The surā-beer at the time of the Vedas in India.


The ingredients of the surā beer (raw or malted grains, paddy rice, beans) and its methods of preparation make it without question a beer. The processes and ingredients are so varied that surā represents a family of beers rather than a specific beer.

It is brewed and consumed from the Indus to the Ganges in the second half of the second millennium. Around 1000 BC, the Ârya tribes set out to conquer the Ganges valley, covered at that time with dense forests and thick jungles. Several centuries passed before the Ârya reached the common delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana recount this conquest as glorious epics. The Ârya found kingdoms in the course of their advance and that of the clearings of jungle. In the 6th century B.C., the kingdom of Magadha is the most powerful. Its capital Pataliputra is located in the present state of Bihar, near the Ganges delta. When the Vedas are written down, Vedic culture has already reached the shores of the Bay of Bengal. The extraordinary abundance of Vedic texts reflects this expansion and the diversity of indigeneous cultures encountered. This explains the richness and multiplicity of the brewing processes of the group of surā beers. These group of beers have integrated the rice culture of the Ganges basin. Cooked or roasted paddy rice is mentioned in the texts. A whole range of aromatic plants are used according to the region and the season[1].


The Hymn to the Asvins shows that surā beer is intimately linked to grain farming and the cult of fertility: "O Hero, you gave wisdom to Kaksivan, from the lineage of Pajra, who sang your praises. From the hooves of your mighty steeds you poured out hundreds of jars of beer-surā (flowing) like from a colander.» (RV I.116.7).

In Indo-Iranian mythology, the Asvins protect fertility, agricultural production, grain and herd wealth. In this hymn, the streams of surā-beer flowing from hundreds of beer jars symbolise the concrete and renewed abundance. Year after year, the earth gives birth to the stems from which the grains come out and are transformed into beer. The image of the strainer indicates that the surā beer can be filtered. Drilled with about 100 holes, it is a real used utensil (see the kārotara sieve-funnel and the Śatatranā sieve to filter fermented mash or surā-beer in brahmanic tradition).


The mention of beer at the heart of the metaphor of agricultural abundance shows that the nomadic pastoralists (milk and mead drinkers) and the beer-drinking Indus cereal growers have merged whole sections of their respective mythologies. In a Hymn of Glorification to the Sun together with a ritual of protection, the surā-beer serves as an offering. The word "Poison" refers to it metaphorically.

" I hang the poison in the sun, a leather sack hanging in the house of the one who has surā; he shall not die, nor shall we die: his way is far off: the one who is riding the bay horses [the sun] has turned you into sweet honey. " (RV I.191.10).

The surā beer is here mixed with honey. Meadhu, mead, is an Indo-European beverage. Madh refers to honey and also means "sweetness". Keeping honey in a wineskin exposed to the sun to accelerate the spontaneous fermentation of diluted honey is a technique of nomadic peoples. Whoever has surā also has honey/hydromel (madh). But Madh means by extension "joy, pleasure, euphoria, drunkenness", and in a more abstract sense, "enthusiasm, impulse towards". The boundaries are thin and permeable between alcoholic drunkenness and euphoria that opens the mind, between surā and madhu, between surā and soma.


In another register, the surā beer and the intoxication it provides symbolises fury, the overflowing in a Hymn to Varuna, divinity of warlike action. The surā beer is associated with Varuna as much as it seems to be banned for Indra.

"Our own will did not betray us, but seduction, carelessness, the surā-beer from Varuna, the dice or the anger. " (RV VII.86.6).

At least here, one pleads not guilty to sins committed under the influence of sex, drunkenness, gambling or (warrior) fury.

The surā Beer is used later in medical practice, in various chemical and alchemical processes, both as an excipient and as an alcoholic solvent for active plant ingredients.


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[1] Madhavi Bhasker Kolhatkar 1999, Surā: The Liquor and the Vedic Sacrifice.

10/04/2013  Christian Berger