By Kesang Choden Bhutia, Shruti Menon and Arunima Sikder

The unassuming Indian state of Sikkim, tucked into a corner of the country, is known for its diverse landscape. The lush green forests are offset by high mountain peaks, the mighty Teesta river carving a winding path through the state and ultimately flowing into the Bay of Bengal. The Sikkimese people are a treasure trove of unique cultures and traditions, having had to evolve to adapt to the recurrent harsh conditions. Here, the wind whips through the dense forests with a ferocity that is only ever found in the highest reaches of the mountains after sunset. Ensconced within quaint wooden cottages dotting the mountainsides, villagers gather around roaring fires in the evenings, fortifying themselves with locally brewed liquor that warms their freezing extremities. Most rural households across Sikkim have their own breweries, which are an integral part of the local culture.

One of the most well-known delicacies in the region is rhododendron wine or Guras ko raksi, a hot favourite with tourists. This is made with the aromatic rhododendron flowers locally known as Guras, which are a familiar sight in the verdant forests. The flowers are crushed along with yeast and either rice or millets for fermentation. This is typically done in the pre-summer months of February to April when the flowers are in full bloom, but most locals hoard it for use during special occasions all year round. The wine not only serves to ease the effects of the sub-zero temperatures in the region, but is also said to act as a poultice to relieve headaches, cough and fever.

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Rhododendron flower. Picture by Kesang Choden Bhutia

While rhododendron wine is a seasonal delicacy, the practice of brewing is well integrated into the daily routines of the people of the hills. In many households, the day starts with the elaborate preparation of the alcohols that are consumed on a daily basis - “Chaang” and “Raksi”.

Raksi is a traditional homemade distilled alcoholic beverage, locally also known as airak, aara, aila or seto (meaning white in Nepali). Staple grains such as millets, rice, barley or wheat are cleaned, cooked and then fermented with Marcha, which acts as the fermenting agent. This is then wrapped with fresh ferns, locally known as Pirey Uniui (Athyrium nagripis), and sealed, ready to be stored in a warm, dry place until it has fermented. The fermentation process takes around a fortnight with the exception of rice which ferments faster, in just a week. Once this is complete, the mixture is diluted with water and poured into a large cylindrical distilling vessel, inside which another empty bowl is placed on a stand (or odan) to collect the distilled alcohol. At times, ginger shavings or local herbs are added to the vessel at this stage to make the concoction more flavourful. A round vessel filled with cold water is then placed over the distilling vessel for condensation. Once the water becomes hot, it is poured out and cold water is added again. This process is repeated – if the water is replaced three times, it is called ‘teen paani raksi’ and if it is replaced five times it is called ‘panch paani raksi’. This strong smelling liquor is famed for its smoothness and has received the honour of being named in the CNN’s 2018 list of the world’s 50 most delicious drinks. It is no wonder, then, that most of the elders are still very fond of their daily raksi which can have an alcoholic content as high as 40 percent. Once brewed, villagers often take a spoonful of the freshly made liquor and throw it into a fire to test its strength. If it burns vigorously, then it is strong and it can be mixed with water; if it doesn't burn, it is considered equivalent to water.

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Pouring warm water to steep chaang. Picture by Sandeep Pradhan

Chaang, also known as the ‘Beer of the Himalayas’, is brewed all year round using fermented barley, rice or millets, to which warm water is added. Local households often have their own traditional recipes and modifications, one of which includes the addition of scrambled eggs and fenugreek seeds.

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Kodo (Millet) ko Jaad steeping in warm water. Picture by Pamina Thapa

While Chaang is the most popular, it is by no means the only variety of beer that has evolved in this tiny state. Jaad or Jaar, also known as kodo ko jaad or millet beer in Sikkim and Darjeeling, is mildly alcoholic and sweet to taste. Fermented finger millets are served in a bamboo or wooden jug (Dungro/Tongba) with a bamboo or aluminium straw (Pipsing) and a flask of hot water. Hot water is poured into the jug to let it steep for a while and it can be drunk with the straw once it is warm.

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Millet Jaad in a Tongba with a potato and black peas dish and a kettle of warm water. Picture by Sandeep Pradhan

Some of these local brews are traditional fixtures during festivals and other celebrations. Changkol is a special Tibetan beverage which is one of the important dishes of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, where it is offered up to the Gods. Prepared with Tibetan pastry (khapsey), butter, dry cheese, sugar, ground-roasted barley (tsampa), scrambled eggs and rice that is fermented at least a week before the event, it is often served along with the famous Tibetan butter tea.

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Kodo ko Nigar. Picture by Nilankar Lama

Other popular liquors include Nigar or Bhatte jaar made with fermented rice, Makai ko jaar or Katti, made with maize or makai, Simal Tarul ko jaar which is prepared using the roots of cassava (Manihot esculenta) and Gaw ko jaar which is made with fermented wheat.

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Makai ko Jaad; making Katti. Picture by Sadeep Tamang

One of the most interesting aspects of the local brewing process is that it is usually a sustainable, zero-waste production cycle, with every part of the plant being used in some way. In addition, after the extraction of liquor, the remnants of the fermented grains are used as animal fodder, primarily for feeding pigs.

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Tongba with Pipsing. Picture by Sandeep Pradhan

However, the equipment used has evolved over time, with more advanced vessels and pipes now being used in place of the traditional bamboo utensils. What has remained unchanging so far, however, is the importance of these liquors in local customs. Raksi, Jaar and Nigar are an essential part of various religious ceremonies as offerings to the Gods. It is also considered mandatory to carry Raksi as an offering while visiting a local tribal healer.

Inevitably, though, these customs are now being modified, with an increasing number of people preferring expensive industrial liquors to home-brewed liquors for use in rituals, celebrations or funerals. This indigenous knowledge and the age-old traditions that are essentially a way of life, must be preserved lest they fade away entirely in the face of commercialisation and are lost forever.

Feature image: Makai ko Jaad. Picture by Sadeep Tamang

— All photos courtesy the authors

The authors are PhD students at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in the field of Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies.