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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

Engage! – Discussions on active involvement in personal health and global wellness.

Bhageeratha performed austerities for a thousand years to bring goddess Ganga down from the heavens to Earth to purify and release his ancestors from a curse. Varuna, Poseidon, and Neptune are deified as Gods or Kings of the oceans by Indians, Greeks, and Romans respectively. World mythology attributes over 200 gods, goddesses, kings, and queens as rulers of this precious element that is Water, be it in the form of an ocean, sea, river, spring, stream, lake, tide, rain, or even their inhabitant serpents, dragons, and nymphs. 

At a less celestial level, water is required for earthly life as we know it. Human existence and biology are predicated on it, and all early civilizations were settled around access to water. But it had to be drinkable, and human ingenuity was put to the test again. 

This painting showing Lord Vishnu asking Lord Varuna, God of the waters to recede to make land known as Kerala from Kanyakumari to Gokarna for the Brahmins. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Enter the ‘hot water and alcohol’ cultures. Early civilizations found two ways to make water potable, with the aim of disinfecting it and in some instances just making it taste better. Some boiled it, while others added alcohol to it. 

Beer and wine were the earliest fermented alcoholic brews. Early cultures who concocted these are thought to be the Chinese and regions around ancient Mesopotamia and present-day Iran, but common partaking of alcoholic brews was known in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Babylonian societies. Beer was made by fermenting various grains including barley, corn, wheat, oats, and rice, and the fermentation of grapes with rice potentially led to the first wines.   

While these versions of alcohol probably tasted good and had a lower microbe count, it was not optimal for all and sundry, including young children, to imbibe it from the morning hours. And so, Romans and Greeks were famously known to drink diluted wine.  Although this may not have necessarily made the water microbe-free it must have made it taste better. Some historians even believe that the use of lead vessels by Romans for boiling down grapes and creating syrups led to lead poisoning unbeknownst to them, and contributed to the fall of the Roman empire. 

While early evidence of distillation of alcohol (to enable the making of the more concentrated spirits) was discovered in the Indus Valley Civilization, India is one of the ‘hot water’ cultures and keeps company with Japan, Korea, and China. Boiling water was resorted to in order to disinfect water in these societies, and the overall preference for warm or even room-temperature water over chilled water is prevalent.

In India, the positive qualities of hot and warm water are advocated in yoga and Ayurveda. Drinking several glasses of warm water is recommended in the morning to flush away toxins People undertaking a fast are encouraged to consume warm water as it promotes a feeling of fullness, and one can imagine that this could be sage advice for persons consciously controlling their diet.

Ayurveda also suggests storing water in copper and silver utensils, which are thought to possess anti-bacterial properties among other health-promoting aspects. Elders in my own family prefer hot water, decry all chilled beverages, and invariably ask for hot water in restaurants of any cuisine. However, China exemplifies the modern-day cultural preference for hot water, where it is a favorite drink of young and old. They consume it in its pure form or as tea, and this practice is thought to have arisen from ancient wisdom as well as more recent public health promotion efforts. 

Obviously, this is not meant to imply a clear divide between the so-called hot water and alcohol cultures, and alcohol was consumed in various forms in the Eastern and Southeast Asian cultures too, but they were probably indulged in for reasons other than the purification of water. While boiling water still remains a good strategy for purifying water of micro-organisms, when one is in a bind and stranded with an absence of fuel, other strategies are suggested such as filtration. An important consideration is that some impurities in the water will not be inactivated with these above treatments. 

And when I recently ordered water in a restaurant in Brazil, I was asked, ‘With bubbles, or without bubbles?’ 

That’s progress for you. 

L. Iyengar has lived and worked in India and the USA. A scientist by training, she enjoys experiencing diverse cultures and ideas, and writing. Her short story will be included in an anthology showcasing a group of international women writers, to be published in 2021 by The Nasiona. She can be found on Twitter at @l_iyengar.