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The surā beer in the Brahmanic tradition (500 BC to 600).

India location


The term "Brahmanism" has a historical and cultural meaning here. It refers to the period that followed Vedism in India around 500 BC. It also refers to the highly codified ritual system that originated in Vedism and was maintained by the Brahmin class. The brāhmana is an officiating priest who holds the Brahman, a term which together refers to religious knowledge, the right to read sacred texts (Veda), to pronounce magical-religious formulas, and to perform complex rites and sacrifices.


The sacrifice Śrauta is part of the important Brahmanic rites. It includes the sacrifices of Soma and the havis-sacrifice. Among the latter, the sacrifice sautrāmani includes the preparation and offering of the beer surā. At the end of the ritual surā is drunk by the priest and the priests. The Satapatha Brāhmana describes the preparation of ingredients and beer in the caraka version of this ritual (V.5.4.1-35) and in its kaukili version (XII.7.1-9.3.16). The explanations og the brewing of the em>surā beer are complicated by the ritualisation of gestures, the terminologie of the procedure, and by an imitative codification of the sacrifices of the soma.

Nonetheless, these texts provide invaluable information about the techniques and ingredients of brewing. They can sometimes be supplemented by other Brahmanic sources[1].

The brewing ingredients are called the surāsoma :

  • Śaspa = malted grain, malted barley.
  • Tokma = malted barley or paddy rice (unhusked).
  • Caru= cooked rice.
  • Syāmāka= millet.
  • Lājā = grilled or roasted grain.
  • Tari= roasted rice grains that do not burst when roasted.
  • Nagnahu = flour/paste of pulses (peas, beans) and spices.


The semi-finished products of the brewing process are :

  • Kinva = amylolytic ferment or leaven for beer.
  • Nagnahu = idem.
  • Sambhara = aromatics to flavour beer.
  • Parisrut = brewing materials + beer ferments while fermenting.
  • Māsara= mixing of brewing ingredients or brewing dregs.


The main utensils are wooden pots of different types of wood. :

  • Kārotara = filter vase with hairs of 3 animals: lion, wolf and tiger.
  • Śatatranā = funnel or strainer pot with "100 holes".
  • Vālapavitra = sieve or filter woven with animal hair or horsehair.
  • Pājaka = perforated bamboo tube for pressing cooked rice.
  • Sata = pot, pan, or filter made of hair. Beer offering vase.
  • Indva = a lid made of herbs, circular support for pots and vases.


The general technical terms associated with the beer brewing are :

  • Surākāra = the brewer of surā beer
  • Asuta = be turned into sweet matter or alcohol.
  • Abhisuta = extraction, filtration.
  • Parisrut = to foam, to ferment.
  • Sandhana = absorption of the ferment by a semi-liquid cooked mass.


The surākara (the brewer) mixes the ingredients while reciting the Vedic verse svādīm tvā svādunā .... Some ingredients are crushed; one mash of rice, the other of millet are made with water, and cooked separately until boiling. The scum is collected to seal the lid of the pot later during the fermentation process. A portion of (unkusked) rice, and malter barley, roasted rice and a mixture of spices called māsara, are added to both jars.

The contents of each jar are then dried, crushed and added to the remaining grain in a large covered container and placed in a hole. This mixture, called parisrut, is in this case the mass left to ferment for one to three days. In some texts, milk and malted barley flour are added daily. After this time, the resulting fermented mash called surā is then filtered through a sieve made of hairs, sometimes interpreted as animal skin.

The deity Surā Devi was born from the foam produced by the churning of the ocean by the devas and the asurās; the beer-surā comes from the foam of the fermentation of rice and barley. The parallel is striking. The addition of milk during this cosmic fermentation does not change the nature of the fermented beverage brewed, an authentic beer.



A text from the Atharva-Veda (one of the 4 Vedas, sacred texts of the ancient Vedic religion and then of Hinduism), the Paippalāda Samhitā, offers two odes to beer-surā [2].

One of them praises the destructive beer, the initiator of social chaos and human suffering. This face of the beer-surā is put under the action of Varuna, god of war.

The second Ode sings of the blessings of the beer-surā, consoling and gentle to the heart of humans. This face of beer-surā is placed under the action of the Aśvins, the benevolent deities of the fertile and nourishing nature.

The poems are rather hermetic, but the general meaning is clear. Enamelled with technical allusions, these hymns are worth quoting in their entirety. It is unlikely that they describe a distillation as suggested by Marianne Oort and other authors[3]. The technique of amylolytic ferments is adequate to explain the brewing of more alcoholic beers than with malting. "Poison" refers to this beer-surā very strong, maybe 10° of alcohol and more like the Chinese sake or the Chinese jiu. This alcohol content would explain the brutal drunkenness described in the first of the hymns.

We borrow to Marianne Oort her English translations of these two hymns to the beer-surā.

Kānda 5 sūkta 10 : (Hymn) to the beer surā.

The first half of the text describes the brewing of the beer-surā< with rice + gruel + barley malt. The beer-ferments trigger a bubbling alcoholic fermentation. The evocation of the "blood-red poison" perhaps refers to the colouring brought by the moulds of the amylolytic ferments nagnahu. The second half describes the devastating effects of the beer-surā on drinkers who fight and lose their heads.

" This one, which is crushed by a pestle, ground by a grindstone, is a poison-brew.
Agni is burning heat; Heaven is burning heat. Become, o liquor, burning heat yourself.
"Poison is your malted barley (tokma)," said those who were raising [you]. Being poison, flow down into the pot.
Poison is your disposition, o liquor; poison are you when taken by hand. Become poison when put to [the lips].
Let your rice grain (lājās?) be a lion, [your] gruel (māsara?) a tiger.
Let the ferment be a panther. Flow into the heart of a wolf.
This [liquor], brewed in a cup, is, with [the taste of] malted grain in the mouth, nutritious.
Boar's ardor has arisen: shake the one with stretched legs (= earth).
[Surā] is agitating, shaking, dust-yellowish, nutritious.
The ardor of the uprooted one (= earth) has arisen: what is behind, make in front.
O liquor, let poison be in your strainer, the blood-red [sub-stance] in your pot!
Let them destroy the quivers and the bow of each other.
The red poison-drinkers walk around, these mortals drink-ing for strength, o liquor.
Those who are hit set each other to fighting: praise that power of liquor.
Flow out with the strength of the plant to them, make [them] fly up, make [them] drunk so that they set each other to fighting.
Let the one with a broken elbow fight the one with a broken head! With afflicted garment, (blood-) dripping is your drinker, o liquor.
Drink you, who are excited, the poison-brew, [which is] united with blood, mixed with red.
He who has his hand cut off walks around the village, praising all kinds of men-killings.
The knife-sharp, arrow-sharp [liquor] do I raise up from a pan.
Make [them] intoxicated, make [them] tipsy. Like a snake, cause them racking pain, let them leave nothing of each other.
" (M. Oort 2002, 356-357).


Kānda 8 sūkta 12 : (Hymn) to the beer surā.

This time the text is full of elation, because the beer-surā brings joy and symbolises the agricultural prosperity of the villages. The divinized surā is at the same time the life-giving rain, the nourishing plants, the cereals essential to mankind, and finally their fermented liquid version, the beer from grains that everyone can drink and share in its honour.

« Let Mitra and Varuna make you tasty, let goddess Sarasvatī make you tasty.
0 Surā, let the lotus-garlanded Aśvins make you tasty.
That (surā) whom the Saudhanvanas, the All Gods, together with the troop of Maruts, sprinkled,
Whom the Aśvins sprinkled, let that surā run abundantly.
Be tastier than tasty, be sweeter than sweet.
As the roe(?) is to the roebuck, so be you, 0 fortunate one.
Born from a cloud, born from the rain, born from the sky,
Then born from the sea, you become surā-rending.
From birth (onwards) you are called reed, so become surā-rending,
Because you had an auspicious friend, the sweet vikańkata tree.
O surā, the asura Aurdhvanabhasa (going upwards cloud?) made you first.
O surā, in the house of a dāsa the head and the stalk have produced you.
Dis[till] the mucus out of the ferret, and dis[till] the surā out of the stream.
Move up, strength bestowing; why do you linger in the curves(?).
Your people sit here, profound, overpowering.
O divine surā, circumambulate, making each person exhil-arated.
For a pot of which they get a cow, a horse, grain, goods, let that surā run abundantly.
They come here from the mountains, digging without a spade;
Their abode is the ocean, they have no resting place.
Let these give you bubbles/foam.
O bucket, bail up this surā, which we heartily desire.
Let Bhaga, the Aśvins, Sarasvatī not carry away that (surā) which is mine.
This [is] the divine mayūlaśa fetched from the mountains that will give the surā-rending
From the spout, the flow.
May the brains/skull piss like an ox in the middle of the sata pot.
[4]» (M. Oort 2002, 357).


In the texts belonging to the grhya category[5], the surā beers are drunk at weddings and funeral rites (Aśvalāyana Grhyasūtra 5.5). They are often mentioned as part of the payment in kind to women who take part in these ceremonies.

Brewing the surā beers belongs to the sphere of daily consumption and celebrations. Only an Adhvaryu can be a brewer (a surākāra) for the sacrifice sautrāmani, but brewing surā beers is a common activity apart from the Vedic rituals and religious pursuits.

The surā beer is an alcoholic beverage described and used as an anaesthetic by Sushruta, an Indian surgeon of the 4th century BC. Charaka, another medical authority of that time, administers alcoholic beverages surā, sidhu, arishta, madhu, madira or asava, to a woman suffering the pains of a miscarriage.

In Buddhist texts, beer-surā is cited as one of the 3 intoxicating beverages along with meraya and majja (Pali equivalent of Sanskrit madhu, mead). 5 kinds of surā are mentioned, some are beers, others are fruit wines or molasses (surā takes here the generic meaning of fermented beverage). There is also talk of a kind of bread made from sprouted grains and fruit soaked in water, moulded into cakes and dried. The brewing process consists of soaking these breads in water to obtain a sweet, fermented mush. The alcoholic fermentation is either spontaneous or caused by the addition of leaven. This is an ancient brewing process known in many cultural areas throughout the world.

Giving up drinking surā (in its generic sense of "fermented beverage": beer, wine and mead) constitutes the 5th Buddhist precept : "I agree to exercise the rule of abstinence from fermented beverages (surā), one source of the recklessness». This precept applies to ordained monks and nuns living in Buddhist communities (sangha) and to lay people seeking liberation by their own means. Buddhist schools do not prevent or forbid anything concerning those who do not devote themselves to their own liberation, that is to say the vast majority of humanity.

Brahmanic texts mention acidic beverages and several techniques to trigger acetic or lactic fermentation. Some vinegar recipes are close or parallel to amylolytic fermentation techniques.

TheAranala is obtained by heating a mixture of husked raw wheat in the sun for a week.

The Cukra is based on the roots and fruit of the plant with this name put together in fermented whey. The mixture is kept for three nights and purified through rice straw.

The Sukta is a mixture of molasses, honey, fermented rice water and whey. It is kept for 3 nights in a terracotta pot in summer.

The Kanjika is a mixture of boiled millet and barley with different plants.


The Indian sub-continent has a rich and long brewing tradition dating back to the first millennium B.C., rooted in the Indus and Ganges basins. Hinduism and Buddhism, a priori hostile to the consumption of fermented beverages by priests, monks and their followers, will not make this heritage, rooted in the ethnic mosaic, disappear. From the 8th century, Islam will only affect the political elites and the world of merchants in the western regions of the Indus (now Pakistan) and the coastal strip of Kerala in the South. The Mughal empire (1526-1857) will advocate religious tolerance without intervening in regional customs.

However, the picture needs to be tempered. Large areas of culture are very poorly documented in ancient times, especially in central (Deccan) and southern India. The same remark applies to the northern border, the foothills of the Himalayas and its kingdoms. The coastal regions of Kerala and southern Sindh, on the edge of the Indian Ocean, are rather devoted to palm wines, if we are to believe the accounts of the Arab merchants who frequented these shores during the 1st millennium of our era and settled trading posts there.

Further detailed studies are needed to get a comprehensive view of the beer brewing in the vast Indian subcontinent during the Antiquity. We are best informed about the beer brewing in India and the brewery in the Maurya empire (320-185 BC).


[1] Madhavi Bhaskar Kolhatkar 1999, surā, the Liquor and the Vedic Sacrifice (New Delhi, D. K. Printworld), 117-135. It was not until the last few decades that the beverage surā was identified as a beer made from raw or malted barley (Śaspa), millet and rice, after discarding the least plausible interpretations (surā = roasted grain porridge, wine, distilled alcohol, narcotic!). When Vedic hymns are kept only for technical information, the brewing processes become evident. For example, the choice of the 3 wild animals (lion, tiger, wolf) is a ritual prescription, but the making of a sieve from animal hair to filter the mash is a technical brewer's gesture. The making of beer amylolytic ferments is a common feature in the Indian penisula, especially its northern part. There is no need to desperately search after traces of distillation to explain the strong alcoholic density of ancient Indian beers. The use of amylolytic ferments explains it in a simple and better manner.

[2] Dipak Bhattacharya 1997, The Paippalada-Samhita of the Atharva-veda, vol. 1 (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society). Le Paippalāda est l'une des 9 recensions ou écoles (śākhā) attribuées par la tradition à l'Atharva-veda. Seules 2 ont survécu et nous sont parvenues : la Śaunakīya (AVS) et la Paippalāda (AVP). Cette dernière, jugée la plus ancienne, porte le nom de son compilateur. L'Atharva est daté des 12-10ème siècles av. n. ère, sur la foi de mentions techniques comme celle du fer. Saṃhitā désigne la compilation de mantras (connaissances, savoirs et sagesse) qui introduit chaque Veda. L'Atharva dans la version de Paippalāda possède donc la sienne. The Atharva text could be dated 12-10th centuries BC, on the basis of technical terms like iron. Saṃhitā means a compilation of mantras (knowledge, skills and wisdom) which introduces each of the 4 Veda. The Atharva in its Paippalāda version has therefore its own Saṃhitā.

[3] Oort Marianne S. 2002, Surā in the Paippalāda Saṃhitā of the Atharvaveda. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 122, No. 2, 355-360.

[4] Referring to the device of the propitiatory sacrifices. When Vedic peoples were praying for fertility, the surā-beer was flowing from vessels (compared to brains or skulls) into the sata-pots devoted to the offerings.

[5] The Gṛhya Sutras or "domestic sutras" are a category of Sanskrit texts prescribing Vedic ritual, mainly relating to rites of passage, such as marriage, birth, namegiving, etc. They seems to have been written around 500 BC for the oldest.

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