For the average person, there is nothing particularly interesting about Rum Punch. It’s seen by many as a catch-all term used for several combinations of rum, fruit juice and cordials made with the intention of masking low quality rum. For cocktail enthusiasts however, it is something more; a time honored tradition with the ability to connect the modern punch drinker with imbibers across history from Colonial India, Dickensian London, and the Antebellum South. The reason for this is because punches made with rum and several other spirits were enjoyed by drinkers across those different places and time periods. By the standards of modern mixology where many cocktails were invented in the last few decades, Punch is practically ancient. According to Dave Wondrich in his definitive book on the beverage; “if Punch wasn’t the first mixed drink powered by distilled spirits, it was certainly the first globally popular one.” He continues; “nobody can say precisely when, where or by whom Punch was invented” but then suggests India as a likely answer for the question of where. Punch emerged there as a misspelling of “panch” the Hindi word for five and a reference to the number of ingredients used.

In terms of when it was invented, Wondrich mentions1 a letter written in 1632 by an Englishman stationed in India as the first reference to the libation known as Punch. A few years later, a German in the port city of Surat would explain the ingredients, describing punch as “a kind of drink consisting of aqua vitae, rose-water, juice of citrons and sugar.” These early accounts as well as the etymology support the idea that punch was invented in India, which naturally introduces the possibility that an Indian might have invented punch.

Naval Officers and a Bowl of Punch by Thomas Rowlandson. British seafarers are among the groups most strongly associated with Punch. ( Image via Wikimedia Commons & the Yale Center for British Art )

Wondrich cautions however that while all the required ingredients were easily available in India; “the real problem for the claim that Punch is an Indian creation is the dearth of actual seventeenth century evidence of the native peoples of the region drinking the stuff. It’s not mentioned in their own writings, or at least no such mention has yet filtered through to the West”. He believes that the inventor of punch was a British sailor seeking to recreate wine somewhere in the Indian Ocean with regional ingredients, but concedes that this guess is entirely based on circumstantial evidence.

An entire book can be written on the impact that British seafarers had on modern mixed drinks. Through them, a rum and beer concoction known as Flip became popular across the Anglo-Atlantic world. The creation of the Mojito is often credited to the English explorer, Sir Francis Drake. The British Royal Navy is responsible for both the Pink Gin cocktail, and a drink known as Grog. That same Navy is perhaps more famous though, for the daily ration of rum given to sailors for over 300 years, and the day this tradition came to an end now known as Black Tot Day.

British sailors certainly had an invaluable impact on Punch; However examining references to intoxicants against the backdrop of Indian history offers insight into how punch may have been an Indian invention or at the very least strongly influenced by an Indian tradition.

Intoxicants in Ancient India

Many ancient cultures saw the origin of alcohol as a mythical event connected to a quest for immortality that resulted in a healing beverage being revealed to mankind. According to Stephen Harrod Buhner2; “the gift of beer throughout myth and oral tradition is firmly connected to both a divine origin and an easing of human pain in the face of mortality.” This lead to universal legends across several civilizations where beer and other fermented beverages were seen as healing libations associated with long life, immortality, and wisdom.

In the religion of ancient Mesopotamia, a land often regarded as the birthplace of beer, knowledge of brewing was granted by a divine alewife called Siduri to the hero Gilgamesh at the conclusion of an epic quest to help him accept the limitations of human life. Elsewhere in the Near East, wine was connected to deities like Dionysus, Persephone and Osiris who all cheated death via resurrection. Scholars of comparative religion consider these three deities to be part of a shared system of beliefs across culturally connected groups in that region.

Within another series of shared myths is the Norse origin story of Mead, where rival groups known as the Æsir and Venir came together to make a liqueur said to grant immortality and knowledge. There is a Vedic myth, originating in North East India that largely parallels this Norse legend. In this myth, it is the Devas and Asuras who came together to churn a mythical Ocean of Milk in order to acquire a sacred liquid called Amrita said to also grant immortality. From this churning, referred to in scripture as the Samudra Manthan emerged several treasures including Dhanvantari, the god of Ayurvedic medicine, and Varuni, the goddess of intoxicating liquors. These deities reflect the connection that early societies in India saw between medicine and alcohol as their healing, herbal alcoholic concoctions functioned as both. They also demonstrate the importance of sacred intoxicants in Vedic religion.

Painting of the Samudra Manthan from the Nineteenth Century ( Image via Wikimedia Commons & the Victoria and Albert Museum )

Dwijendra Narayan Jha, former professor of history at the University of Delhi says that there were almost fifty known intoxicants in ancient India, but among them “Soma was a favorite beverage of the Vedic deities and was offered in most of the sacrifices performed to please gods.” These offerings included bathing sacred statues, and drinking from a communal bowl that was first dedicated to a deity. In the Rig Veda, one of the oldest works in an Indo-European language, Soma is described as a substance pressed from a plant, filtered through lamb wool, and then consumed with milk. Researchers are unclear about what Soma actually was, however the effects appear to be both stimulatory and hallucinogenic and proposed candidates for the biological identity of Soma include Ephedra as well as Psilocybin.

It is likely that the plant from which Soma was sourced went extinct almost three thousand years ago3. From hundreds of hymns dedicated to Soma in the earliest recorded history of India, references slowly dwindled and by the beginning of the Iron Age the liquid was no longer mentioned. Colleen Taylor Sen, an author who has written extensively on the evolution of Indian cuisine believes that the decline of Soma lead to the development of yoga, meditation, and fasting4. She suggests that practicing these techniques while consuming less potent intoxicants possibly replicated the effects of Soma. Among these less potent intoxicants was bhang; a marijuana-laced milk beverage associated with the god Shiva that is still consumed at Hindu festivals like Maha Shivratri, and Kumbh Mela. 

The decline of Soma coincided with several socio-religious shifts as early Vedic spirituality transformed into a more philosophical religion governed by newer texts known as the Upanishads. Scholars see these shifts as being the effects of a pastoral people becoming a more settled agrarian society. Older traditions were less rigidly adhered to, and substitutes to Soma were increasingly allowed. Such substitutes would have included several sacred intoxicating beverages.

Panchamrita & Panchamakara

There is perhaps no liquid as sacred to Hindu ceremony as Panchamrita, a mixture of five venerated ingredients meant to symbolize Amrita, and used in the same manner that Soma was. Prepared with five ingredients in a bowl and consumed at the conclusion of Hindu prayer ceremonies. Panchamrita bears some obvious similarities to modern punch; the bowl, the name, and the number of ingredients. The use of five ingredients in this concoction was linked to Ayurvedic and Buddhist ideas of culinary balance, a concept that still influences the cuisine of China and North-East India. Mixing five ingredients in a bowl was also possibly linked to a general sacredness surrounding the number five, and circular shapes in Indian philosophy. Various versions across South East Asia also involve many of the same ingredients used in the earliest recorded Punches. These include jaggery, a type of unrefined sugar as well as nutmeg, and rose-water.

The problem with seeing Panchamrita as a sort of proto-Punch is that it contains no intoxicating liquors. It is possible however, that it once did. Historian John Keay says that some elements of early Hinduism were revised by more recent writers “to elevate the pedigree of later dynasts and to enhance the repute of their brahmanical backers.” What he posits is that as a caste of priests known as Brahmins became more politically powerful, they reshaped Hindu theology according to their more puritanical ideals and removed ideas that they disagreed with. Brian K. Pennington shares this opinion5. He believes that at some point at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the next, Hinduism manifested into the more conservative orthodoxy that it is known for today. Within this time of roughly half a century, Hindus sought to properly define their practices and assert their antiquity. In response to British attempts at classifying Vedic religion “Hindus responded with apologetic correction, and reconstruction of the coherence and nobility of their traditions.” Essentially, this was an attempt at streamlining the many strains of Vedic thought into a single unified religion. This was not entirely successful, but it did result in older traditions of intoxicating beverages being sidelined.

While it is likely that intoxicating versions of Panchamrita once existed, modern versions as well as accounts of related intoxicating drinks like Bhang and Soma suggest that this would most likely have been dairy-based and in no way similar to the Punch written about by Europeans. However, there is a related beverage known as Panchamakara that also bears certain similarities to Punch.

In mainstream modern Hinduism, Panchamakara refers to five forbidden substances associated with Tantric practices but rarely defined by those engaged in such practices resulting in several different interpretations always from second hand accounts. Descriptions of Panchamakara suggest that it may have originated in a parallel Tantric version of Panchamrita6. Tantra refers to esoteric traditions in Hinduism and Buddhism that developed in India during the middle of the first millennium. It is believed that Tantric concepts entered the Indian subcontinent from the Himalayan highlands, and even though it became widespread, it was always subaltern and secretive. The most significant influence of Tantra on Hinduism was the inclusion of fearsome protective deities and forest spirits into the traditional Vedic pantheon and the rise of rituals that were conducted secretly at sites like cremation grounds, and abandoned houses with the aid of intoxicants. In Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion, Geoffrey Samuel describes the practices of an ascetic Tantric order in India called the Kāpālikas7. One of their rituals was a secret feast called a Ganachakra where Panchamakara containing wine as well as ingredients like lemon bark, and ginger is said to be consumed in skull bowls. The aim of consuming Panchamakara was always ritual intoxication.

A depiction of a Tantric Feast or Ganachakra circa 1790 ( Image via Wikimedia Commons & Los Angeles County Museum of Art )

In his book on the history of the Kāpālikas, David N. Lorenzen explains that the vast majority of references to this sect were written by outsiders8 . Additionally, their own sacred books were compiled in what scholars of Tantric literature refer to as Twilight Language; sacred texts holding secrets that require guidance from a mentor to properly understand. Over time, the Kāpālikas and their culture either disappeared or became diluted into more mainstream Hinduism. This has resulted to a complete lack of objective records, but what can be said with certainty is that there once existed a group in medieval India consuming a five ingredient, intoxicating beverage from a bowl with a name that referenced the number of ingredients used.

Is This the Origin of Punch?

This drink was either Punch or something that could be seen as a proto-Punch.

It is more likely that a British sailor would recreate this beverage or make a riff on it rather than invent something so similar from scratch. Dave Wondrich is the authority on mixed drinks in general and Punch in particular, but I believe that he looked in the wrong places to find an Indian origin of Punch. Wondrich searched for mentions of Punch being mixed for Mughal emperors, considering them to be the most likely drinkers. In his view; “If it were in fact a native specialty, one would expect that it would have been known by the likes of Jahangir”, a Mughal emperor known for his love of opium and alcohol.

How did this tradition, practiced in secret by mystics become known to British sailors?

Kāpālikas were among many groups that struggled to find relevance during the dramatic shifts in society that came with the rise of the East India Company. Many of them became wandering ascetics and eventually evolved into a fringe monastic order known as Aghoris. Robert Svoboda, the first westerner licensed to practice Ayurvedic medicine in India described his Aghori mentor drinking “a full bottle of country liquor” while performing a Tantric ritual9. This indicates that at least part of the practice of drinking intoxicating Panchamakara did indeed survive among the Aghoris. The ones who did not become Aghoris, particularly those who venerated warlike Tantric deities like the Mahavidyas may have chosen to become mercenaries for European merchants. In this capacity, it would have been easy for the five ingredient, intoxicating Panchamakara to be picked up by European sailors also employed by these merchants and for the name to be passed on as Punch. From here, Punch set sail and became a phenomenon for over 200 years as the preferred beverage of America’s Founding Fathers, the West Indian Plantocracy, and even the authors of Classic British Literature.

History of Punch Beverage

  1. Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl, Dave Wondrich
  2. Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers, Stephen Harrod Buhner
  3. India: A History, John Keay
  4. Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, Colleen Taylor Sen
  5. Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion, Brian K. Pennington
  6. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas, David Kinsley
  7. Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion, Geoffrey Samuel
  8. The Kapalinkas and Kalamukhas: Two Lost Saivite Sects, David N. Lorenzen
  9. Tantric Revisionings: New Understandings of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Religion, Robert Svoboda