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Traditional Fermentation Technology

Pankaj Goyal
Lala Bazar
Almora 263601 India

Fermentation technology, as mentioned in the literary texts, is more than 3000 year old in India . The fermentation technology employed a variety of processes and was put to a large number of uses. It also laid the foundation of alchemy and chemistry.

The term fermentation is derived from the Latin word Fermentum that stands for boiling. Fermentation is the process of digesting certain substances that leads to chemical conversion of organic substances into simpler compounds. Fermentation technology began with sweet substances (vegetable or animal) in different parts of the world. The process of fermentation was probably discovered by observing the changes in the juices of several fruits and other substances that had been kept for a day or more. It appears that fermentation technology started simultaneously with settled agriculture during the Neolithic period.

A sweet substance known as Soma juice prepared by the Vedic Aryans is supposed to be the first product of fermentation in India . The Rgveda (c.1500 BC) shows that fermentation technology took its first step in connection with the preparation of Soma juice in India . There is also another drink, known as Sura (wine/beer), prepared by fermentation. These two preparations have also been used in different medicinal preparations, surgical procedures and in many chemical and alchemical operations. It is believed that acetic fermentation was known to India since the early times.

Curd is another very popular fermentation product described in the Rgveda . It still remains a popular food. The technology of curdling milk is also found in a number of texts associated with Yajurveda . In the beginning, fermentation was mainly associated with the preparation of spiritual drinks, but later on it was used for other purposes also. The different terms associated with fermentation in various texts are as follows:

  • asuta (begetting a new form)
  • abhisuta (extraction, may indicate extraction from fermented smash)
  • parisrut ('foaming', 'fermenting', that is, the state of fermenting)
  • sandhana (complete absorption of ferment with fermenting material)

All these terms, chiefly signifying “brewing”, were part of the process of fermentation. Except the last term, all the other terms are found in Vedic literature. Fermentation technology is mainly based on four ingredients/processes. These are:

  1. Base material (yoni)
  2. Ferment or yeast (kinva, nagnahu), alternatively, auxiliary (sambhara), providing flavour and good taste to liquor in addition to fermenting
  3. Heating or digesting
  4. Fermenting vessels.

Mira Roy suggests that the period in which fermentation technology evolved from the sacrificial altar to chemical laboratory can be classified into three major phases. These three phases of development of fermentation are:

  1. Vedic period (c.1500 BC-600 BC)
  2. Post-Vedic period (600 BC- 1 st century CE onwards)
  3. Period of scientific and technical literature (1st century CE onwards)
  4. These three phases are briefly described below.

I. Vedic Period

The two drinks that are quoted in Vedic texts are Soma and Sura . The Rgveda describes soma as a godly concoction, while sura is described as mainly a human drink. However, the Yajurveda deifies sura and uplifts it to the status of soma .

Evidence of fermentation in the Rgveda

Soma is an invigorating plant product generally prepared by squeezing juice from plants. The following statements give an indication of fermentation:

  • Admixture of a thick juice of Soma with barley powder ( RV . IX. 68.4). This statement is a clear indication of fermentation with barley.
  • “Fifteenth day old highly intoxicating Soma” ( RV . X.27.2). In this statement fifteenth day probably refers to the broth fermented in the vat for 15 days.
  • “Soma being treated is red” ( RV .IX.82: 1).

All these statements give an indication of fermentation technology involved in the preparation of Soma.

Evidence of fermentation in the Yajurveda

  • The Sukla Yajurveda ( Vaj. XIX. 13-15; 82-83) describes the formation of two stimulating drinks – Sura and Parisrut . Sura was supposed to be prepared from germinated paddy, germinated barley, and parched rice with the help of ferment. Yeast was used most often as the fermenting agent.
  • The Katyayana Srauta sutra (XV, 9.28-30; XIX, 1-2) also gives a complete description of the preparation of Sura . According to this method either boiled rice or boiled barley was mixed with the ferment and also with masara and the entire mixture was kept in a jar. The jar was then kept in a pit for three nights. Meanwhile, cow's milk and powdered parched rice were poured in the pit.

Coagulation of milk

A large number of dairy products that used fermentation technology are mentioned in the Rgveda . Dahi (curd) was such a product that was used as an essential offering to god and was also an ingredient for the preparation of soma juice. Different methods of curdling of milk are described in different texts. For instance, the method described in Taittiriya Samhita mentions the use of whey and rice grains for curdling of milk.

II. Post-Vedic Period (600BC to 100CE)

In this period, two new preparations known as vinegar and liquor from bread were added by adopting new technologies. Later on some other drinks were also prepared by using fermentation technologies. Various developments took place in the field of fermentation technology during the post-Vedic period. Some of these developments are described below:

  • Now, a large number of base materials were used instead of a few. Some common substances that began to be used as base material were rice and barley among cereals; grape, palm, mango, wood-apple and sugarcane, etc, among fruits; madhuka ( Bassia latifolia ) and jasmine among flowers and barks of mesasrngi , putraka, etc.
  • Earlier honey was mostly used as a ferment, but later on treacle ( AS. II.25) also began to be used and became very popular in a short span of time.
  • A new period began with the employment of fermented products in therapeutic medicines and chemical practices.
  • Auxiliary ( sambhara ) ( AS .II.25): It was a compound that served dual purposes. On the one hand it was used as ferment, on the other it was also used to add flavour and taste to liquor. This compound was prepared by using cinnamon, Plumbago zeylanica , Emblia ribes and gaza-pippali (elephant pepper plant). From sambhara a special liquid known as Sambhariki was also prepared.

Technologies connected with the preparation of beer ( sura )

The Buddhist texts mention five different types of sura, but the technologies involved in the preparation of these are not discussed. Some texts mention that germinated cereals and hulled fruit drenched in water dried, ground and given the shape of a cake was known as bread. Later on brewing was done by soaking it in water which in turn was fermented by adding some yeast to that solution.

Technologies connected with the preparation of vinegar ( amla )

According to Kautilya, there were two types of amla preparations. One method involved the use of fruit juice and phalamla , while the other was derived from molasses. Its preparation was done for a longer time so that the product became sour. Kautilya further states that these were home-made products.

Medaka (spiced rice beer), Prasanna (spiced barley or wheat beer), Asava (sugarcane beer), Arista (medical tincture), etc, were some of the most popular drinks of that period. Different varieties of fermented liquor provide us the knowledge of different fermentation processes developed during that period.

III. Period of Scientific and Technical Literature (100 CE onwards)

Fermentation technology advanced in the field of medical science and chemical and alchemical practices. A large number of digesting methods now came into existence. Some of these digesting methods were:

  • The fermenting vessel was deposited into the earth and sometimes the vessel was covered with horse dung.
  • The fermenting vessel was placed on a heap of grains.
  • The fermenting vessel was exposed to the sun.
  • Fumigation of the desired substance was done in a pot.

Some new recipes for fermentation were formulated. One such recipe is described in Rasopanisat ( RP . XV 251-253). The recipe is:

“The best ones among the five classes of bulbous plant with latex pounded along with the grains of rice of Kodrava ( Paspaln scrobiculatum ), and products of plant madana (emetic nut), pasted with whey of buffalo or cow-milk and kept in a closed bowl and another (?). The closed vessel is then placed in the sun. The acidic residue thus obtained is kinva ( yeast ).”

The alcoholic fermentation and acetous fermentation began to be used for several purposes now by changing the base material or by slightly modifying the digesting methods. Base material was known as yoni and the fermented produces were known as tri-yoni, dvi-yoni, etc. The juicy produce that was obtained from the fermented smash was known as Jata-rasa . The liquid obtained from the boiled substance was also used for the processes of fermentation.

Fermentation products, arista, asava and sura, were considered potent medicinal drugs. Similarly, aranala, cukra, dhanyamala, kanjika, sauviraka, sukta, tusambu, etc, were not only used for medicinal purposes but also used for washing of metals and minerals and for different mercurial operations.

Practices involved in spirituous (alcoholic) fermentation ( SS. Ci . 10.6-8)

Arista : Powder of certain selected drugs of desired medicinal properties as well as fermenting properties mixed with water, iron powder and treacle was used for the preparation of arista . Water taken was about half of the weight of the powder while iron powder and treacle taken were 28 ½ times the weight of water. All of these ingredients were placed in an earthen vessel. The earthen vessel was coated with a mixture of honey, butter and powdered long-pepper plant from inside. Now the sealed earthen pot was placed in a mass of barley for at least seven nights for fermentation to take place.

Asava : A mixture of either cold alkaline water or sesamum and juice of sugarcane was taken for the preparation of asava . These were taken in the ratio of 2: 3 respectively. The process of fermentation was the same as that of arista .

Sura : In the preparation of Sura a decoction of a mixture of desirable drugs was taken with the ferment. This preparation was also similar to that of arista and asava .

Preparation of special Sura for purification ( SS. Su . 44. 29-34)

A mixture of decoctions of prescribed plants and sugar was taken in the ratio of 2: 3 respectively. This mixture was then boiled over fire. After boiling the mixture, the solution was kept for cooling. Now, the solution was placed in an earthen jar for about a month. The time period was taken in such a way that half of this period fell in the winter and the other half in the anterior or posterior of winter. The fermentation process took place during this period. Likewise, alkaline water, cow's urine and some other substances were also used for similar preparations.

Not only references to these medicated liquors but a number of other fermented liquors with their respective medicinal values are found in Caraka and Susruta-Samhitas .

Practices involved in acetic fermentation

Some common practices are described below:

Aranala : Husked uncooked wheat or any cereal was taken as a base material with any ferment and the mixture was heated for about a week by solar radiation.

Cukra: Bulging root, fruit of the desired plant was taken with alcoholic sweet juicy whey and the mixture was deposited and purified in a heap of paddy for about three nights.

Sukta : A mixture of treacle, honey, fermented rice water, whey was used in the preparation of sukta . This mixture was placed in an earthen pot and the pot was placed on heaps of paddy for three nights in the summer season.

Kanjika: Boiled millet or barley was used as a base material. Different plants were used as a ferment medium. It could also be prepared by using boiled rice.


The above facts clearly show that the history of fermentation technology in India from the ancient times onwards includes a variety of techniques which resulted in a rich repertoire of alcoholic beverages and allied products. What is important is that fire and heat were rarely employed for the process of fermentation.

The above summary is based on Mira Roy's article mentioned below.


Roy , Mira.1997. Fermentation technology. In History of Technology of India , A.K. Bag (Ed). New Delhi : The Indian National Science Academy , pp. 437-447.


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