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Points Interview— Theorizing Alcoholic Drinks in Ancient India

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: This is the second Points interview with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 35, no. 1; Spring 2021), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. James McHugh, an Associate Professor in the School of Religion at the University of Southern California You can see his article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article or any other article from SHAD’s history.

Article Abstract

An alcoholic drink called maireya is prominent in ancient texts from South Asia and features prominently in Buddhist law on alcohol. The article considers what we can say about the chronology, the nature, and the cultural significance of maireya. Maireya became prominent several centuries BCE, maintaining this high profile until the early first millennium CE. It was theorized to be made with an innately flexible formula with a secondary fermentation. Maireya is presented as a drink of social distinction. Flexible and based on sugars, maireya was an ideal drink to pair with the cereal-based drink called surā in Buddhist law, which reflects both the tastes and theories of this early period.

Tell readers a little about yourself

I’m based in LA, as an associate professor at the University of Southern California. I research and teach various topics connected to the cultures and religions of premodern South Asia, mostly using written sources in Sanskrit and related languages. I tend to be interested in subjects involving the manipulation and consumption of what were deemed significant substances—such as aromatics like camphor or drugs and alcoholic drinks. My first book, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, was a wide-ranging history of the sense of smell, perfumery, and the use of aromatics in India. More recently, I have been doing a big project on alcohol, which also got me interested in some of the things we call drugs today.

SHAD Interview James McHugh Title Card

James McHugh with his homegrown Turkish tobacco. Image courtesy of James McHugh.

What got you interested in the history of alcohol or drugs?

I was always a bit curious about that side of Indian history. Then, while I was finishing my big smell and perfumery project, I found myself skimming a chapter about how to hold a drinking party in a large, rather encyclopedic twelfth-century Sanskrit text from South India called The Delight of the Mind. There were loads of recipes and descriptions of drinks and also very stylized descriptions of drunken antics. But frankly I could barely understand the recipe side of things, and it got me intrigued about this largely forgotten world of Indian brewing and drinking. And then the more I looked into it, the more material I found, and it snowballed into a gigantic project covering over 2000 years and all sorts of sources—medical, legal, ritual, literary, and more.

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

It’s about a long, lost Indian drink, how it was made, and what people thought about it. In some types of Buddhism, you see, even to this day people recite an extremely ancient line about abstaining from drink, but in fact they don’t say “I will avoid getting drunk on alcohol” but rather they mention two drinks “I will avoid getting drunk on surā and maireya” (to rather simplify the actual phrase in question). I wanted to work out what this maireya drink was—a drink that was a really big deal in about 300 BCE and for several centuries after. We do have some recipes for it and definitions of it.

It seems like the drink was based on fermenting some type of sugar, such as honey, with spices like black pepper, and then refermenting with a second sugar, such as the dark brown sugar called jaggery (like piloncillo). Other sources say it involved a double fermentation, but more along the lines of re-fermenting mead with beer plus extra sugar. So, the essence of maireya was this sort of extra-fermented complexity—and probably spices. It seems from what we know that it was a rather luxurious drink in early periods, perhaps because of the extra work and materials involved in making it.

In this Buddhist legal text, the concept of maireya is useful as it potentially involves so many sugars, whereas the other drink they mention—surā—likely implies drinks made with grains. So, the phrase sort of means, “I will avoid grain drinks and sugar-based drinks,” a bit like “grape and grain” in English. Remember, they did not have any concept of alcohol as a substance, so they needed to find a concise way of defining a number of these drinks all at once. And most of all, getting deep into this one drink shows quite well how people more than 2000 years ago in India both made various complex drinks and also theorized about them. And not a lot of people know that.

By the way, I am hoping to try and recreate maireya at home soon—it will probably be a dry, spicy, tangy mead with brown sugar notes.

An Unholy Brew cover page

An Unholy Brew: Alcohol in Indian History and Religions (Oxford University Press, 2021) by James McHugh.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

Yes, this is just a tiny part of the larger project on alcohol and drinking more generally. The whole thing is pretty much finished now, in fact; several articles and the book, An Unholy Brew (Oxford University Press), which just came out on October 1. It was great fun, getting into the details of different drinks, brewing, trading, and, of course, ideas about drinking; not to mention complex religious ideas about why people should abstain. In the process, I also realized I had to touch on other intoxicants, like soma, the mystery drug of ancient India, the habit of betel chewing, and the use of cannabis, opium, and datura. Perhaps it was a bit too wide ranging—it was hard to know where to stop—but I guess it helps highlight the topic and get people thinking about it all. Alcohol history in India is often neglected.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

Oh, there is still tons to do. At least for this sort of topic within the study of premodern South Asia. We need work in other languages and periods; topics like more detailed work on what we know about drink and other substances in classical Tamil materials. Also, much work needs to be done on South Asian texts from the second millennium CE in various vernaculars, such as Kannada, Telugu, etc. This needs to be collaborative project, as it requires a deep knowledge of many languages and areas.

I would also like archaeologists to keep alcohol and brewing in mind when looking at the region in the long term—let’s start with a thorough and up-to-date review article about that. Plus, we need to revisit topics like cannabis, datura, opium, and the early history of tobacco, say in Urdu, and Persian sources composed in South Asia. We also need several books to be written on the earlier history of betel in the region. And there are many more pretty important topics I have not even mentioned here, and probably not even thought of!

Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

That’s a hard one! But I think this is a good opportunity to introduce a scholar who should be better known, especially in the West: P. K. Gode (1891–1961). He was the curator at a place called the Bhandarkar Research Institute in Pune, India, which is a famous manuscript library and has housed many famous scholars and major projects over the years. He was enormously knowledgeable on a huge range of topics, and, throughout his years exploring texts and manuscripts, he published a vast number of articles on the literary and cultural history of India—on everything from references to Persian “rock oil” in Sanskrit texts of the first millennium CE, to the history of the spittoon in India.

He did a lot of work about the history of perfumery in India, as well as on betel and tobacco, and I would never be able to do my research without everything he achieved. I cannot imagine what sorts of amazing materials he would come up with if we were talking over dinner; his erudition and curiosity were so remarkable. And his friends seem to have been very fond of him as a person. There are these great volumes of his collected works that you can get easily online as scans, Studies in Indian Literary History and Studies in Indian Cultural History. Anyone slightly interested in the region should have a look—it is not just about ancient stuff, but he looks at pretty recent materials too. I am going to be mining his works for ideas for the rest of my career.

(Editor’s Note: Prof. McHugh clarifies that maireya the drink has nothing to do with Maitreya, the future Buddha.)


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