Saturday, September 03, 2005

Nectar of life and heavenly..... from Rajasthan

Sunday, September 04, 2005 at 0000 hours IST

THE Rajasthani tale begins with an end. A wounded king is on his deathbed. Afraid that he might die without naming a successor, his worried advisors summon the royal physician to revive the comatose king, at least for a few minutes. But nothing works.

Then the royal bartender offers to help, he says he’s got the concoction to prevent a crisis. He pours a glass of the mysterious potion down the royal gullet. Within minutes, the raja is up and standing steady enough to name an heir. An hour later, after the effect of the alcohol wanes, he’s dead.

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Centuries after it acquired cult status as the cocktail that pulled a man from the doors of death, Chandrahas—the liquor of life—is about to make a comeback.

Later this month, Chandrahas—just one of the many brands from the royal houses of Rajasthan—will be brewed, packaged and marketed by the Rajasthan government. ‘‘The recipes for these exotic liquors were passed on to us by the royal families that originally brewed them,’’ says OP Yadav, general manager of the state-owned Ganganagar Sugar Mill (GSM), which will bottle and market the drink.

Before Independence, every royal family in Rajasthan had its own brand of liquor. But when the Rajasthan Excise Act came into force in 1952, the blue booze was banned. In 1998 the ban was lifted and production allowed under the desi liquor category. But many of the brands, though popular, contained almost 80 per cent alcohol.

In its latest avatar, the blue-blooded desis will get an upgrade; the alcohol content will be watered down to less than 48 per cent (giving them IMFL status) and they will be sold to domestic and international customers.

Liquors from the houses of Jodhpur, Jaipur and western Rajasthan will lead this royal challenge and be priced anywhere between Rs 300 to

Rs 3,000. Good news for those who want their wares to have an image that’s independent of both desi daru and foreign liquor. ‘‘You have to taste it to believe it. Our liquors are the nectar of life,’’ says Rajendra Singh ‘Banna’ Shekhawat, scion of the Mahansar royal family.

In Rajasthan, Mahansar, a powerful riyasat till Independence, is almost synonymous with heritage liquor. The quality of liquor distilled by the people of Mahansar (despite the ban) is considered at par with top international brands and is in great demand among connoisseurs. Such is its popularity that during any election, Mahansar, nearly 200 km from Jaipur, is the first port of call for netas whose journey to the ballot goes through the bottle.

Shekhawat has offered three of the best Mahansar brands for production, and sensing the potential, he has secured a patent on the Mahansar brand name. The Mahansars have also launched a separate company to produce their own brand of liquor, using a treasure trove of more than 150 liqueur and cocktail recipes left behind by their ancestors.


BREW BUYS

• Mahansar Gulab Saunf, orange, rose, mint and ginger under the brand names Royal Mahansar, Maharani Mahansar and Maharaja Mahansar
• Sodawas Mawalin Made from dates, dry fruits and two dozen spices
• Kanota Chandrahas Made from nearly 165 spices, kesar, awlah and dry fruits
• Shyopur Narangi Ginger and pineapple flavours, made from fruits and two dozen spices
‘‘There is a book, handwritten in the local dialect, by our great-grandfathers. It was passed on from generation to generation like a family secret,’’ says Shekhawat, at his Jaipur residence.

Each baap dada ki daru, as the drinks are known, also has a colourful history. For instance, there’s the aphrodisiac (Shekhawat refuses to name it) that was gifted to Rana Hammir of Ranthambhore to deal with his 11 wives. Though he loved his wives, Hammir didn’t have the stamina to satisfy all of them.

According to legend, one day he met a saint who gave him the recipe for a cocktail that anointed him with the power of 100 horses and, thereby, solved his delicate problem. ‘‘We have that recipe,’’ says Shekhawat mischievously.

So, what are the ingredients? ‘‘That’s a trade secret for the time being. But don’t worry, we will launch it soon,’’ he promises.

While the drinks were born in male-dominated Rajput households, their makers were surprisingly gender-sensitive, says Shekhawat. A honey-based brew with 21 spices was meant for the queens. ‘‘After drinking it, even an old lady would behave like a 16-year-old girl,’’ he says. Unfortunately, this one won’t hit the shelves. ‘‘Some of the important ingredients can’t be found anymore,’’ says Shekhawat.

Though it’s difficult to back the tall—and usually libidinous—claims with scientific evidence, it’s easy to understand the lure of the royal beverage. ‘‘Our ancestors had plenty of time and little work. So they spent most of their time trying to find new ways to maximise pleasure,’’ says Devraj Singh, of the Shyopur family.

The Shyopurs, who were in charge of the household affairs of Jaipur’s royal family, the Kachawas, have at least three dozen recipes. They want the government to market their Narangi, Angoor and Annanas (pineapple) brands.

Though the names bring back memories of Mithun Chakraborty lolling about with a dirty brown bottle in his hand, the Shyopur brand would rather project a different image. ‘‘It is made with oranges and 18 herbs. It keeps the body cool even during scorching summers. You can drink it from dawn to dawn and still wake up a fresh man,’’ says Singh.

In fact, the ‘‘ours is a herbal drink that rejuvenates’’ is a refrain you’ll hear from the entire collection of royals. From the rulers of Kanota, who will launch Chandrahas, to the Mahansars, everyone claims that their drink has great therapeutic value. ‘‘The royals wanted to drink, enjoy good health, have plenty of energy and sex. They compromised on nothing and all these drinks were prepared keeping that in mind,” says Singh.

But, he says, a few steps before the distillation process that turns them into spirits, these mixtures resemble simple ayurvedic medicines. ‘‘If you use the alcohol after allowing the ingredients to ferment, it is a medicine. Distill it further and it becomes liquor,’’ says Singh.

At its best though, heritage liquor promises to go beyond medication and spirits and give much more than just your average buzz. This is the Rajput promise: ‘‘It will give you a daily dose of high and, if you are lucky, reignite your sex life. In short, we are promising bliss.’’ Cheers to that. Kindred Spirits
Sandipan Sharma takes off on the Mahansar Saunf With a licence to drink from the office, I immediately launch a search for the famed blue label that promises an instant kick and the power of a 100 horses. But before the horses can be unleashed comes the bad news that the royal owners have drunk that particular ‘daru-viagra’ out of existence. I settle for Mahansar Saunf—high on alcohol but low on promise. ‘‘It won’t hit you below the belt. But three pegs and you can bet you’ll be on the Discovery shuttle,’’ my host Balendu Singh, scion of the Mahansar family warns, referring to the alcohol content. The alcohol content of the Saunf—a 1999 vintage mixed by Rajendra ‘Banna’ Shekhawat, of the Mahansar family—exceeds 60 per cent. It was brewed by fermenting gur and ber in an earthen pot for 15 days. Later, it was distilled by adding milk, misri, saunf and a variety of other spices and stored in a ceramic vessel, where it lay for six years, awaiting its evening with an Express staffer. The aroma is a mixture of spices and alcohol; the colour—clear, with a dash of yellow. Says Shekhawat: “You won’t reek of alcohol even if you bathe in a bucket of this stuff.” We’re drinking at Singh’s Jaipur residence and there’s a stuffed tiger on the wall behind us, strictly for atmospherics, of course. Shekhawat begins to pour and fills half his glass. When I drink, it’s usually beer—60 per cent plus is not a figure I encounter often. So I start with a spoonful, tickling my host’s funny bone. After topping the glass with water and ice, the joyride begins. The first sip melts on my tongue. Its fragrance soothes my senses. A mild burning sensation drifts down my throat and to my stomach. Four sips later, I’m in love. We’re discussing politics, but after the second peg (large, on the rocks), it turns to secrets of the royal harems. By the time the third round begins, one of the hosts morphs into a ghazal singer. After the fourth, the room is filled with meaningless chatter and sporadic roars triggered by A-jokes. In short, like any gathering of cultured men over drinks, the evening goes downhill, from the sublime to the ridiculous. We polish off the bottle before midnight. I am four down, but I can still walk (two steps forward, one sideways, one backward), string a few decent sentences together (with a smattering of French I picked up during a three-day tour to that country) and am able to recognise my palace when I’m delivered back home. The next morning, I wake up fresh and ravenous. There is not even the shadow of a hangover. I’m already planning my next evening in the kingdom of heaven.

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