There was a time when a college student’s best friend — a tipple that was cheap and heady, yet safe — was to be found at a tiny Tibetan enclave in North Delhi. The whitish, somewhat smelly concoction called chhang was brewed by the Tibetan refugees living in Majnu Ka Tila, a shanty town by the Yamuna.


White magic: Tibetan chhang


For students of Delhi University, which was just around the corner, there was nothing quite like it. Back in the late ’70s, we paid ₹2 for a plastic jug that served eight glasses of chhang . It was sold in a nondescript shack, peopled by labourers, rickshaw pullers, hawkers, petty criminals and students — the general underbelly of society.

This rice beer, usually mildly alcoholic, is the staple household drink in Nepal and most of India’s hill states. It is even used as an offering at monasteries. But the brew served at the Tibetan dhabas, or Tibdhabs, as we called them, was a lot more potent.

Majnu ka Tila has undergone a sea change since then. It is now an upmarket backpackers’ haven, serving global cuisine. There’s Korean, Lebanese, Italian and a lot more. You can order craft beer or Australian wine but not chhang . For that we have to travel to the hills.

However, in the higher altitudes, among the Sherpas, Bhutias, Lepchas and Bhots, in places such as upper Nepal, North Sikkim and Bhutan, where the terrain and climate do not support rice cultivation, another exotic spirit cheers and warms the inhabitants. This, too, is called chhang , but the similarity ends there. It is a true spirit for the roof of the world.

My first encounter with this brew was in Yumthang, in North Sikkim, at a time when the region did not have hotels or resorts and long before Airbnb had become a household word. Villagers would let tourists stay in their huts and eat in their kitchen, and we were in one such homestay.

There was a single, very hazardous road linking North Sikkim to the rest of the country, and it was advised that we proceed with a tribal guide or a driver. We accordingly hired a Lepcha driver, and my attempts to learn his language quickly won the affections of this simple man from the hills.

That evening, after a hair-raising but unbelievably picturesque drive, he dropped us off at our host’s cottage, and invited me to join him in the village pub to meet his friends. I happily agreed.

We walked straight into what looked like a scene from an Indiana Jones film. A low, dark stone hut lit by smoky oil lamps, where the guests were seated on the floor on thick yak skins, with a wooden slab at the centre acting as a communal table. A plump lady in an exotic traditional robe was serving the patrons. A fire in a stone hearth, over which a battered samovar was steaming, made the place all warm and cosy.

I followed the driver’s lead and ordered a chhang — much to his happiness. Apparently, tourists ordered the Army rum or whiskey on the rare occasions that they visited the local pub. A large hollow bamboo filled with brown grains, which I learnt was fermented maize, was placed before us. The samovar was brought over to the table, and our beaming hostess poured boiling water into it. We were given a thin and hollow bamboo piece to be used as a straw. We waited for a few minutes for the brew to stew, and then, with the help of the straws, sipped from the communal bamboo stem.

This was heavenly and beat Irish coffee hands down. The hot aromatic liquid went down my throat, warming me up, and leaving a pleasant afterglow. Once the brew got over, more hot water was poured into the hollowed stem.

The atmosphere was heady. While it snowed outside, I sat on the furry skin in the dimly lit hut in the high Himalayas, in the flickering firelight, drinking chhang with people in exotic costumes talking in strange languages.

I knew one phrase though. My guide-cum-driver had directed me to say “ julley ” (a greeting). I did so with folded hands, grinning at everyone, and became a big hit among the locals. Strange food morsels from others’ plates were offered to me, and I accepted them, even sharing bites of a whole grilled fish.

Hours passed in companionable drinking while my family waited impatiently for me in our cottage. Ultimately, our kind hosts brought them to our drinking den, and they were given a warm welcome by the local people. The wife enjoyed the ambience, but not the food and drinks on offer. Finally, we returned to our cottage after many warm farewells and a last sip for the road, escorted by half the revellers in the pub.

But the last word came from my disgruntled daughter, then eight and very upset about being hauled outside in the cold.

She said to her mother. “I have known Papa for just eight years and I already can’t stand him. How did you tolerate him for so long?”

She still doesn’t have an answer to that.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi