Judima is a rice wine predominantly brewed by Dimasa women in Assam. Based in Tereh Village, Khimkho Hojai—a self-reliant farmer—brews it for her household, with help from her husband.
As we approached Ade (aunt) Khimkho’s home in Tereh, she greeted us, “Oh, you’ve come at the perfect time! Just in time for Bushu, and of course, ju!”
In December 2022, we travelled across the hills of Dima Hasao district in Assam, tracing the story of Judima—the traditionally brewed rice wine of the Dimasa people. Judima, a variety of ju or alcohol, is predominantly brewed by women, and its knowledge has historically been passed down through female brewers.
The brew is an integral part of Dimasa culture and society; it is served during all social gatherings. For instance, during the first birth ritual known as nana besheng jiriba, Judima is dabbed on the lips of the newborn baby. No important occasion—whether it’s a celebration or mourning ritual—is complete without it. The taste of Judima resides deep in the shared memory of the community.
To understand the traditions of Judima better, we shadowed Dejna’s aunt Khimkho Hojai, who brews it for her household. Ade Khimkho, a self-reliant farmer in Tereh village, lives with her husband, Chondromoni Hojai. Our journey led us to jhum fields, where grains for the brew are carefully tended to by farmers. Spending time on the jhum field, also known as phadaing, allowed us to reflect on the relationship between the community and Judima.
Ade Chondromoni—ade is a form of address common to both aunt and uncle—is both a farmer and a Hojai, a priest who officiates rituals and rites for people in the community. When he is away, Ade Khimkho takes care of the field on her own. During the harvest season, the couple has to stay on the fields to protect the crops from wild animals. “It is the last bit, so it is also the toughest,” she says.
Around November, after the paddy from the jhum fields is carried to their granary in the village, it is time to prepare for Bushu—the post-harvest festival held in December and January. Since no celebration is complete without Judima, brewing it with the freshly harvested grains marks the beginning of Bushu across Dimasa households like Ade Khimkho’s.
Brewing is a routine activity that takes place throughout the year. While there are special occasions like marriages and birth rituals where ju—often used interchangeably with Judima—is considered an important cultural beverage, it is the post-harvest celebration that amplifies its status as a vital part of Dimasa society.
Judima generates joy, and a feeling of community. It is sweet, warm, and distinctly fermented, with a grainy aftertaste. As ju matures, it becomes sweeter and smoother.
We cannot claim to capture the ‘real’ taste of this drink because it depends on the season, proportion of grain, and the fermenting process. For instance, during monsoon, fermentation is disrupted due to increased moisture while at the peak of summer, the rise in temperature accelerates the process, and that impacts the taste of the drink.
There are three types of rice varieties used for brewing Judima—maisha (white rice), maiju (red rice), and baireng (a bitter variety used solely for brewing). Ade Khimkho uses maiju and baireng. She explains, “The more maiju you use, the sweeter and redder your ju will turn out.”
But maiju is expensive and produces less fermented rice water, so most brewers mix the Baireng variety to increase the volume of ju during fermentation. This combination also increases the alcohol content of the brew. Typically, the alcohol content ranges between 12 and 18 per cent, but it can go up to a potent 32 per cent in some aged brews.
While yeast plays a central role in fermenting the rice and shaping the taste of Judima, the magic ingredient tying the brew together is the thembra plant, known as climbing wattle in English (scientific name: Accacia pennata). It kick-starts the process of fermentation as a part of the starter culture.
A climbing shrub, the thembra has strong vines that wind around the branches of bigger trees. Often, identifying the plant is difficult even for brewers because its vines are intertwined with other plants. The most reliable way to identify the thembra vine is by tasting it. Only the bark of a mature thembra plant—of over seven years—can be used to brew Judima. There are sweet and bitter varieties of thembra, but it is the sweet bark that goes into ju.
As Ade Khimko prepares to make ju, she narrates the story of how a farmer discovered the thembra. “Who else but a farmer?” Ade Chodromoni interjects.
According to lore, one day, a farmer arrived on his jhum field. He hung his lunch of cooked maiju, wrapped in a leaf, on the branch of a thembra plant. He then toiled all afternoon. When he decided to eat, he found a wonderful aroma emanating from his packed lunch. The maiju was dripping fermented water. After he ate his food, he felt a joy he had never felt before. He danced all around his jhum field, his heart filled with happiness.
“This is how we came to know the joy of drinking Judima,” Ade Khimko concluded.
After the bark of the thembra plant is cut and sun-dried, it is pounded with rice to make humao, the starter yeast cake. Making humao is considered a sacred process. Ade Khimkho is strict about washing her hands, drying them off, and keeping all sour foods away from the brewing area. She pays close attention to the ingredients when preparing humao.
“Judima is a sacred drink and if you don’t observe the rituals and respect the rules, it will go bad no matter how experienced you are,” she explains. She sprinkles the powdered rice-thembra mix outside the house, stands at the main entrance, and chants a prayer.
Crows, eat it
Shamtho, eat it
This is a prayer to the spirits to let the Judima retain its sweetness. It also invokes the crows, the wooden pestle, and pounder to take away the bitterness and the sourness. When Judima turns inexplicably sour or blood red, it is believed to be the work of evil spirits. Thus, all the important rituals and taboos associated with the brewing process are observed.
On the day after the full moon, Ade Khimkho uses her hands to make humao, or yeast cakes. She makes seven, out of which one is a humao-jala (male) and the rest are all humao-jik (female).
It is important that the yeast cakes are made in odd numbers. The male is distinct in shape, with two opposing tails. Once the yeast cakes are prepared, she covers them with cloth, and leaves them out to dry. Next, the yeast cakes are crushed into a powder, sprinkled over cooked rice, thoroughly mixed, and set aside to ferment overnight.
Ade Chondromoni crafts the bamboo basket or kulu, which will hold the mixture until all the ju is collected. Once the rice starts letting out water after a night of fermentation, it is moved into the kulu, which is lined with leaves. A steel midik, or vessel, is placed under the basket. Slowly and rhythmically, ju drips into the vessel.
“It will take a month for the ju to mature. That is when it will taste best,” says Ade Khimkho.
Nothing is wasted. Jugaap, the fermented rice residue, is served as a delicacy to kids and distilled again to make Juharo, a type of liquor.
Judima reflects an indigenous way of living and celebrating life. More importantly, it highlights indigenous people’s knowledge of their forest and land. While most households brew their own Judima like Ade Khimkho and Ade Chondromoni, co-operatives run by women are also beginning to form around the brew.
As the diaspora increasingly moves away from their geo-ecological home, there is growing demand for ready-made brew. Judima brewed for commercial purposes undergoes a slightly different method of preparation, keeping in mind factors like shelf-life and commercial appeal. There is now even a festival—first held in 2016—to celebrate the tradition of Judima brewing.
In its initial days, the Judima Festival was a small affair organised by a trust called the Youth Association for Development and Empowerment (YADEM), in collaboration with the Dibarai Mahila Samity. Since then, it has become a grand event endorsed by the State Tourism Department. Over the years, it has retained the spirit of community celebration while also becoming a gathering that welcomes guests to learn of and honour indigenous knowledge.
Judima teaches us about the perseverance of indigenous communities, and the food that grows in the jhum fields and forests. It is a drink that invites us to acknowledge and respect indigenous knowledge and food cultures. Our journey of learning about Judima taught us how the soul of the brew rests with the farmers who grow the rice in jhum fields, and the foragers who enter the forest to find the thembra.
As one drinks Judima, may one cultivate solidarity and develop wisdom to learn about indigenous food histories, and the land that nurtures our lives.
Dejna Daulagupu has a Masters degree in Anthropology from University of Delhi. Her Master’s thesis, titled “Phadaing: Shifting, Transitioning Landscapes”, examined the transformation of shifting cultivation in Dima Hasao. Currently, she is a Research Associate at the North East Social Research Centre (NESRC), Guwahati. Her research focuses on agroecology, indigeneity, and development in Northeast India.
Dolly Kikon is an anthropologist. Her work focuses on resource extraction, militarisation, indigeneity, and political ecology. She teaches at the University of Melbourne. Currently, she is part of a research project, titled “Practicing Food Sovereignty: Indigenous Peoples and Agro-ecological Relationship in the Eastern Himalayas”. To follow her engagements and publications, visit her website www.dollykikon.com