Who killed the rice beer?


By Chonchuirinmayo Luithui

Rice beer, the drink our forefathers consumed both in celebration and illness, now comes with a generous dose of Christian moralism, alcoholism, even detergent powder!

In-pic: Anao Oshim Photo Credit: I Love Ukhrul Facebook Page.
In-pic: Anao Oshim
Photo Credit: I Love Ukhrul Facebook Page.

Drinking is good for health. Our forefathers would know. It was part and parcel of our culture. Rice beer was part of the diet of our people. Yes, women used to drink. She was not type casted into Scarlets, Delilahs or khangkasers.

Note: Among the Tangkhuls, there are different variants of rice beer depending on how they are prepared. So we have leiyi, zam, khor, paso, chathur and so on. And they do look and taste different. Their alcohol content also probably differs. But for want of better translation, they are referred to as rice beer since they are mostly made with rice as the base.

Rice beer had a special place in rites and festivals, even in war during our forefathers’ time. It was regarded as medicinal. An aunt told me how my grandparents used to warm it (khor in this case) whenever someone in the family was unwell. The sick seemed to get better when he or she took it. May be it was the placebo effect. But, these practices were evolved over a long period of time.

Today, choosing to be religiously correct, many of us think of it as immoral but it was not so, at least, not during our grandfathers’ time. It was taken during festivals as well as when the elders sit down for serious discussion and as part of the meals. I am told that when the senior members of a family had to go to the field, they used to pour drinks in tumblers (shon) made from gourd, in case, any guests come by. But in all these there was a rider. They did not encourage getting drunk. Self-control was a virtue.

So who killed the rice beer drinking culture and replaced it with alcoholism, drunkards and adulterated alcohols? When did our people ‘stop’ drinking rice beer? When did we stop brewing? As I am told, it was after Christianity came into our homes.

One reason as told to me was that there was a close affinity between rice beer and observance of rites and ceremonies. Before Christianity, we believed in the Creator (kasa-akhava) the source of everything. But most of our religious practices were based on appeasing the spirits who could harm us, cause suffering and bad harvest. Animal sacrifices were common. But all these were incomplete without rice beer. Thus, the Christian missionaries might have thought it was better to demonized rice beer than to say that we were worshipping the wrong way/deity. They might have intended well but, because much of the rites and ceremonies could not be performed without rice beers, they stopped performing them altogether and much of our culture died along with the way we consume alcohol.

Now, most of us openly denounce it and secretly gulp them down including the adulterated ones. Health be damned. We become over righteous and held friends, kins and foes at contempt when they dare to drink openly. We become moral police, very often inspired by OUR church. There is prohibition written almost everywhere.

Photo Credit: I Love Ukhrul Facebook Page.
Photo Credit: I Love Ukhrul Facebook Page.

My maternal grandfather sometimes used to return home smelling of alcohol. And for a young sunday-school-going mind, it was the worst blasphemy. I remember once stopping him from entering the kitchen. My mission failed completely. He picked me up and in we went inside the house. I did not realize then, that this was how it had been for longer part of his life. That he had learnt from the elders never to cross the line. Mind you, I do not remember him ever drunk. That time, I was simply mad at him because someone ‘taught’ me that drinking alcohol is a sin, that I would go to hell. Distorted lessons.

What do we have today? A culture of binge drinking, DUI, drunken accidents, alcohol related abuse and diseases and poisoning. I had once gone in the early morning with grandpa dearest (actually tailing him but he caught me)to a vendor. As she gave him his drink, he mentioned that she must had added too much detergent powder (which supposedly gives faster kick). She did not deny! This happened years ago and as human minds become more creative, it seems they now even use Urea (yes the fertilizers). I hope it is not true. We might as well drink Urea solution.

I would like to go back to the gentleman days, sit down with the elders and see for myself how they used to be. But we have come too far from ‘headhunting barbarians’. to whiskey drinking maniacs. This will surely spoil my show. Now, I will settle for “admiring-our-grandfathers’-time” while I drink green tea, health drinks, sodas, choco drinks and coffee.

And covertly commit sins. Cheers!



* They were far more civilized than us. It is unfortunate that they are equated with barbarians.

About the writer: Chonchuirinmayo Luithui is a freelance researcher based in Ukhrul, Manipur.

The article was first published on Seven Sisters Project and it’s been reproduced on KO for wider circulation in partnership with “I Love Ukhrul” facebook page.


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