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Drinking in Ancient Karnataka

by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat

Gist of the paper presented by the author at the Karnataka History Academy Conference held at Hampi on 8th-10th, July 2000.
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

Brewing and drinking of various liquors was developed into an art in ancient India as well as in Karnataka (map- topics). Several interpretations exist on the drinking habit of Kannadigas. Smritis or sacred texts (like Manusmriti and Yajayavalkyasmriti) consider drinking liquor (sura) was a great sin and forbidden to certain communities (Brahmins, Jains, Veerashaivas). Some commentators on Smritis, however, considered it as a minor sin that could be reattributed by observing Prayaschitta or punishment. However works on Shastras (applied science treatises) sculptures, literary works, wall-paintings and inscriptions bear witness that drinking was quite common in several communities and on certain occasions, the Kannada Kavyas (literary masterpieces) give picturesque description of drinking rituals, modes and practices which sound quite realistic, and Shastra works like Manasollasa give method of brewing intoxicants. Karnataka is homeland of a variety of tasty and well flavored indigenous alcohols and liquors. There were mild and strong ones brewed from rice, ragi (sweet barley), palm and ichala (wild palm) and milder ones prepared from grapes, mangoes, jackfruit, coconut, and dates  flavored with flower essences. Sculptures and Kavyas depict drunkards and drinking scenes, attesting thereby that drinking was fairly prevalent and provided necessary amusement and essential relief, though abstinence from alcohol was respected and practiced by and large.

Drinking Scenes from Karnataka

Adikavi Pampa mentions that liquors like Kakkara Paisthi (prepared from fermented barley, rice, wheat, and ragi), Goudi (prepared form fermented guda or jaggery), Madhvi (or Madhu from Mahua flowers or sugar and grapes), Lava and Krishnasura which were a mixture of strong intoxicants along with Sidhu, Sarada and Marichitodarpu which appear to be a Kannada specialty! Liquors brewed from palm and Ichala palm were popular among working class and known today as "toddy." This variety was highly inebriating. But even these drinks were processed and tempered and used by the royalty as well. Kalhana (12th century) the celebrated poet-historian of Kashmir mentions that King Lalitadya's soldiers, (who are used to milder grape wine flavored with saffron) were enjoying toddy of palms and coconut on the banks of Kaveri river. The bitter sour and foamy drinks must have highly intoxicated the Kashmiri soldiers!

Drinking Rituals

Drinking was undertaken leisurely, with a method under pleasing surrounding and decorated pavilions. Goddess of wine (Madhudevate) was invoked and the Mother Earth was propitiated. Draughts of liquor were put on the head (as mark of respect). Then it was poured into artistically shaped bowls with bird heads and carved from mother pearls, beautiful shells etc. and offered to elders. Then it was turn of youngsters to help themselves. Lovers, married couples, family members, friends and relatives joined in drinking bouts. Drinking among women along with gossip was common. Various snacks were consumed in between roast meat, onion bondas, fried gram egg and fish fries as also peppery tender mangoes and pulp of bilva seasoned with salt, ginger and pepper. Vegetable bondas (deep fried snacks) were also a favorite. To avoid inebriation dose of ghee and some herbal medicine was recommended.

Kanakadasa, the well-known saint-poet, in his Mohanatarangini has given a  realistic description of drinking bout in the colony of working class of 16th century. As evening advanced the courtyard of houses was cleaned and Rangoli (topics - patterns) was drawn. Pots (Poornakumbha -- perhaps contained wines) were kept on the mounds rice, gram and panyara (offering material) and decorated flowers, Neem leaves, sandal paste and Arati was performed. After worshipping Shakti Goddess  with great reverence drinking was undertaken. Toddy was offered in coconut shells and each other coaxed to drink. The dialogues which follow are quite colorful:
"Drink, the celestial beauty!
Drink my golden doll,
Drink the moon-faced, curly haired mate"
The lover made his beloved drink and women who got intoxicated quickly forced made their boyfriends gulp down more and more by words:
"Drink my heartthrob,
Drink the civilized one, 
Drink my Handsome.
I can't go on if you stop!"  
The snacks used were beaten rice, eggs, popcorn, and fried gram. After some time, some started singing, some laughing, few weeping, others dancing and clapping.

Sculptural Evidence

Sculptures of drunk are common. Besotted  women who lost control over their body and dress had to be carried off are depicted. Classics provide vivid description of such scenes:

Description of a drinking bout

The basic difference regarding drinking among Indians and Western world is clear. For Indians it is amusement (Vihara or Kirda), for westerners, it is part of food (ahara) in moderation. Indians knew about the narcotic effect of alcohol and it was made freely available on the battlefield when the wounded soldiers needed relief from excruciating pain. According to Yuanchwang (a.k.a Huen-Tsang) the Chinese pilgrim (639 A.D.), sharp swords were tied to the trunks of inebriated elephants and let loose on enemy battalions. The havoc and trembling created must have been terrible. The soldiers also got dead drunk and fought fearless.

A sculpture of about 578 A.D. in the III cave Badami (map - pictures) depicts an inebriated young man lecturing on temperance! Three couples have forgotten themselves over glasses of goblet when two servants are ready at hand to fill them again. In another panel two women are sipping today amidst chattering. Kolaramma, the presiding deity at a Kolar (map - pictures) temple (pictures) was a Shakti Goddess, and wine and meat were essential ingredients in the Shakti worship. An inscription of the place mentions grant to mattiya pana on intoxicating drink. Even the deity holds a goblet in her hand. Khetappayya Narayana in Bhatkal temple (article) has sculpture of drinking couple, and in the ceiling painting of Narasimhaswamy temple at Sibi, toddy tapping, scene is depicted wherein a man is collecting toddy from a tall tree. A woman is pouring the collected toddy from the pot into the leather bag. A third person is ready to transport it on a donkey. This toddy tapping, collection, and transportation was a very common scene till about twenty years ago.


Due to modernization and westernization more and more Kannadigas (the people of Karnataka state) are taking to drinking as they blindly believe that drinking is fashionable or trendy. Many criticize their elders who always avoided tobacco and drinks. But people of Karnataka have always tolerated drinking and knew the advantages and disadvantages of alcohol. They knew when to drink why to drink how to drink and what to drink. Death by consumption of spurious liquor was unknown and illegal brewing was punishable and liquor trade was controlled properly by the State since Kautilya's times (4th century B.C.). But prohibition has never met with success either in United states on various states in India at anytime because man by nature has weakness for stupor.


  •  Kamat Jyotsna, Karnatakada Surapana Parampare (in Kannada), Proceedings of the Karnataka History Conference, 2000

See Also:

  • Gandhi's views on alcohol and prohibition

  •  Social drinking in India though the centuries

  • Search for more pictures of drinking scenes as found in sculptures, ancient texts at Kamat PICTURESearch

Drinking in Ancient India
Drinking in 
Ancient India

Drinking Couple -- Sculpture from a Stupa in SanchiThe Connoisseur Wining his MateWining the WomanMan Offering a Drink to his PartnerEnhancement of Intimacy through a Drink
Have One More Sip!Bottoms up!A drink transforms him into a philosopher!Women chatting over a bowl of alcoholMen Enjoying Wine and Women
She had a drink too much!A Servant Serving Wine to LoversTapping Toddy from a Palm TreeA Lady Carrying Toddy (homemade wine) in an Earthen PotToddy (home-made wine) being loaded in a leather pouch
Seductress with a wine glassLady with a Drinking BowlDemons Engaged in a Feast

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