Food and drink at the sea-side bacchanal of the yadu-s

Sections 2.88-89 of the Harivaṃśa (Viṣṇuparvan) gives a graphic description of the bacchanal of the yadu-s at the sea-side or their celebration of the samudrotsava. It has a beautiful ring to it and gives a feel for the festive culinary excesses of the ārya-s, or at least their yadu branch, after they had settled in the subcontinent. We hence present it below, especially given that a notable section of Hindus who still read such texts tend to be rather coy about sections such as these. The two great and dramatic images from the epic – the sea-side bacchanal and their final end in the sea-side drunken brawl are a stark illustration of how an exuberant existence like that of the yadu-s is not for ever.

upendram uttīrṇam athāśu dṛṣṭvā
bhaimā hi te tatyajur eva toyam ।
vivikta-gātrāstv atha pāna-bhūmiṃ
kṛṣṇājñayā te yayur aprameyāḥ ॥ 2-89-55

Having seen the brother of Indra (Viṣṇu as Kṛṣṇa) swiftly get out the Bhaima-s (Yadu-s) also abandoned the water. Now with their bodies cleansed they went to the drinking-arena.

yathā+anupūrvyā ca yathā vayaśca
yat sanniyogāś ca tadopaviṣṭāḥ ।
annāni vīrā bubhujuḥ pratītāḥ
papuś ca peyāni yathā+anukūlam ॥ 2-89-56

By the order of their rank and their relationships they seated themselves in there. The heroes having made themselves comfortable ate the foods and drank the drinks of their liking.

māṃsāni pakvāni phalāmlakāni
cukrottareṇa+atha ca dāḍimena ।
niṣṭapta-śūlāñ chakalān paśūṃśca
tatropajahruḥ śucayo’tha sūdāḥ ॥ 2-89-57

There (in the feasting arena) hygienic cooks then served them meats marinaded in acidic fruit juices, excellent vinegar and pomegranates, and slices of animals roasted on stakes.

susvinna-śūlyān mahiṣāṃś ca bālāñ
chūlyan-suniṣṭapta ghṛtāvasiktān ।
paurogavoktyā upajahrur eṣām ॥ 2-89-58

Instructed by the chief chef [the cooks then] served them well-boiled and roasted buffalo and lamb [meat] impaled on spikes, sprinkled with ghee and well-marinaded with sour-vegetable juice, black salt and vinegar.

paurogavoktyā vidhinā mṛgāṇāṃ
māṃsāni siddhāni ca pīvarāṇi ।
nānā-prakārāṇy upajahrur eṣāṃ
mṛṣṭāni pakvāni ca cukra-cūtaiḥ ॥ 2-89-59

Instructed by the chef with due procedure [the cooks] served them dressed and cooked flesh and fat of various animals which were glazed with [a sauce] of vinegar and mangoes.

pārśvāni cānye śakalāni tatra
daduḥ paśūnāṃ ghṛta-mṛkṣitāni ।
cūrṇena mṛṣṭena samāricena ॥ 2-89-60

Thereafter they gave [the yadu-s] ribs and other slices of animals smeared with ghee mixed with powdered sea-salt and ground black pepper.

parṇāsa-hiṅgvārdraka-bhūstṛṇaiś ca ।
tadopa-daṃśaiḥ sumukhottaraiste
pānāni hṛṣṭāḥ papur aprameyāḥ ॥ 2-89-61

[They served] radishes, pomegranates, sweet limes, mahagony fruits spiced with asa foetida, ginger, and broad-leafed turpentine grass. [Then] the incomparable heroes joyously drank drinks from rhytons with beautiful faces.

kaṭvāṅka śūlairapi pakṣibhiś ca
ghṛtāmla-sauvarcala-tailasiktaiḥ ।
papuḥ priyābhiḥ parivāryamāṇāḥ ॥ 2-89-62

Along with bird-flesh impaled and [fried] in ghee and oil, marinaded with black salt, vinegar and bitter-gourd paste they drank wine, mead, beer and rum along with their dear female companions and retinue.

śvetena yuktā nṛpa śoṇitena
bhakṣyān-sugandhāṃl lavaṇānvitāṃś ca ।
ārdrān-kilāṭān-ghṛta-pūrṇakāṃś ca
nānā-prakārān api khaṇḍa-khādyān ॥ 2-89-63

O king [Then] they ate [desert] which was white and red in color, great-smelling and salty, and confections of various types which were soft and filled with ghee and made from congealed milk.

apānapāś coddhava-bhojamiśrāḥ
śākaiś ca sūpaiś ca bahu-prakāraiḥ ।
peyaiś ca dadhnā payasā ca vīrāḥ
svannāni rājan bubhujuḥ prahṛṣṭāḥ ॥ 2-89-64

O king Uddhava and the Bhoja miśra brāhmaṇa-s who did not drink liquors [consumed] vegetarian [dishes] and soups of various kinds. Joyously these valiant ones drank curds and pāyasa and ate good food.

tathāranālāṃś ca bahu-prakārān
papuḥ sugandhān api pālavīṣu ।
śṛtaṃ payaḥ śarkarayā ca yuktaṃ
phala-prakārāṃś ca bahūṃś ca khādan ॥ 2-89-65

Then they drank well-flavored sour rice gruel of various kinds and boiled milk sweetened with sugar from tumblers and ate various types of fruits.

tṛptāḥ pravṛttāḥ punareva vīrā-
ste bhaimamukhyā vanitāsahāyāḥ ।
gītāni ramyāṇi jaguḥ prahṛṣṭāḥ
kāntābhi-nītāni manoharāṇi ॥ 2-89-66

Again getting up satisfied [with the feasting] the leaders of the bhaima (yadu-s) along with the ladies joyfully sang beautiful songs charmingly prompted by their wives.


Certain points are notable here: To any modern Hindu it would be obvious that the menu of the yadu-s was rather different from that of modern Hindus from the same region. In being heavy on meat, ghee and milk products it is certainly close to that of the ancestral Indo-Aryans on the Eurasian steppes. The flavoring, which is repeatedly emphasized in the account, is relatively elaborate and clearly represents, at least in part, the Indianization of the Indo-Aryan menu. It primarily comprises of sea salt, black salt, vinegar, asa foetida, ginger, scented grass, black pepper, bitter gourd, mango, pomegranate, and probably the acidic juices of gooseberry, Garcinia indica (cukrāmla) and tamarind. The fruits from which the acidic juices were obtained are not explicitly named, but any or all of them could be what is implied by phalāmlakāni and vṛkṣāmla. However, many of the well-known later day Indian spices are not named here. Whether it is merely a textual omission or whether it really reflects the early Indo-Aryan dietary preference in what is today Gujarat is still unclear. Of these the hiṅgu (Asa foetida; latex of Ferula) was probably the first the ārya-s adopted even as they entered the Bactria-Margiana region (where it was likely native) and it is even mentioned in the Atharvaveda. In addition, the term anna while translated generally as food could also specifically mean rice in the above account.

Likewise, the fare of fruits/vegetables is relatively simple: radish (turnip), mango, pomegranate, sweetlime and mahogany fruits. The last of these is no longer popular in India and some fruits which are known to have been used in the Indus valley civilization, like the kadali, do not figure in this account. They are not common until much later in Sanskrit tradition. In this context the word dāḍima raises a question: We usually take it to mean pomegranate. However, Sanskritists have told us that here it might mean the cardamom. If this were true then it would give us one more spice. However, the pomegranate was probably well-known to the Indo-Iranians via trade even as they neared the Bactria-Margiana region so we see no reason for the less-obvious translation. Thus, based on this and from comparable evidence from the Mahābhārata, it is possible that the Indo-Aryans or at least their elite did not adopt all existing Indian dietary choices by default. However, we cannot entirely rule out poetic omission, especially because they were still conservatively following older conventions even in the culinary account.

Of the drinks, mead and beer were likely prepared by the Indo-Europeans on the steppe, especially given that the Vedic beer faithfully uses the old IE grain, barley. The rum was likely acquired from the pre-Aryan Indians. While I translated maireya as wine above, it is unlikely to mean wine in the Indian context. The classical Hindu bhojana specialists like Aruṇadatta state that maireya was prepared by fermenting either the kodrava (millet) grain or kharjūra (date), whereas Kauṭilya holds that it was made from fermenting of certain plant extracts followed by a complex flavoring process. The flavored soured rice-gruel was a drink that probably proceeded through a primarily acidic fermentation pathway rather than being primarily alcoholic. The origins of this drink and the flavors used with it remain unclear. Finally, we have rendered the sumukhottara following a traditional Harivaṃśa exponent as being a rhyton. While rhytons are rare in India, the few early examples which have been found show a similar form to those from Mycenaean Greek and Iranian sites. Hence, this interpretation might not be out of place.

These, culinary features might be compared to the glimpse we are offered by the poetess Auvaiyār of the feasts sponsored by her patron the great Tamil war-lord Atiyamān Neṭumān Añci. Therein we see a similar emphasis on meat, and alcoholic drinks, and at least one common flavoring agent, i.e. the scented grass. However, the liquor favored by the Atiyamān is toddy which we do not seem to encounter in the Yadu bacchanal unless we take the maireya to be some such. A fare similar to the Harivaṃśa is also encountered in a somewhat later Dramiḻa work, the Porunarāṭṭruppaḍai. There the coḻā Karikāla offers his proteges a meal rich in meat prepared similar to this account and rice. Finally, this brings us to the brāhmaṇa-s who seem to explicitly avoid the meat and the liquors. Now, someone could argue that the statement regarding the brāhmaṇa-s like Uddhava is a later interpolation by Brahminical authors who wished to make their dietary strictures very clear. In support of this one could cite the use of the term bhoja-miśra for the Yadu brāhmaṇa-s as being indicative of the use of later Brahminical title of miśra. However, we cannot be sure of such an interpretation because otherwise the rest of this section does not show any notable signs of “tampering”.

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