The beauty of Sikkim is as heady as its Himalayan landscape and peaks. Equally intoxicating is the highland’s traditional drink – chhaang, fermented usually by women using techniques dating back centuries in Sikkim. But the beverage brewed from either finger millet, barley, or rice is gradually losing both its creators and consumers.
What sets chhaang – a term rooted in the cultures of the local Bhutia and Lepcha tribes— apart is its unique preparation method. Semi-fermented millet seeds are carefully packed into a bamboo barrel known as a dhungro. Then, boiling water is gently poured over these seeds, allowing the infusion of flavours to take place. The resulting drink is cheap but varies in potency and quality. The drink is savoured through a narrow bamboo tube called pipsing.
“We typically use finger millet as the primary ingredient. First, we meticulously clean the millet to remove any impurities and stones. It is then ground using a pestle and cooked over an open flame. Afterwards, it’s allowed to cool in a container, and yeast is introduced for fermentation,” said Phubu Dolma, a 40-year-old entrepreneur.
Like the straw that stirs the drink, she is among a handful of brewers preserving this fading tradition, breathing life into a drink that has been cherished by the local communities for generations.
Phubu passionately shared the intricate process. “The transformation takes two to three days, and a distinctive aroma signifies that it’s ready to be consumed. The prepared brew is then carefully packed into the dhungro and served with hot water. The entire experience of savouring chhaang takes around 30 to 45 minutes,” she said.
However, despite her dedication, Phubu stands among a dwindling number of women who continue to sell chhaang in Gangtok’s local market — at Rs 70 for a dhungro.
A storm is brewing
Nima Choden Bhutia, a 59-year-old resident of Gangtok, recalled her time as a chhaang seller, spanning over four decades. Yet, six years ago, she decided to transition to selling other alcoholic beverages.
She underscored the profound changes that had taken place over the years. “Chhaang used to be my primary source of income, supporting my family for decades. However, times have evolved. The process of crafting the drink, spanning 4-5 days of hard work, from 10kg of millet is labour-intensive. The income doesn’t compensate for the effort. Just six years ago, one dhungro was sold for Rs 30, a price that has now risen to Rs 70. The cost of raw materials has soared, leaving little room for profit. Given my age and health, I can no longer sustain the business,” she said.
Prena Bhutia, a 70-year-old former chhaang maker, forewarned that the cherished homebrew might face extinction within a few years.
“Chhaang is our legacy, crafted for joyous occasions in our homes and shared with visiting guests. But the demanding process of preparation no longer appeals to people today, despite its refreshing taste. The fermentation process consumes a significant amount of water, often challenging to procure during winter when mountain springs freeze. The younger generation seeks easier ways to make money, and the extinction of this tradition hardly concerns them,” she said.
A drinking problem
In the past, chhaang makers also served as sellers, but nowadays even the sellers purchase from the dwindling number of village-based producers.
Mamata Gupta, a 45-year-old former seller in Gangtok, recounted her transition to a fast-food chain after closing her chhaang business.
“The labour-intensive nature of the work and the limited income compelled me to change my profession. The demand for chhaang is waning, and it’s challenging to sell 20 dhungros every day. Sustaining households by selling chhaang has become increasingly difficult. Though the drink still attracts outsiders curious to taste it, its appeal among the locals is limited,” she said.
Nima Bhutia noted that the younger generation’s changing tastes and preferences also contributed to chhaang’s decline. “The youth no longer wish to spend nearly 40 minutes consuming this traditional beverage and prefer modern alcoholic drinks.”
The youth of Sikkim expressed their preference for modern alcoholic beverages over chhaang.
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Sahid Hussain, a 32-year-old local businessman in Gangtok, explained their perspective. “Alcoholic beverages in Sikkim are easily accessible and also relatively cheaper than in the rest of the country due to lower custom duties. People from neighbouring states also come here to enjoy them. Chhaang isn’t readily available anymore, and its slow consumption doesn’t align with our convenience. While we did savour it during our college days, we’ve transitioned to other alcoholic drinks,” he said.
The fate of chhaang, once a cultural treasure, hangs in the balance, uncertain and at risk of fading into obscurity.
Gurvinder Singh is a journalist based in Kolkata.
This story first appeared on Village Square and is published as part of a special collaboration to highlight rural Northeast India.
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