Are there any references to ancient or medieval Indians consuming (and producing) alcohol?

And if so, what kind of alcohol was produced (i.e. wine, beer, whiskey, etc.)?

  • The primary vice described in the Rig Veda is gambling and dice.
    – John Dee
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 14:04
  • 2
    It would help if you could document the research you've already done, so that we don't waste time consulting the same sources.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 14:43

3 Answers 3


Yes. Alcohol has been produced in India from ancient times. But they may not qualify as "wine, beer, whiskey".

The evolution of alcohol use patterns in India can be divided into four broad historical periods (time of written records), beginning with the Vedic era (ca. 1500–700 BCE). From 700 BCE to 1100 CE, (“Reinterpretation and Synthesis”) is the time of emergence of Buddhism and Jainism, with some new anti-alcohol doctrines, as well as post-Vedic developments in the Hindu traditions and scholarly writing. The writings of the renowned medical practitioners, Charaka and Susruta, added new lines of thought, including arguments for “moderate alcohol use.” The Period of Islamic Influence (1100–1800 CE), including the Mughal era from the 1520s to 1800, exhibited a complex interplay of widespread alcohol use, competing with the clear Quranic opposition to alcohol consumption. The fourth period (1800 to the present) includes the deep influence of British colonial rule and the recent half century of Indian independence, beginning in 1947.

The above is quoted from here.

Alcoholic beverages have been mentioned in ancient texts. The Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and Vedas mention alcohol. See this for references to texts. An old book written around 1922 also gives descriptions from the Vedic/Puranic literature.

In fact, one study by F. R. Allchin suggests that India may be the original home of alcohol distillation.

Also take a look at the history of inebriation in India, specifically the section "Intoxicating Drinks and Drunkards in Ancient Indian Art".

Sura was a kind of strong beer, prepared from grain (millet, barley or rice). It was drunk by all social groups, and was very popular with both the Kshatriyas, the élite warrior class, and the peasant population (Mohan and Sharma 1995, 130; Sharma and Mohan 1999, 102). By contrast, the drinking of Soma, a spirit-like beverage, was regarded a high privilege and its consumption was restricted to nobles and saints, seers or holy men (Sharma and Mohan 1999, 102). Is said to have been prepared by pressing the sap from an as-yet unidentified plant (over a hundred botanical candidates have been proposed – see Nyberg 1995, 384) to obtain a juice that was mixed with water, milk or honey.

This gives an idea of the kind of beverages prepared.

Here is a news report about an ancient alcohol recipe.

See also the Wikipedia entry on alcohol in ancient India.

  • Are any of these drinks still manufactured?
    – Schwinn57
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 23:02
  • 3
    I don't think so. There are 2 kinds being manufactured. IMFL denotes Indian Manufacture Foreign Liquor. That's beer, whisky, rum etc. The other kind (legal) is "country liquor" often controlled and regulated by the state govt. (revenue from intoxicants accrue to the state and not the central govt.). The nature varies widely from state to state. But unregulated liquor also exists such as Toddy, Handia, mahua etc. Some of these are "organic", and some not so benign.
    – Rajib
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 3:50
  • Correction: I meant Taxes from intoxicants go to the state govt., not necessarily revenue. This is called "Abkari tax". See this.
    – Rajib
    Commented Jul 2, 2014 at 18:48

Just an addendum to Rajib’s comprehensive answer. The Buddhist Jātakas are a collection of stories about the historical Buddha’s previous lives – the Theravada version contains roughly 550. Many feature animals as characters and are drawn from folkloric sources. The Kumbha-jātaka (No. 512) contains an explanation of the origins of alcohol as an intoxicant. It also suggests that drinking alcohol is not only a personal vice, but also a scourge on society.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was ruling in Benares, a forester, named Sura, who dwelt in the kingdom of Kāsi, went to the Himalayas, to seek for articles of merchandise. There was a certain tree there that sprang up to the height of a man with his arms extended over his head, and then divided into three parts. In the midst of its three forks was a hole as big as a wine jar, and when it rained this hole was filled with water. Round about it grew two myrobalan plants and a pepper shrub; and the ripe fruits from these, when they were cut down, fell into the hole. Not far from this tree was some self-sown paddy. The parrots would pluck the heads of rice and eat them, perched on this tree. And while they were eating, the paddy and the husked rice fell there. So the water, fermenting through the sun’s heat, assumed a blood-red color. In the hot season flocks of birds, being thirsty, drank of it, and becoming intoxicated fell down at the foot of the tree, and after sleeping awhile flew away, chirping merrily. And the same thing happened in the case of wild dogs, monkeys and other creatures. The forester on seeing this said, “If this were poison they would die, but after a short sleep they go away as they list; it is no poison.” And he himself drank of it, and becoming intoxicated he felt a desire to eat flesh, and then making a fire he killed the partridges and cocks that fell down at the foot of the tree, and roasted their flesh on the live coals, and gesticulating with one hand, and eating flesh with the other, he remained one or two days in the same spot.

Later he visits an ascetic named Varuṇa and introduces him to the drink. (From their names come two terms for alcohol, surā and vāruṇī.) Later they take some to the king, and when he requests more they take note of the components and make the drink themselves.

The men of the city drank it and became idle wretches. And the place became like a deserted city. Then these wine merchants fled from it and came to Benares, and sent a message to the king, to announce their arrival. The king sent for them and paid money, and they made wine there too. And that city also perished in the same way.

At the next city, the next king prepares to try the drink. Seeing this, the god Sakka (a version of Indra who appears in many Jātakas) realizes, “if he shall drink strong drink, all India will perish,” and descending recites a long stretch of verse detailing the nasty effects of drinking alcohol.

And the king, abstaining from strong drink, ordered the drinking vessels to be broken. And undertaking to keep the precepts and dispensing alms, he became destined to Heaven. But the drinking of strong drink gradually developed in India.

According to Wikipedia, “the Jatakas were originally amongst the earliest Buddhist literature, with metrical analysis methods dating their average contents to around the 4th century BCE.” Judging by this one, drinking must have been fairly widespread by that time. It’s hard to tell what sort of alcohol would result from this “natural” method of production, though!

Source: The Jātaka, or Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births (1895, translated by E. Cowell), Vol. 5 pp. 5-11.

Link: Kumbha-jataka


This is only a partial answer but Raoul McLaughlin's book 'The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean' says that wine was one of the main goods exported from the Roman Empire to India, in partial exchange for the spices, perfumes, jewels and other luxury goods Greco-Roman merchants bought there.

He quotes a Greco-Roman source that Indians became 'twice as mad as Greeks and Romans when drunk'. This suggests that in ancient times Indians they were less accustomed to taking alcohol than the Greeks and Romans were and hence more easily affected by it.

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