Getting ‘high’ in the hills!

Fermented alcoholic drinks have been part of different local cultures  since time immemorial. They have been part of local traditions and the art has been transferred from generations to generation. Many survived and many modified themselves. In India, wherever you go, you will find such local flavours in deep interiors of the hinterland. One such famous drink is Tongba. You go into hills of Sikkim and West Bengal and you won’t be able to miss it. During my treks to Sandakphu and in North Sikkim over the years, we could see it everywhere and actually enjoyed it… if not for taste then for its culture, and of course the unique way it is served in a container which itself is called as Tongba.

This drink is actually traditional and indigenous drink of Limbu people of eastern Nepal and perhaps travelled with them to the nearby areas of mountains of Sikkim and Darjeeling and to some parts of Tibet an Bhutan as well. Border with Nepal in the hill regions of Darjeeling district are very porous and not just that, while trekking you will often not know when you have transcended the international boundaries. Hence there was no way that these borders would have stopped the amalgamation of cultures. Therefore, Tongba is very much now the part of the local culture in Indian regions of Sikkim and Darjeeling hills. Best part is that you have to be here to taste it, hence those who have not been here, rarely get to know about it, leave aside tasting it.

Enjoying Tongba at Lachung in North Sikkim

Tongba is actually a heady millet brew. Tongba is this traditional wooden vessel with copper rings on top, bottom and in centre. The beverage is also called as Jaand. It is prepared by cooking and fermenting whole grain millet. It is a long and tedious process, but local people are expert in doing this at their homes. Cooked millet is cooled and mixed with murcha, known to be source of moods, bacteria and yeast, required for fermentation.

A lady cooling the cooker millet at her grocery store cum home cum tongba brewery in her village near Kalapokhri in Singalila hills

Once this is done, the mixture is collected in bamboo baskets, lined with green leaves. The basket is then covered with cloth and left to get warmed naturally for a couple of days. Once this process is over, the mixture is transferred into earthen pot and then covered tight at the mouth to prevent any air from entering in. It is then left like this for couple of weeks or even more depending on fermentation required. Once its done, jaand is ready to be consumed. This is then left to mature.

Lovely hosts, who also run a guest house for travellers

This jaand might be stored for about six months. Longer it is kept, taste intensifies but it becomes more mellowed. Now comes the drinking part, that is further interesting. Whenever it has to be consumed, the mixture is put into wooden tongba and then it is filled with boiled water, left for few minutes and is then sipped with a bamboo straw. The boiled water instantly derives the alcoholic essence from the millets. Once the water is finished and tongba gets dry, you add more water to the same mixture and keep repeating it until the essence is exhausted from the mixture. Drinking itself is an art, so that only liquid is sipped and grains aren’t sucked to your mouth.

Cool night, hot Tongba and some fine tuning on harmonica at Gurdum in West Bengal
Tongba ready to drink

So, when somebody sits to drink Tongba, there is invariably kept a thermos of boiled water besides. In hills, tongba also serves as a community drink, where people get together for a chat and a tongba is shared by all by passing it to one-another after every sip. Gives a real feeling of brotherhood! In its drinking manner and sharing, it also reminds me of mate, favourite drink of latin America. Similarly, Tongba is culturally as well as religiously important to the Limbu people of Nepal. It is also offered as respect to guests coming to house or family gatherings.

A tongba drink is like what is beer to the commoners and it even tastes like that. Time magazine in an write-up commented long back, “tongba is like Guinness to the Irish or whisky to the Scots; it’s something to celebrate and revel in and to stumble and sing under its influence.”

Those who don’t love alcohol might detest on this, but as a traveller you ought to know and often have a feel of such things to be able to soak in the atmosphere.  Try it only if you are comfortable and never overdo a new taste, until you get used to it. Tongba is not that strong in terms of alcohol, but then different bodies, react differently on strange tastes. Better safe! You never know, when you will geta ‘high’!!


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7 thoughts on “Getting ‘high’ in the hills!”

  1. If one drinks alcohol or not is not important but reading about different cultures is always fascinating. Do you know more about the dried cheese?

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