Handia — a desi fermented drink

A major tribal festival — Karma Puja is being celebrated in various indian states like Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Assam, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. The Karma Puja is very sacred to the tribal groups like Baiga, Oraon, Binjhwari, Munda, Majhwar, Ho, Santhal, Khortha, Korba and many more tribal communities. This festival is associated with harvest.

Any tribal festival is incomplete without the rice-beer called Handia, an indigenous alcoholic-fermented beverage. The word ‘Handia’ probably owes its origin to Handi, a deep, wide-mouthed cooking vessel used in Indian cooking. Handia occupies a pivotal role in the tribal community, socially, culturally and economically. Handia is accepted as a most sacred drink in the Munda and Santhal tribes. It has religious uses and values. Handia is offered to local deities and in dead ancestors’ rituals. The use of Handia is very common in the occasion of marriages, birth anniversaries and festivals. It is very difficult to know which tribes initiated the use of Handia. Both Munda and Santhal claim to be the inventor of it.

Fermented  foods  and  beverages  have  been  very popular  since  ancient  times  all  over  the  world. On the Indian subcontinent, fermented foods and beverages are an integral part of cultural heritage, even today. These have been developed throughout the history of human civilisation for sustained nutrition and food preservation. Ancient people adopted different preservation methods to store excess foods of plant and animal origin, particularly those which are seasonal and perishable, having a short lifespan.

It is presumed that fermented foods probably originated during 7,000–8,000 BCE in the areas of Indus Valley. It is evident from the annals of the Harappan civilisation (Vedic period) that people used different clay pots for preparing fermented foods and drinks. Fermented milk products, alcoholic beverages from fruits and cereal grains, and leavened breads were very popular among the early civilisation in the Middle East and in the Indus Valley and later among the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The health-beneficial effects of fermented food were first advocated as far back as 76 CE by the Roman historian Pliny, who mentioned the use of fermented milk for treating gastrointestinal infections.

Fermented food preparation, as mentioned in literary texts, is more than 3,000 years old in India. The Rigveda (ca. 1,500 BCE) shows that fermentation technology took its first step in connection with the preparation of Soma juice (alcoholic beverage). There is also another drink, known as sura (wine/beer), prepared by fermentation of boiled rice/barley. It is known from different sources that during the post-Vedic period (600 BCE to 100 CE) many beverages like medaka (spiced rice beer), prasanna (spiced barley or wheat beer), asava (sugarcane beer), etc., were some of the most popular drinks.

The indigenous peoples have inherited the process of preparing the drink from their forefathers as the craft passes on from one generation to the other since ages. Handia is prepared by mixing boiled rice with traditional fermenting inoculums. It is made by mixing traditional fermenting culture — Ranu tablets, a.k.a. Bakhar, with boiled rice and  allowing them to ferment in an earthen pot (Handi) for 2-3 days with mouth slightly open. After fermentation, the fermented slurry is filtered and weak cream-coloured product is taken as drink.

Ranu plays an important role, act as yeast starter or fermentor, and help in fermentation of beverages. It holds the source of several microorganism prepared by mixing different plant  ingredient with rice powder, water and giving batter to the shape of small round balls, sometime Ranu powder from previous batches are also added in batter. The balls are then wrapped in leaves, allowed to ferment and dry continuously in shade for 3 days.

The available information on the Ranu and the plants used for preparation of Ranu suggest a link between ethnobotany and microbiology. Ranu tablets or Ranu goti are the mixture of roots, barks, rhizomes, leaves of about 20-25 plant species, which these indigenous people  collect from the forests.

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Tribal women play a key role in the preparation and sale of handia. It also generates significant income for the household. By promoting Handia preparation and sale, the tribal women have been able to make economic gains.

Rice-beer, an integral part of life of several aboriginal communities all over the world, is known in  different names in different places. It is known as saki in Japan, lao-chao  in China, tape ketan in Indonesia, khao-mak in Thailand.

13 Thoughts

  1. While its illegal and risky, but yes desi fermentation is ubiquitous. In Himachal Pradesh many tribal formulas of fermentation are better than best malts available in world. Still the tribals don’t part with the secret .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If prepared properly, handia is safe, but people mix some chemicals and even urea fertilisers for quick fermentation, mass production and increased level of intoxication — that is harmful.
      The tribals claim drinking handia helps to keep the body cool and avoid sunstroke. The brew is also supposed to have medicinal properties since the barks, leaves, roots etc are obtained from medicinal herbs and trees.

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  2. Very informative post. I have seen hadia and often heard about the method of preparing it. But not in such great detail. Our tribal region in Jharkhand is so rich in tradition. Do keep sharing the glimpses of tribal life😀

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    1. Thanks Shivangi.
      Rightly said, our tribal region in Jharkhand is so rich in tradition. The Kolarian tribes are believed to be one of the earliest settlers in the Indian subcontinent. Santhals, Mundas are two major Kolarian tribes and they inhabit mainly in Jharkhand and neighbouring states.

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  3. দারুন লিখেছিস। হ্যাটস অফ টু ইউ। এত ইনফরমেশান যোগাড় করে লেখা, তুইই পারিস!!
    Very informative and well written, Indro. Hats off to you for gathering up and presenting in such a nice way. Keep it up Bro.

    Liked by 1 person

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