long pepper and black pepper or with the powder of triphala (1 Terminalia Chebula, 2 Terminalia Bellerica, and 3 Phyllanthus Emblica) forms Maireya.

To all kinds of fermented beverages (surā) mixed with jaggery, the powder of triphala is always added.

The juice of grapes is termed madhu [2]. Its own native place (svadesa) is the commentary on such of its various forms as kápisáyana and hárahúraka.

1 drona of either boiled or unboiled paste of másha (Phraseolus Radiatus), 3 parts more of rice, and 1 karsha of morata (Alangium Hexapetalum) and the like form kinva (ferment).[3]

In the manufacture of medaka and prasanna, 5 karshas of the powder of (each of páthá (Clypea Hermandifolio), lodhra (Symplocos Racemosa), tejovati (Piper Chaba), eláváluka (Solanum Melongena) honey, the juice of grapes (madhurasa), priyangu (panic seeds), dáruharidra (a species of turmeric) black pepper and long pepper are added as sambhára, requisite spices.

The decoction of madhúka (Bassia Latifolia) mixed with granulated sugar (katasarkará), when added to prasanna, gives it a pleasing colour.

The requisite quantity of spices to be added to ásava is one karshá of the powder of each of chocha (bark of cinnamon), chitraka (Plumbago Zeylanica), vilanga, and gajapippalí (Scindapsus Officinalis), and two karshas of the powder of each of kramuka (betel nut), madhúka (Bassia Latifolia), mustá (Cyprus Rotundus), and lodhra (Symlocos Racemosa).

The addition of one-tenth of the above ingredients (i.e., chocha, kramuka, etc.), is (termed) bíjabandha.

The same ingredients as are added to prasanná are also added to white beer (svetasurá).

The liquor that is manufactured from mango fruits (sahakárasurá) may contain a greater proportion of mango essence (rasottara), or of spices (bíjottara). It is called mahásurā when it contains sambhára (spices as described above).

When a handful (antarnakho mushtih, i.e., so much as can be held in the hand, the fingers being so bent that the nails cannot be seen) of the powder of granulated sugar dissolved in the decoction of moratá (Alangium Hexapetalum), palása (Butea Frondosa), dattúra (Dattura Fastuosa), karanja (Robinia Mitis), meshasringa (a kind of poison) and the bark of milky trees (kshiravriksha) mixed with one-half of the paste formed by combining the powders of lodhra (Symplocos Racemosa), chitraka (Plumbago Zeylanica), vilanga, páthá (clypea Hermandifolia), mustá (cyprus Rotundus), kaláya (leguminous seeds), dáruharidra (Amonum Xanthorrhizon), indívara (blue lotus), satapushpa (Anethum Sowa), apámárga (Achyranthes Aspera) saptaparna (Echites Scholaris), and nimba (Nimba Melia) is added to (even) a kumbha of liquor payable by the king, it renders it very pleasant. 5 palas of phánita (sugar) are added to the above in order to increase its flavour. » (Arthasastra, Livre II, Chapitre 25).


The technical preciseness of this text is impressive[4]. Beer holds the first place, due to its geographical spread, its economic importance and its social role. We will analyse the technique of Indian brewing under the Maurya empire according to the above recipes, especially the ratios of the weighed raw materials (RM) / end product (brewed beer, also weighed).

The medaka-beer = 13.2 kg or liters or water + 3.3 kg of rice + 0.825 kg of kinva-ferment. The ferment is composed of starchy material, which will be assumed here to be rice. RM = 4.1 kg or 4.5 liters (av. rice density = 0.9 g/cm3). So the volumic ratio "brewing dry RM / water" equals 1: 3.5; it is within the ordinary density range for the traditional beers.

The prasanná-beer = 39.6 kg of flour (pishta) + 4.125 kg of kinva-ferment + spices. That is to say a RM weight = 43.7 kg. The volume of water is not given by the text; a volumic ratio is not calculable. Note that only the proportion of kinva-ferment is 2 times lower, based on the weight of rice flour for medaka-beer given above.

The svetasurā-beer, litt. "white fermented beverage". The Treaty does not give details about its composition.

The kinva-ferment = 13.2 kg dough of Phaseolus Radiatus (seeds of Vigna radiata, whose common name is the mungo beans in India) + 39.6 + 160 kg rice + seeds of Alangium Hexapetalum. A number of compounds extracted from the Asian Alangium salviforium (subs. hexapetalum) have showed antibacterial and antifungal properties.

The sambhára is a mixture of spices optionally added to medaka-beer or prasanna-beer. Every ingredients for making sambhára are required : 800 grinded seeds of Clypea Hermandifolio, idem Symplocos racemosa, idem Piper Chaba, idem Solanum Melongena, honey, grape juice, seeds of priyangu (unknown identification), a kind of curcumin, long and black pepper. The sophistication of this mixture (a kind of curry) probably meets the tastes of the Indian courts in the empire. It has also a technical role. The Pepper seeds are antiseptic. Honey and grape juice contain sugar, the yeasts covering seeds enable the alcoholic fermentation. The sambhára is a perfect brewing starter and an antiseptic for beer.

A decoction of Bassia Latifolia mixed with sugar grains (katasarkará, a kind of crushed sugar), gives a nice color when added to the prasanna-beer.

« The same ingredients added to prasanná are also added to the white beer (svetasurá) » says the text. But we ignore why this beer is said to be white.


A range of beers with medicinal properties are also prepared.

Finally, some recipes use the beer as an excipient to swallow miraculous medicines. Their composition is sometimes quite unusual. Among these wonderful recipes, the one below allows a whole month fasting, a religous purification practice usual for brahmins :

« The powder of másha (phraseolus radiatus), yava (barley), kuluttha (horse-gram) and the root of darbha (sacrificial grass) mixed with milk and clarified butter; the milk of valli (a kind of creeper) and clarified butter derived from it and mixed in equal proportions and combined with the paste prepared from the root of sála (shorea robusta) and prisniparni (hedysarum lagopodioides), when drunk with milk; or a dose of milk mixed with clarified butter and surā-beer, both prepared from the above substances, enables one to fast for a month. » (Arthashastra Book XIV, Chapter 2. Wonderful and delusive contrivances).

For a detailled depiction of the fermented beverages : Mauryan empire.

The fermented beverage that helps, together with the vegetable milk, to swallow this mixture, is in fact a beer. It is brewed with barley, mung beans and peas-kuluttha: these are sources of starch, unusual for beans and peas, but perfectly suited from a technical point of view to make beer.


[1] The making of this ferment proceeds as follows: the cooked paste of peas, beans mung or cereal flour is used as a support to cultivate, by spontaneous sowing, moulds that can hydrolyse the starch thanks to their specific enzymes. The loaves or pellets covered with mycelium are then dried and later used as a "ferment" when brewing various beers. Mixed with a mash (starchy cooked porridge), these beer-ferments convert it into a sweet porridge (amylolysis) at room temperature. Alcoholic fermentation is concomitant if these same amylolytic ferment pellets also carry yeasts of the genus Saccharomyces. Alcoholic fermentation starts as soon as the fermentable sugars are released in the mash. In this way, such a ferment acts both as a starch saccharification agent and as a "leaven" to trigger the alcoholic fermentation.

[2] The Indo-European root madhu referred to mead. The translation Madhu = Wine may  result of a Greek influence after the military campaigns of Alexander the Great and the subsequent Greek settlements in Iran and Pakistan.

[3] Phraseolus Radiatus was poured into the genusVigna. Phraseolus Radiatus (the Mung bean) is now classified as Vigna Radiata. Not to be confused with the common bean Phraseolus Vulgaris native to Central America and the Andes.

[4] It is known that the text of Arthashastra has been amended and enriched over the centuries. The beers and their recipes may refer to brewing traditions and techniques in use after the end of the Maurya Empire.

Arthashastra and brewing in India around 320-185 BCArticle 2 of 3 The brewing tradition in India 1st millennium BC.