In societies where community-farming and community-living are key to survival, the potential of household liquors to promote sociability and kinship is paramount. This is one reason why the cultures of producing household alcoholic beverages are commonplace in India’s Northeast. This essay explores the cultural practices associated with production and consumption of the traditional alcoholic beverages (hor) of the Karbi community of Assam.
Kaustuv Saikia, Longkiri Timung and Sarim Tisso
Throughout history, in many societies, alcohol has always been a much valued and contested commodity intertwined with varied contradictions across time and place and with the complexities of religion, beliefs, gender, class, ethnicity and age. Hence, the relationship with alcoholic beverages have transformed continuously while retaining many traditions. Communities have been changing their relationship with alcohol and often under religious and societal pressures (Phillips, 2016). We also see that at times communities have readopted the practices of consuming alcohol in moderation citing its positive potentials of being therapeutic and sociable at all levels. In many indigenous societies of Northeast India where community-farming and social bonding are key to survival, the potential of household liquors to promote sociability and kinship is held paramount . The cultures of producing household alcoholic beverages are commonplace in India’s Northeast. These traditions have contributed in making the region famous as upholders of ‘unique’ and ‘exotic’ culinary traditions. At the same time, these practices have separated the ethnic communities of India’s Northeast from the majoritarian religious traditions of mainland India where barring a few regions, cults and sects, the use of alcohol in religious ceremonies is considered a taboo.
In the process of fieldwork for this essay, we noted interesting dynamics along the lines of gender, social roles and age. Here we attempt to briefly sketch the traditional practices by which rice-beer (horlang) and distilled spirits (arak) are produced by the Karbi community of Assam. At the same time, by trying to understand the subtle processes of imparting indigenous knowledge of making alcoholic beverages, we aim to also highlight the important role of women in Karbi society.
The Karbis are an ethnic community of North East India, with the majority inhabiting the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao of Assam. In addition, a significant population of the Karbi people live in the plains of Nagaon, Morigaon, Kamrup (Metro) and Sonitpur districts. The knowledge of brewing rice-based alcoholic beverages is passed from one generation to the next among Karbi women starting from their childhood itself. The traditional methods of the brewing process are simple using only two main ingredients ̶ cooked rice and a locally prepared yeast culture called thap. The Karbis believe that thap is a divine gift, and this belief is reflected in the folk song called Thap Keplang Alun (or the Origin Song of the Fermented Rice Cake).
THAP KEPLANG ALUN: THE FOLK TALE
The folk song Thap Keplang Alun narrates the process of preparing rice-beer as well as the folk tale on how the beverage came to be a divine gift to the Karbi community.
The folk tale was sung and narrated to us by Longki Bey, a resident of Rongkangjang in Diphu on 22 December, 2020. According to the narration, when Mother Earth was still young there was no concept of hor among the Karbis. The Sky God, Songsar Recho, thought that the life of Karbis had no meaning without hor and so he initiated a solution to resolve the crisis.
Songsar Recho advised his two daughters Kong and Ching to visit earth and provide the Karbis a specimen of thap phi (previously prepared thap) so that they can prepare hor. Accordingly, the two sisters came down to earth in the form of a species of birds locally known as Vo kongching (a species of wagtail) and decided to visit the ‘riverbank/water-body beside the Longan trees’ (marle abi) near the mythical village of Rong rengsang. The chief of this village was Rangsi im and the village was endowed with an abundant source of water, the marle abi, where the two beautiful daughters of the village chief, namely Kareng and Kading, always bathed and drew water from the same source.
One day, after drawing water from marle abi, the two sisters mysteriously saw a pair of Vo kongching birds flying around. The birds at first flew downriver, and then upriver for three times and at last, sat on a flat stone. Thereafter, the two sisters suddenly sensed a strong delightful aroma coming from the direction of the flat stone where the two birds were sitting. They followed the smell and noticed the pair of Vo kongching. When they tried to approach the pair of birds, they flew away leaving a specimen of thap aphi from where the aroma was coming. Baffled by the beautiful aroma of the specimen, the two sisters thought that it could be a gift from the Gods. They tied the specimen in a cloth and brought it home and kept it in a rap (a hanging platform over the fireplace).
At night Kareng and Kading both had the same dream of the unknown specimen that they had brought home. In their dreams they saw their grandmother pounding soaked rice in a mortar with pestle. The rice was ground into a fine powder and made into nine flat cakes. Thereafter, she took the specimen of thap aphi from the rap and mixed it with the nine flat cakes. The cakes were then placed in a banana leaf and left for three day and three nights. When the cakes became hard, the grandmother bound them together and hung them over a fireplace. After obtaining the thap, the grandmother cooked the best quality rice. She then spread the cooked rice on the banana leaves and mixed it with already powdered thap. It was then stored in a pot for another three days and three nights for fermentation. Thereafter, she mixed water and retrieved horlang from it. The beverage was given to her son Rangsi im to taste who found the drink refreshing and energetic.
After they woke up in the morning, Kareng and Kading decided to do exactly what they saw in their dreams the previous night. They experienced the familiar delightful aroma from the horlang they prepared. The horlang was then offered to their father Rangsi im who felt refreshed and energized, and admitted that he had never experienced such an elated feeling before.
METHODS OF PREPARATION
The processes involved in the making of traditional rice based alcoholic beverages of the Karbis are not complicated. As mentioned earlier, the two main ingredients for brewing hor are ̶ cooked rice and the locally prepared yeast culture called thap. Traditionally, thap is prepared from soaked rice and the leaves of marthu, a plant whose scientific name is Croton joufra. At the outset, soaked rice and leaves of marthu are pounded in a wooden mortar with a pestle to grind them into a fine powder. Thereafter, the requisite amount of thap aphi (previously prepared thap) is added to this powder and the mixture is flattened by hand into round, flat cakes. The cakes are then kept in a beleng (winnowing tray) which is covered with rice-straw and a cloth for it to dry. The drying process may take two to three days depending on the weather after which the dried cakes are kept in the fireplace for future use.
The brewing process of the main alcoholic beverages are described below.
The preparation of this rice-beer begins with the cooking of a type of rice called sangprot which is considered to be of inferior quality. After the rice is cooked, it is spread on a bamboo mat (antar) or on banana leaves. The cooked rice is then broken into fine grains and left to cool. Post cooling, the required amount of powdered thap is mixed with it and allowed to ferment for three to four days. The fermented rice is stored in a cooking utensil (phole), and an adequate amount of water is added. It is then kept aside for one or two nights so that the composition is mixed well. This process is called hor kangthur. Thereafter, a beer called horlang is retrieved from it.
A distilled rice-based spirit called hor arak is also prepared by adding adequate amount of water to fermented rice. This is a relatively new alcoholic beverage for the Karbis as compared to the horlang. The folktales and folk songs also do not describe the process of brewing hor arak.
The distillation equipment needed in the production of hor arak consists of three components ̶̶ the lower part is a large metallic utensil called hor phole which contains the fermented rice, the middle part is called phole chekrak (earthen pot with perforated base) which contains a wooden bowl called chobak to which a bamboo tube called charang is fitted. Again, a small bamboo pipe called achut is fitted at the charang for collecting the distilled rice wine in a container or bottle. The upper part of this distillation equipment acts as a condenser and is called langpen (metal utensil) which is filled with cold water. The gaps between the components are sealed with a mixture of phe’eh (paddy husk) and horbichu (fermented rice). Horbichu is primarily used for ritualistic practices during the Hacha Kekan harvesting festival which generally takes place during the month of January or February depending on the Jhum cycle of cultivation. However, the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council generally declares the official holiday for this festival in the middle of January each year.
The distillation equipment is placed over a fire. Upon heating, the alcohol becomes vapour and passes through the perforated phole chekrak to reach the cool base of lang pen where it condenses back at the wooden bowl called chobak in the form of a liquid. This liquefied alcohol then passes through the tube charang and is collected in a container or bottle through the achut (small bamboo pipe). Too much of heat can pollute the distillation process, and less heat can stop the vaporisation process, so the fire temperature needs to be monitored on a regular basis, and this requires a great deal of skill and experience. About fifty grams of thap when added to five kilograms of rice can produce about six to seven liters of alcohol. After distillation, the leftover rice called horsera is used as feed for pigs.
During the Chojun ritual, which is performed to venerate and propitiate the Supreme Deity (Arnam Kethe) and the spirits of one’s ancestors, another kind of rice-beer called horpo is used. The horpo is used for veneration as well as for general consumption. This rice-beer is prepared by segregating horlang from fermented rice in a bamboo distiller called horhi. After the liquid is drained, the remaining fermented rice is mixed thoroughly with sufficient water until a whitish mixture is formed. The mixture is then filtered with a specially prepared sieve called sih to produce horpo. It is then collected in an earthen pot called phumang, which is only used for the purpose of collecting horpo.
Generally during rituals, a specially prepared spirit called hor kangthir (holy beverage) is used for the propitiation of gods. It is considered a taboo to consume hor kangthir before offering it to the gods, and if that happens, the beverage for the gods must be prepared afresh. Sometimes hor kangthir is simply prepared by putting a fine thap powder in a water-filled gourd shell.
ROLE OF HOR IN THE SOCIAL LIVES OF KARBIS
Rice-beer is essentially an integral part of the social and cultural life of the Karbis. It is mandatory in almost all ceremonies including marriages, birth and death rituals and other religious and community rituals where propitiation of gods, benevolent spirits, malevolent spirits and ancestors are required. In the marriage ceremony known as Adam Asar, a specially prepared horlang is filled in a bongkrok (gourd shell) which is then called horbong (filled gourd shell/bottle) and is offered to the bride’s father as part of the ceremony. Distilled rice-based spirit (hor arak) is also offered to every family member of the bride by the groom’s family along with areca nuts and leaves.
In Karbi society, welcoming of guests is unthinkable without the offering of hor. The hor is traditionally offered in a bong (gourd shell), although nowadays, glass bottles are also used. On every social occasion of the Karbis, there is a tradition of drinking hor in one form or the other by family as well as guests. The tradition of contributing one bottle of hor by all members of the community on festivals like Chojun, Rongker etc. is commonplace. The contributed bottles are called hor mei (mei meaning assembly/meeting). Hor mei bottles are used to honor the important people of the village and respected personalities present at the occasion. The tradition of honouring by giving horbong is collectively called hor mei kachingle. This tradition also helps to specify the number of families and relatives attending social events as well as keeping a tab on the number of important attendees.
Rice-beer (horlang), is sometimes also used as a preservative for dried fish. For this purpose, dried fish are first soaked in saltwater and then sprinkled with horlang. They are then carefully mixed and stored in a bamboo tube. The horlang adds aroma and flavor and increases the shelf-life of the dried fish.
The Karbis also strongly believe that drinking horlang increases a person’s lifespan. Rice spirit distilled at first which is called hor aphrang or hor acho which has high alcohol content, is often used as a medicine in rural areas for treatment of cases such as dysentery and cholera. People in rural areas rub hor aphrang on their bodies and drink small amount of the same as preventive measures against such communicable diseases.
The use of horlang is extensive in jhum cultivation. Before the beginning of the jhum season, Karbis compulsorily offer horlang to the gods to identify suitable sites for cultivation. Selection of sites is done by pouring horlang filled in bongkrok (gourd shell) on the ground three times along with ritual enchantments. If the outer shells of bongkrok become wet with horlang then it is considered a bad omen and the sites cannot be used for jhum cultivation for that particular year. If the outer shells remain dry, this is seen as a good omen and the sites are selected for cultivation. The same process is used to predict crop production.
Interviewees commented that there are strict restrictions against drunken behavior especially during hor mei. Adolescents and young adults are not allowed to drink among elders. Younger men may drink in separate gatherings among themselves. Women are not allowed to drink with men. Untoward incidences due to intoxication is considered a matter of shame and may attract public punishments from the village assembly. Edward Stack in his 1908 book The Mikirs, opined that drunkenness is not common and ‘the ceremonies and festivities at which beer is drunk are not noisy. The mē or general council, however, when large quantities are consumed, is sometimes noisy’. It is also considered a taboo for a woman belonging to Bey Lindok (sub-clan of Bey, clan of Hanjang) to prepare thap. However, they are allowed to make rice-beer from thap prepared by women of other clans.
WOMEN AND HOR
In the folk tale, as described earlier in the essay, the Sky God, Songsar Recho, comes up with the idea of teaching the process of making rice-beer to the Karbis where the key protagonists of the folk tale are women. However, it is interesting to note that the folk song associated with this tale, the Thap Keplang Alun is performed only by male folk-singers called lunsepo. Therefore, one may concur that men and women share equal responsibility in imparting the traditional knowledge of making alcoholic beverages. The lunsepo imparts this knowledge through the performance of folk songs where the songs narrate the methods of preparing hor among the Karbis, and this knowledge is imparted to both male and female community members.
The preparation of hor and its variants, however, is exclusively the domain of women. The role of women is immense in the transfer of this indigenous knowledge along with its various cultural iterations to the younger generation. The processes of making rice-beer and spirits are performed almost exclusively by women in their own domain in the gendered domestic space. Right from gathering the leaves of the plant marthu to the pouring of the beverages into the horbong, women dominate the production process and also the process of proper presentation of the beverage for serving the guests and also for rituals. The folk tales and songs narrate that the knowledge of making rice-beer among the Karbis was imparted in a dream to two Karbi women by the Sky God. Thus, this legacy of crafting rice-beer has been carefully handed down since childhood to Karbi women from one generation to the next. A Karbi girl is expected to start learning the art of making rice-beer at an early age and by the time she is an adult, she should become an expert. During Adam Asar, Chojun and other social ceremonies, a basket containing hor is carried to the ceremony as a token of honor and gifted to the bride’s father. The basket is called hor hak and it is carried solely by an unmarried Karbi woman.
In conclusion, one can say that hor is considered the drink of the gods and is to be treated with respect. The folk song of Thap Keplang Alun semantically represents the importance of hor in Karbi society. The sheer number of words prefixing with ‘hor’ in Karbi language asserts the importance of the beverage and the traditional socio-religious practices associated with the production and consumption of it for the community. In a society defined by clan-solidarity, communitarianism and jhum cultivation where social relationships are critical to survival and livelihood, the Karbis use hor like many other communities of the world to enhance kinship ties and social bonding.
- See Aimee Gabay’s article (2020) for an explanation of traditional and institutional social bonding with examples from Northeast India.
Gabay, Aimee. “Why do indigenous communities continue to practice shifting cultivation?” TheWire.in. URL: https://science.thewire.in/environment/why-do-indigenous-communities-continue-to-practice-shifting-cultivation/ (accessed 20 February, 2021).
Phillips, Rod. Alcohol: A History. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2016.
Stack, Edward. The Mikirs. (ed). Charles Lyall, London: David Nutt, 1908.
Teron, Robindro. “Hor, the traditional alcoholic beverage of Karbi tribe in Assam”. Natural Product Radiance, 5, no. 5 (2006): 377-381.
Kaustuv Saikia is currently the District Museum Officer of the Department of Museums, Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council under the Government of Assam. He worked as an Assistant Curator (Central Asian Antiquities) at the National Museum in New Delhi till 2017. His research interests are Museology, Visual Anthropology, Museum Ethnography, Indigenous Studies and Politics of Representation. He works from Diphu and Guwahati in Assam, India.
Longkiri Timung is an independent researcher based in Diphu, Karbi Anglong. Currently he is working as Senior Content Writer and Content Strategist at Voleng.com. His research interests are Colonial Anthropology, Anthropology of Religion, Ecological Anthropology and Tribal Studies.
Sarim Tisso is an independent researcher based in Diphu, Karbi Anglong. His research interest is Anthropology of Religion.