Shelley Subawalla, a resident of New Delhi, is giving it her all to preserve the Parsi community's culture and traditions
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As the sun shone with a vengeance of a summer morning, I trudged reluctantly, pulling myself up an incline as we made our way to the Amer Fort. My parents, who had visited Jaipur more times than I can count, decided to turn a weekend sojourn into a temple trail, starting with the Shila Devi temple inside the fort.
As soon as I entered, I caught a familiar whiff. Was that whisky I was smelling? I had almost put the bizarre thought out of my head when I glanced at the followers holding bottles of whisky - right from desi tipples to single malts - as offerings to the goddess. The prasad, called pucca prasad here, is made of the multitudes of spirits that are offered at the shrine of the goddess. It is no wonder that I went in for a second round of prasad.
Rajasthan has had its tryst with alcohol. The liquor here is part of tradition and culture, and a recently released documentary traces the story of rebel liquor craftsmen, alchemists, and a 250-year-old heritage liquor. Shot in five districts of Rajasthan for over six months, Mahansar – The Royal Sip follows covers the story of Mahansar, a small village in the Shekhawati region of India, and its former royal Mahansar family, which has been making heritage drinks for generations.
Rajasthan's Liquor Traditions
All the royal families in Rajasthan had darukhanas, where secret recipes, traded only through matrimonial alliances, ensured a steady supply of heady tipples to royals that could put modern alcohol to shame. But Mahansar’s royal family is trying to put the family’s heritage liquor on the world map.
Centuries ago, some rebel liquor alchemists and craftsmen from the royal thikana of Mahansar, experimented with dry fruits, herbal ingredients and other ingredients like meat, opium and even poison, to invent their high spirit which was used to treat cholera and other diseases. Situated on the silk route that connected China with Turkey and Italy, the Mahansar family used to supply this liquor on camels to the Nawabs of Bahawalpur and royal families of Sindh, right till Attock. This tipple started being produced as the Mahansar Heritage Liquor, in 1768 under British rule; Thakur Durjan Saal Singh of Mahansar started the commercial production of Mahansar liquor for the first time in 1890.
It is this legacy that Delhi-based filmmaker Aditya Sangwan chose to immortalise through to documentary. “My hometown is on the edge of Rajasthan so we have a mixed culture of Haryana and Rajasthan. We grew up on many stories. One story told us about how the Mahansar family was once asked to provide liquor for a royal wedding function. The royal family made a special liquor for that wedding and come up with only two bottles of liquor for the whole wedding procession; the entire procession was hooked to it immediately. I wanted to understand this lore for myself and decided to speak to Surendra Pratap Singh, a scion of the ex-royal and the Managing Director of Mahansar liquor,” he says, adding that, unlike Europeans who ensure their liquor heritage is documented properly, there is not much information available on this intangible heritage product.
Varieties of Mahansar Heritage Liquor
“These days, people are obsessed with single malt. We consume drinks that the Britishers left for us and consider ourselves superior. Our local concoctions have been relegated to the backfoot,” says Surendra Pratap Singh. A specific spirit that he highlights in the documentary is the heritage liquor, called the Maharani Mahansar Shahi Gulab vintage, which is made with Rosa Damascene, one of the most expensive varieties of rose. For Narangam, oranges are brought from Jhalawar and Nagpur region in India and the Somras is made of 21 spices that include Kesar from Kashmir and other secret ingredients.
In 1950, heritage liquor was banned in Rajasthan after the monarchy ended. It was only in 1998 that Maharaja Gaj Singh of the erstwhile royal family of Jodhpur ventured to revive the old heritage liquors of Rajasthan. “I felt like we were missing something. So when I was the chairman of the tourism department, I wrote to the chief minister asking him to revive three things - heritage sports, hotels, and liquor,” says Jodhpur ex-royal Gaj Singh. After his intervention, the rules for heritage liquor were amended.
Liquor tourism has been popularised in states like Goa, which promotes Feni and has also brought out many local brands that are today manufacturing their tipples. A teetotaller himself, Sangwan believes and hopes that his documentary will help do the same for Rajasthan. “We don't have any Indian brand that has that cultural value that foreign brands have here. Additionally, in our culture, we don't count liquor as a good thing but all our gods used to drink alcohol. And we do not want to talk about it openly either. Hyperlocal liquors like Mahansar, Feni, etc can play a crucial role in creating a liquor culture here in India. Our film is the ambassador of the heritage liqueurs of Rajasthan with an exploration of its colourful history, charismatic characters, and uniquely royal process of making liquor.”
To watch the documentary, click here
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