Friday, March 26, 2021

A Sweet History of Honey in India

It struck me when I began researching Indian sweeteners, that Honey is the world’s oldest naturally occurring sweetener! Honey has been a part of the human diet since prehistory.  Honey has been the food of Gods, Goddesses, Mortals, and Immortals through the ages. 

And this is true of India too. There are countless references of honey as the elixir of life, or the 'sap of the sun,' in myth and legend. Lord Indra, Vishnu, and Lord Krishna were all called Madhava, meaning ‘ones born of nectar.’ The twin horsemen, the Asvins, who are revered as the lords of light, carry a whip dripping with honey known as Madhukasa and ride in a chariot known as Madhuvahana, or "honey-bearer," and the honey that drips from their whip was believed to prolong lives. Honey has always been associated with love and romance, so it comes as no surprise that Kama, the god of love carries a bow with a string made of bees. And the Hindu pantheon even has a Bee Goddess named Bhrami, who according to some scriptures, is said to reside in the heart chakra, emitting the buzzing sound of bees, that is often imitated in Vedic chants, representing the essential sound of the Universe!

Early Hindus considered honey the food of gods. Some schools of Hinduism, like the Satapatha Brahmana, taught that honey was "the supreme essence of plants" and that eating it was like absorbing the essence of the Vedas. It is no surprise then that it finds its way into rituals and ceremonies. Even the Ramayana reveals elaborate descriptions of apiaries and bee gardens or ‘Madhuvana’.

But these attributes of honey are not purely mystical. Archaeological evidence in rock and cave paintings, references in the Vedas, Hindu epics, and other scriptures from the subcontinent, from ancient recipes to age-old medicinal preparations, all tell us sweet stories of honey consumption in India. 

Archaeological evidence traces the consumption of honey in India all the way back to the stone age. Rock paintings that are estimated to date as far back as the Mesolithic or earlier periods between 15000-11000 B.C.E. found in caves and shelters in Central India depict crudely drawn semi-circular beehives, in some cases surrounded or covered by bees, and even scenes of honey being harvested from nests of wild bees. From our stone age ancestors to today, honey has found mention in various visual, written, oral and practised records of Indian culture.

Scenes that have been replicated by tribal communities with animistic cultures through the ages, who have, for centuries, collected wild honey from forests, consuming it for its immunity-boosting and medicinal properties. While honey was collected from the wild and is a practice still alive today. Over time, as humans evolved and settled, the consumption and requirement of honey grew creating a necessity to produce it, and hand in hand with this evolved a history of beekeeping and apiculture.

K. N. Dave, a scholar of Vedic practices, observed that Vedic Aryans, initially considered that the knowledge of bees and bee-behaviour was a primitive practice associated with hunter-gatherer tribes of the time, they eventually began to study the social behaviour of bees and practice beekeeping, going on to build artificial hives for bees to inhabit. And honey became an essential requirement. 

The Rig Veda, written around 2000-3000 BCE contains many mentions of bees and honey by its Sanskrit name, Madhu. Interestingly Madhu is etymologically identical to the Greek methu and the Anglo-Saxon medu and one of the world’s oldest alcoholic beverages was a fermented mixture of honey and water, called mead! But I digress, Ayurveda also prescribes the use of honey in hundreds of different ways, including for healing and cleaning wounds, for fighting infections, and as a preservative base for other medicines. 

With the ever-growing requirement for honey, beekeeping also evolved through the centuries with innovation resulting in log hives, pot hives and wall hives becoming common practice in different parts of India. In fact, there are also accounts of hives built into the walls of houses so that the bees could access them from outside and honey could be harvested from inside!  In the late 1800 and early 1900s, western methodologies such as movable frame hives were introduced and formalised bee-keeping associations were formed in India.

Even outside of Vedic and Hindu culture, science has recognised the medicinal, antimicrobial and immunity-boosting properties of honey. Today, more than ever before, we have realised the importance of bees in keeping global food, agriculture, and environmental systems from collapsing. And with this realisation, there have been incredible movements to preserve vegetation, traditional honey harvesting and bee-keeping practices around the globe. Simultaneously, we see an ever-growing range of wild, single flora, and medicinal honeys becoming available, all to be used in new and creative ways! 

Until then, here is a simple but lovely recipe I created inspired by references I found to an ancient honey-based snack called  Madhulāja (मधुलाज) or “honey mixed with puffed rice” in the Vālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa while researching this post. Not surprising as the legendary city of Ayodhya was also called the land of milk and honey... In fact, this is a combination still eaten in many parts of India. I remembered the Assamese Akhoi Gur Aru Cream (puffed rice, was topped with cream and served with liquid jaggery) that my friend Gitika Saikia once served for dessert at a pop-up at my studio years ago. Over time the honey has been replaced by jaggery in many versions.

Kheel Honey Bowls inspired by the Madhulaja of old

This makes a lovely light breakfast, snack or light dessert bowl. You can also add raisins or other dried fruit, roasted Makhana (Foxnuts) and peanuts or other toasted nuts to the dry mixture for variation. 


4 cups Kheel/Lai/Kurmura

½ cup Sesame seed

½ cup Flaxseed

4-6 tbsp Cream, chilled

½ cup Saffola Honey


Heat a kadhai and individually dry roast the Kheel/Lai/Kurmura until crisp. Transfer to a plate to cool. Toast the sesame and flax one by one and add to the thali. To assemble, divide the toasted kheel/lai/kurmura into 4 small dessert bowls. Drizzle with the cream and honey and serve immediately or the puffed rice will get soggy. 



All the recent news about adulteration of honey had me worried. Especially the part about added sugar as an adulterant. Post some research and talking to experts and otherwise, I finally zeroed in on Saffola Honey for daily use because it's tested using FSSAI parameters as well as NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) test and has been proven to be free of any adulteration and specifically has no added sugar. Stay tuned as we explore the myriad ways in which honey is used as an ingredient in the next post. This series of recipes with Honey is sponsored by Saffola Honey.

Sources (click on links to access):

Planet Bee Foundation, and Ayla Fudala. “The Sacred Bee: Ancient India.” Planet Bee Foundation, December 2017

Mathpal, Yashodhar. (2015). Newly Discovered Rock Paintings in Central India Showing Honey Collection. Bee World. 65. 121-126.

Kadam, Sanchita. “History and Development of Apiculture in India.” Notes on Zoology,

Dr. Kshirsagar, K. K. “Bees and Honey in Ancient India.” Ancient Indian Wisdom.

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