For most part aila holds a religious significance. Drunk right, it awakens the divine spirit in you. Drunk wrong, it knocks your living daylights out.

May 23, 2020

For most part aila holds a religious significance. Drunk right, it awakens the divine spirit in you. Drunk wrong, it knocks your living daylights out.

Aila, the revered spirit. It symbolizes the Newari culture and is considered one of the purest drinks, offered to Gods during the innumerable festivals throughout the year. The fiery brew is believed to ward off diseases and when you couple that with potent taste, smooth texture and then a God factor of prasad, it’s obvious why aila is incredibly popular with the crowd as well. For instance, a horde of devotees amasses during Indra Jatra to drink aila off Bhairab’s mouth. And of course, pulling the giant chariot of Rato Macchindranath before Bhoto Jatra definitely requires bursts of alcohol-fueled energy in your system, so does a Lakhey when he grooves fervidly to the sounds of dhimaya and bhushya, traditional musical instruments. In a more somber homely ambience, the drink is served in tiny clay pots called pyalas during social gatherings and bhoyes or feasts.

One such incident took me to Karyabinayak just the other day, which happened to be my first ever bhoye experience. It was a wedding ceremony of a Newari friend who had eloped with the love of his life. (For the record, the Nepalese law honors these theatrical stunts quite worthy of a soap opera plotline.) So like all things Newari, an elaborate merry of samaybaji and spirits followed. As I waited to be served, seated on a sukkul amidst the hullabaloo and a long line of jubilant menfolk, an elegant young lady in haku patasi approached with a welcoming smile. In a traditional Newari fashion, she poured a drink from a karuwa from a couple of feet up in the air. A sprout of aila landed impeccably on my pyala with not a drop to spill – a perfectly maneuvered serve, impressive and exotic to say the least for an unimaginative Kshetri like me.

Without further ado, I adventurously downed the brew in one go. The decision, as with all first shots, was immediately regretted. The taste of the potent ferment burned like fire down my throat and gave my tummy a sting no grandma’s chili achaar could manifest. All efforts to avoid a funny face went futile, and in unison with fellow men gracelessly grunting and growling, I laid down the spent pyala – only to find the haku patasi lady magically reappear, ready to pour a second round. My humble refusal and repeated requests fell to deaf ears and instead resulted in patronizing laughter from other folks already in their third. After succumbing to a second and then a third, I resorted to cover the pyala with both my arms and body lunged forward to prevent further influx. I could take it no more.

It is good to note, though not reassuring, that bhoyes start with a heavy snack accompanied by aila as aperitif, which is also served through the main course, and – surprise! – right till and past dessert. At a Newari feast, having an empty pyala in front means you’ll inevitably be served more, whether or not you want it. (Same goes for empty botas or leaf plates for food.) Servers, mostly female members of the host family, walk around with watchful eyes and a karuwa to spot and replenish empty pyalas. If you think they’ll eventually run out of aila, the extra jerry cans in the corner should tell you otherwise.

As interesting as it is unfortunate, it is mostly illegal to produce and sell aila commercially due to limitations in regulation and taxation. Hence, aila is prepared silently in Newari homes for bhoyes using either rice for rich and smooth taste, or millet for stronger flavor. Depending on preference, rice or millet along with other ingredients are mixed with an edible organic compound called marcha, which then ferments in about five days to produce jaad. Using clay and brass vessels or potasi, jaad is distilled over a wood fire stove with carefully controlled flame temperature and cooling water, both of which dictate the quality and taste of the final product. Besides festivals and gatherings, Newari families also enjoy this drink occasionally over quiet meals or when they have guests over. It is a stark contrast to other Nepali cultures, especially the conservative Brahmin, that essentially see consumption of alcohol in a family setting as a taboo.

In fact, aila has found novel ways into the average Nepali Generation-Y bloodstream and has been creating quite a buzz already. Dhokaima Café has reintroduced five what it calls ‘locaboire’ cocktails to encourage drinking locally made booze. Among these, the ones with an aila base are Nepatini, Nilo Ailarita and Aila Mary. Bruce Owens, an aila enthusiast with a PhD in Rato Macchindranath, is partly responsible for these concoctions which he says are inspired from Western counterparts and have a local twist with symbolic names and history. It is worth mentioning that the drinks are quite reasonably priced, perfect for broke and thirsty lads like yours truly.

As for me, covering my pyala to prevent refills really didn’t fare well with the groom’s mother who had put all the love and jaad to brew the aila served. Her loud shrieks like air raid siren ordained me to drink complacently like any good guest at a Newari feast would and must. So after the sixth one, I was singing old Hindi songs. After a few more, I was knocked out cold next to the bandsmen. Later that night, I swore never to drink aila ever again (but these promises as proven time and again, come with an expiry date).

Painkillers and gallons of water have stood no chance against an ensuing hangover marked by splitting headache and nausea as I write this. At least I can tell you now that it takes more than just a sharp suit and slicked-back hair to turn up at a Newari wedding. So next time you find yourself on a sukkul at a bhoye, make sure to wear the right attitude, a Newari heart and a tolerance level that’ll make a proud Irish cringe – the only way to immerse fully into the wonderful world of aila.