Rice Beer: Finding its way to the Sacred
Macdonald L. Ryntathiang
Department of Cultural and Creative Studies,
From time immemorial, the Khasis have always made rice as a mandatory product and have rightly propitiated rice in different manner especially in the Rite of Passage, a term coined by Arnold Van Gennep. Rice is an item which is not forgotten and it plays an important role by adding as a recipe for various occasions other than being a staple food. From rice people also make preparations for other rice items like pu-syep, pu-tharo, pu-thiang, pu-doh and pu- khlein and rice beer.
Rice beer is used in different occasions. The main purpose of it is to represent as a symbolic tool for initiation and conclusion of certain rituals and ceremonies. In festivals and dances, without rice beer, the performers or dancers cannot enthusiastically display their performance, with charm and gaiety. Rice beer makes each and every individual participating in the dance to perform freely without hesitation and also refreshes them when they are weary and tired, especially during sunny day. One of the main reasons for it to become so important an entity in particular festivals or dance is that it is easily available and culturally associated with the life of the people. Rice beer maybe regarded as a tool of pleasure for relief to the people during festivities, but when it comes to performing rituals and uses for religious purposes, it becomes the most sacred item as a symbolic representation for reverence to the Gods and Goddesses. In religious rituals, rice beer to the Khasis, is like wine to the Christians, for instance, during communion and baptism. One of the important aspects is that, most of the time, these rituals, dances and festivals are ceremoniously linked to the fertility of the soil and prosperity of the land and its people; hence rice beer becomes an important facet in this respect. These rituals are always related to agriculture which is more often associated with the cultural life of the North-Eastern tribes of India. Among the Garos, too, their rituals are mostly associated with fertility rites. Prominent among these festivals are the Agalmaka, Rongchugala, Ahala and Wangala- all associated with various cycles of Jhumming. Among the Ao Nagas in Nagaland, the most important festival is Moatsu which is celebrated after the sowing is over. The festival lasts for six days. The principal Angami festival is the Sekranyi which is an occasion of great merry making; enormous quantities of rice beer, beef and pork are relished. Rice beer is also an important item for initiation rite or naming ceremony, separation rite and incorporation rite.
It is important to note that ppreparation of rice beer are three of types, ‘iad um, ‘iad hiar and ‘iad thang. ‘Iad um, ‘iad hiar and ‘iad thang are important ceremonial assets in the social and religious life of the people, as they act as perpetrators to ancestral worship especially to the Bhoi Khasis.The preparation of ‘iad um is much simpler compared to that of ‘iad hiar and ‘iad thang in which the latter have to undergo through a complex process of fermentation, distillation and purification. This paper is focusing more on ‘iad um or rice beer. ‘Iad hiar and ‘iad thang will also be mentioned keeping in view their religious and ceremonious significance.
To understand the role of rice beer in the rituals and festivals, we will look briefly at the Pynhir meidhan ritual of the Bhoi in reverence to the Goddess Lukhmi and Ka krud Ksing, a dance performed in Umtyrkhang, Mawhati also in Ri-Bhoi.
Ka Pynhir Meidhan
The Bhoi Khasis residing in the northern part of Khasi land believed that rice in the first place is brought by the rice Goddess Ka Lukhmi from the plains. When harvesting time arrived, the Bhois observe an elaborate ritual called ‘ka pynhir meidhan’ to propitiate Ka Lukhmi which is the Goddess of paddy. They believed that whatever is planted after the ritual, the plantations in bringing back Ka Lukhmi from the plains will become prosper.
Pynhir meidhan ritual is performed by a Lyngdoh or elder priest who chanted out the whole day in reverence to Goddess Lukhmi. The ritual takes place in the house of the priest. For the ritual, the priest arranged the harvesting tools, ka dur Lukhmi symbolized by a conical basket filled with cucurbits, six sacrificial chickens irrespective of the number of clans, a single paddy which is taken from the charding or hearth (which is kept in front of the ritual space-signifying Goddess Lukhmi) and a specially made local rice beer locally known as iad suit or ‘iad um. This ritual is also performed to call upon or seek the ancestors for their blessings, to make peace with all the past misdeeds with different clans, conflicting with each other. This is more or less like ancestral worship. The priest mentions the six clans often in his chants namely: Marin, Lapang, Makri, Nongkuom, Lyngdoh and Nongshli. The ‘iad suit is then poured to the agricultural tools, ka dur Lukhmi and then to the earth after the sacrifice of chickens. Similarity can be drawn to the ritual ceremonies of the northern Vietnamese in honor of their various ancestors. The Vietnamese shared rice alcohol with each other during these ceremonies and celebrations and sometimes poured it to the ground to share the moment with their ancestors. There is also a poem that speaks about the importance of rice beer to the ancestral worship sung by the poet Nguyen Thong which is as follows:
“When will the misfortunes of the South come to an end?
The tomb far away lies abandoned
The mellow alcohol- tender link between the living and the dead-
Who will pour it on the sweet smelling grass?
 Bake rice (dry)
 Bake rice (sticky)
 Bake rice (sweet)
 Bake rice (mixed with pork)
 Bake rice (soaked in oil)
 Agricultural methods which slashing and burning of forest is carried out
 Taking down of the paddy (Goddess Lukhmi) from the hearth
 Ploughing with drums
 Excerp from the findings of the UPE Project ‘rice Myths of North East India’
 “Farewell to the tomb of my brother,” in Anthologie de la literature vietnamienne, ed. Nguyen Khac Vien and Hiru Ngoc, vol.3 (Hanoi, 1975), 95. See also Henri Guermeur, La reime fiscal de I’Indochine (Hanoi, 1909;rpt. Paris, 1999),227; Leopold Cadiere, iCroyances et pratitiques religieuses des Annamites (Hanoi, 1994), 12.