SHAD Interview— “Theorizing Alcoholic Drinks in Ancient India: The Complex Case of Maireya” with James McHugh

Editor’s Note: This is the second Points interview with authors from the latest issue of ADHS’s journal Social History of Alcohol and Drugs (vol. 35, no. 1; Spring 2021), published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. James McHugh, an Associate Professor in the School of Religion at the University of Southern California You can see his article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article or any other article from SHAD’s history. 

Article Abstract

An alcoholic drink called maireya is prominent in ancient texts from South Asia and features prominently in Buddhist law on alcohol. The article considers what we can say about the chronology, the nature, and the cultural significance of maireya. Maireya became prominent several centuries BCE, maintaining this high profile until the early first millennium CE. It was theorized to be made with an innately flexible formula with a secondary fermentation. Maireya is presented as a drink of social distinction. Flexible and based on sugars, maireya was an ideal drink to pair with the cereal-based drink called surā in Buddhist law, which reflects both the tastes and theories of this early period.

Tell readers a little about yourself

I’m based in LA, as an associate professor at the University of Southern California. I research and teach various topics connected to the cultures and religions of premodern South Asia, mostly using written sources in Sanskrit and related languages. I tend to be interested in subjects involving the manipulation and consumption of what were deemed significant substances—such as aromatics like camphor or drugs and alcoholic drinks. My first book, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, was a wide-ranging history of the sense of smell, perfumery, and the use of aromatics in India. More recently, I have been doing a big project on alcohol, which also got me interested in some of the things we call drugs today.

SHAD Interview James McHugh Title Card
James McHugh with his homegrown Turkish tobacco. Image courtesy of James McHugh.

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