The Tipplers of Kerala

The Malayali and his drink

Numerous jokes can be seen circulating about the Malayali fondness for drink and so many scenes can be seen on television and the movies. The mimicry circuit is replete with many depictions of the drunken Malayali, while the somber and orderly queue in front of the beverages shop is testimony to the seriousness with which the average Malayali sets about the task of purchasing his liquor of choice in order to get thoroughly sloshed.

The statistics are staggering, for Kerala is right up there near the top when it comes to alcohol consumption. The World Health Organization finds that the average Indian drinks 4.3 liters of alcohol a year and in Kerala, it was 10.2 liters a year and the highest per capita (14.5 per cent) liquor consumption in the country. Borrowing the words from an evocative Malayali writer Yohan Chacko we can picture the drinker… Tying and retying his lungi/dhoti, each time a notch higher lets you know how many pegs he has downed by the level of the knot. At the pinnacle of intoxication the knot will be placed one palm’s width below his armpit almost like a girl wearing a towel on her way to the river for a bath. And they will sing. And sing and sing. For the amount of coaxing they would otherwise need to get on a dance floor, the drunk Malayali will put Shakira to shame.

Many ask the question - It is ok to have a recreational drink or two or even three, but why do these fellows insist on getting plastered ever so often? Let me assure you, it was not so easy to find an answer even after racking my brains a lot and checking out the backgrounds of every serious Malayali drinker I knew or know. Is it in the genes, the social make-up or is it the expected norm in Kerala?

In the hoary past, drinking was not very common or popular in the state. Toddy was tapped and the Thandan (palm tree climber and tapper) supplied the fresh drink to just a few. We know that the Nair soldier sometimes drank before setting out for war, this has been so attested. Rare members of the gentry perhaps did, but drink was largely abhorred by the upper classes. We also saw in an earlier study that the Romans brought in amphorae of wine, perhaps for their own consumption. While arrack became popular later, It is interesting to note that the prevalent form of alcohol distillation producing a more potent Arrack (itself an Arab term), has an Italio-Arab (the Chakanad Bhatti) Moghul origin dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries (they used to have much weaker Gandhara bhattis or stills before that).

Medieval Kerala had Namboothiris on the top of the social ladder, who drank rarely in those times but the Nairs had the sanction to drink by virtue of their being soldiers, fighting for various local chieftains. The lower classes did, but the Moplahs did not drink, whereas the Christians did. Richard Burton explains an interesting reasoning, in his diary dated 1850 – Although quite opposed to the spirit of Hindu law, intoxication and debauchery never degrade a Nair from his caste. The Christians had better relations with the Portuguese and the Dutch and therefore had access to more exotic drinks from the west, such as wine, brandy. The lonely Englishmen in India found solace in booze, sometimes drinking himself to a stupor setting the standard for the observant Malayali. The Malayali always looking for equality in society, quickly picked up on these aspects to show that he was no inferior to the Englishman, not realizing that drink is addictive. Drinking soon got popularized by the film crowd and the arty lot, so not only did the common man get affected, but also the intellectual, with the excuse that drink cleared up the mind and allowed thoughts to flow. But let’s take a deeper look.

In the very early times, Hinduism mentions use of many alcoholic beverages, starting with the Soma in Rig Veda. Some 13 different types can be found in early texts and while it was taboo only for Brahmins, were used by other castes. In almost all areas, the manufacture and distribution was done by the lowest castes. In early Kerala, we see the local chieftains in Kerala levying various types of kanams or taxes on liquor profits. They were Talakanam, enikkanam and kudanazhi. Talakanam was a tax paid by toddy tappers, enikkanam was the tax on the ladder used by tappers and kudanazhi was the custom of providing a nazhi (measure) of liquor to the taxing authority per pot of toddy (you may not believe it, but we also had a women labor tax called mulavila, manayira house thatching tax, Alkash or talavila, atimaikasu or slave tax, menippon gold ornament tax, mulaiattikaram etc. in those times).

1602 – Pyrarad Laval states- Had we not been liable to find our Nairs drunk with arac (which is a
kind of eau de vie made with the wine of the coco-tree), we should, in fact, have had no need of it at all, by reason of our letter of commendation, which ran in the name of the king: but that must not always be trusted to. Buchanan also details the method of toddy tapping and arrack brewing in Kerala which he documented while traveling through the country in 1799.

As the moral policies started to change with a change in governance, drinking became an accepted social pastime. That was obviously so when the British took over the reins in Malabar circa 1790. You can refer to the diaries of Wellesley who was campaigning against the Pazhassi raja and see that he had to have a number of arrack carts lugged by bullocks behind each troop movement of his. This was a requirement to keep his army motivated in the malaria infested and rain drenched jungles of North Malabar. That was how the British first created a quota of booze for the native foot soldier.

Many a family had a person or two serving that Army of the Raj in those times and later into the world wars 1 and 2. When they came home on furlough, they would bring the ration bottles, to have a merry vacation. We have seen this well documented in novels, short stories, dramas and movies. Very soon drinking became accepted and even popular amongst men, with the change of the social fabric. Class and caste distinction disintegrated and with the advent of socialism, people of all classes met more often in public, not just for important occasions but to discuss politics, the government, other local issues and their own problems.

In the early 1800’s the EIC implemented the abkari excise act, which was later imposed by the British government in 1858, and thus the sale of alcohol became a huge source of revenue to any government. In India. This was particularly of interest in places where controls never existed, and where tax collection was a huge issue for the ruling British, for it was a method of exhorting revenue for governance from the masses, i.e. by taxing the production and sales outlets.
Thus came about the abkari (excise) or ‘farming out’ system. In the so called Madras system the license to operate distilleries and open liquor shops were granted by auctions to the highest bidder. More and more such licenses were encouraged. Even though land tax was the main source of revenue, liquor revenue grew rapidly. Starting with 2% in 1874, you can trace a rise to 7% in the 1890’s, 10% in 1905 and 27% by the 1920’s, a whopping increase of 430%.

Kerala state's dependence on alcohol revenue echoes the British colonial era, says Dilip Menon, who has studied the issue. In the late 19th century, imperial rulers sharply raised toddy taxes, encouraging people to switch to more addictive, higher-octane and also highly taxed arrack, a distilled 34-proof brew made from fruit or grain, which stuffed state coffers and spurred alcoholism.

It was at this stage that some from the Madras presidency started to raise their voice against increasing cases of addiction. The Brahma Samaj started to incorporate it into its caste rules and the CMS took up the cudgels as well, telling its believers to abstain. But as regulations came about, we also see that the Madras system was fanned out to other parts of India and gaining acceptability. Heeding protests, taxes were raised to reduce consumption, police were authorized to act against illegal distillers etc., Gandhi arriving India in 1914 also took up the matter and the INA endorsed his words.

After independence, several states introduced prohibition as allowed by the constitution and even though neighboring Tamil Nadu did, the states of Andhra Pradesh, Mysore and Kerala did not due to their large fiscal demands and even refused central government compensation for the potential loss of revenue. Economic development and urbanization escalated the situation and instilled what we now see as class based drinking as against caste based drinking. The elite drank western style spirits while the lower working classes stuck to arrack and toddy, or sometimes lethal bootleg spirits. Soon foreign liquor and IMFL or Indian made foreign liquor became even more popular as the habitual drinker needed something stronger.

Just like the British got the masses of China addicted to opium, many governments in power in Kerala starting with the British, gradually increased the acceptance levels by integrating booze into state policy. Even though the statistics reported by the press are a bit skewed, you can still see the top tipplers list contains the names of the three states above, Andhra, Mysore and Kerala! Booze became a medium used to exhort the illiterate when larger body counts were needed by politicians and leaders, be it for meetings, agitations or processions. A promise of a free drink or a few would get the required headcount. Sometimes these drinks were spiked ‘for a higher kick ‘with all kinds of chemicals (varnish, methyl alcohol, battery skins / ammonium chloride) and many instances of mass deaths have been reported. And as you will observe, Kerala, an over-politicized and over-extended state has more than a procession or agitation every day.

But why did an otherwise literate Keralite get drawn into the negative world of alcoholics? The rapid increase in alcoholism and addiction in Kerala was thus brought about by easier availability, affordability and greater social acceptance of alcohol. Some might ask why religious and familial checks stopped working and how women also joined the fray. Well as regards gender, Kerala is one of the rare places where the gender border is but a thin line, though the drunkard’s wife is often the one who gets mistreated.

And as we all know supply of an addictive drink with some catchy advertising creates demand, and as demand increases, supply quickly catches up and this exponential growth created the situation we see in Kerala. Usually brakes are applied early by good governance, but the immense profits of the business created a very strong liquor (manufacturing & distribution) lobby which in turn started to establish indirect control on the decision makers and various arms of the government.

You could look at some depressing statistics culled from various reports, for some perspective - An ADIC-India study revealed that Kerala’s revenue from alcohol increased from US$ 6.5 million in FY 1987-88 to US$ 1.2 billion in FY 2013-14. In Kerala, where 22 per cent of the total government revenue came from the bottle, the total excise and commercial tax revenue from alcohol (IMFL and toddy) was close to Rs 8,000 crore. The Kerala State Beverages Corporation (KSBC) runs 337 liquor shops, all open seven days a week. Each shop caters on average to an astonishing 80,000 clients.

But blaming only the government is not necessarily right and the moral fabric of the user (who helped create the democratic government in the first place) has to be studied, so let’s go about trying to do that. The drinkers of Kerala are of many types. There is the occasional drinker, there is the habitual drinker, and there is the arty type. The occasional or recreational (as they are termed in the USA) drinker is relatively harmless, except that BEVCO sales are propped up by a large number of these people. The habitual or serious drinker drinks by choice, he has decided early in life that he has to drown his sorrows with the glass. Whether it is due to personal issues, a declining career or impeding bankruptcy, he somehow begs, borrows or steals to buy his drink as often as he can and is enveloped in a hazy alcoholic mist all day long. They are by nature dull and self-centered and difficult to change. He is the mainstay of all statisticians and is often studied by the academicians.

The interesting sort is the arty type, sometimes sporting a scraggly beard and generally looking unkempt. He is always rebelling about something and it could be as trivial as the dog show conducted by the bourgeois in town. He tries very hard to exhort others to follow his ideal, or his chosen brand of ‘ism’ (one of the many) or ‘ics’ (such as politics) failing frequently, thereby forcing him to choose a path of negativity as the day winds down. He can also be seen in the toddy or arrack shop or in the Bevco line. Some of them become famous later in the entertainment industry but are still influenced heavily by drink.

The intention of any of these serious Kerala drinkers is not to sip his drink, but to get drunk as quickly as possible. If they meet in a bar, the bottle once opened is never corked, but always finished in situ. In the old times, the bottle used to be military issue Hercules XXX (the drink of the proletariat), or the much venerated Old Monk rum - OMR but these days it is could be any of the many new brands popular in the global market.

In Kerala we see something else which is very interesting. Advertising is not required, but the booze joints have a rating based on the quality of low cost food they serve. In a state where there is little time and resource to cook good non vegetarian food, the lower middle class worker resorts to a drink and a bite at the ‘shop’. The toddy/arrack shop where the laborer retires to, after his days’ work (and very tiring bouts of grumbling), would sport an expert cook  well versed in the art of creating tasty ‘touching’s’ and great curries. Touching’s are usually very spicy ‘small eats’ chomped while polishing off the bottle. They are made of meat and sometimes with parts not used in larger hotels, making them very economical for the cook and the buyer, with the taste finely disguised with an abundance of spices. See a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Kerala if you want to get an idea of what I am talking about. If it is a party, it seems that they can even have (not so legal) mobile supply stations parked in the parking lot of your party site, replete with top class touching’s, from what I have heard.

Then there is the strong NRK (nonresident Keralite) influence - Check any airport arrival lounge in Kerala, almost all non-Muslim Malayali NRK’s (Close to 50% of NRK’s are Muslim)would be carrying the customary two bottles with him, mainly to please his parents, friends and in laws. Duty free shops in the Middle East as well as those in the arrival lounges have great pricing packages for the liquor being sold (typically - buy one, get one free), pricing them at a fraction of street prices, thus facilitating the purchase of these one and a half to two liter bottles of 50% proof alcohol per person. Take a look at some rough statistics. There are some 2 million NRI’s from Kerala (NRK) and close to 90% of them are in the Middle East. The Kochi and Calicut airports show some 5-7 million arrivals every year (Mumbai has 33 million arrivals). Imagine the amount of high octane booze which comes in, even after discounting the Moplah returnee!!

We also find that Kerala is a high salary state and so there is usually money left for recreation in a worker’s life (Only that the Keralite believes in a lot of recreation). It is also perhaps time to realize that the state is no longer economically deprived and has started farming out menial jobs to lower cost migrants from the North Eastern parts of India.

As justice VR Krishna Iyer aptly said - this is a trade where the turnover tempts the customer to take rolling trips into the realm of the jocose, the lachrymose and then the comatose. The jocose first sip, the bellicose second sip, the lachrymose third sip… And with the final gulp you become comatose and lie down somewhere, often not knowing where. If this happens at home, the wife gets beaten if she protests. With much of the income spent on the stuff, the family often ends up bankrupt.

He also asked - Who will dare dismiss a government for violating Article 47 of the Constitution written in 1949? The article for those who are interested is - ‘Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health’. It made me remember the story of the cat and the mice, with the question ‘who will bell the cat’?

So much of statistics is good for the policy maker or policy optimizer. But there could be another reason and that is the attitude of the Keralite. Ask yourself if it is an optimistic or pessimistic state. Check out your friends, your parents or relatives. An average person is always grumbling, hardly smiling, not happy with this or that, never contended with his life and always searching for utopia. This is also perhaps the reason why Kerala has a largest number of mentally ill persons (6% of population), a large rate of divorces (13K per annum) and a huge number of suicides (24 per lakh in 2014). Is that progress? Too complex a question I suppose and one that will require the average Malayali to nurse a stiff drink to come up with his valued opinion.

If I could comment in conclusion, I would say that instead of focusing on the Beverages Corporation or Chandy or Mani or whoever the CM is, focus on being happy, and you will soon discover that there are better routes to lasting happiness than the few pints of alcohol. Don’t get me wrong though, I am proud to be a Malayali though not at all proud of the above state of affairs. I am also not preaching nor will I, since I myself like a weekend drink, but then again, I do not get sloshed.


Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500 – Pages 55, 56
Goa, and the Blue Mountains, Or Six Months of Sick Leave - Sir Richard Francis Burton
Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: Volume 1 - Jack S. Blocker, David M. Fahey, Ian R. Tyrrell
Supplementary Despatches and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Duke of wellington ..., Volumes 1-12

Pics - from the net - thanks to the uploaders, 


Rama Chandran said…
You have missed all relevant points;I don't want to delve into politics which I know very well-it is a fight between the abkaris:Ezhavas & Christians.In contemporary politics,past has no value
Maddy said…
Thanks ramachandran..
of course, i am sure there is so much of the politics missing. This was just an opinion piece from my perspective. whatever said and done, whomever is to blame, the malayali still goes bottom up at every possible occasion - that was the point...
Happy Kitten said…
While Malayalis nurse their drinks the migrants are cashing..
Maddy said…
thanks HK..
yeah you are right...we are becoming lazier as we become richer...
Fantastic article.this can come only from that part of india.
Maddy said…
thanks Ramanathan..
I am glad you enjoyed this...
sumal said…
Great article. A generation is getting wasted, part of the blame lies in cinema glamorizing drinking. Physical labour is abhorrent to an average Malayali , a sad state of affairs in a predominantly agarian state till about 15 years ago.
Maddy said…
thanks sumal
It is not that recreational drinking is wrong (even good for your constitution), it is just that hardcore boozing is a big issue..

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