Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a hearty welcome in Suva last month, complete with a traditional ceremony where men from the Fijian village - bare-chested and dressed in long grass skirts - performed and sang. Little did he know he'd also be greeted by an unusual guest at the ceremony - a muddy-coloured, tongue-numbing, 'intoxicating' Fijian drink.
Upon being offered this drink, that's known to taste like "puddle water" or "a cocktail of dirty washing water garnished with old socks", Narendra Modi did not hesitate and drank it, without any change of expression, in one straight gulp - as per local tradition. The prime minister's quaffing of the drink was accompanied by a thunderous applause. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who visited Fiji two days after Modi, was welcomed with a similar ceremony by the people of Nakorotubu villagein Ra province.
Made from the pulverized root of the pepper family plant, 'Yaqona' (pronounced Yangona) or 'Kava' is a traditional, non-alcoholic drink known to have 'narcotic effects', where the individual could experience fuzzy-headedness to mild euphoria. Turning down this drink is considered an insult in Fijian society.
He had landed a couple of hours earlier from a long flight from Australia, where he had spent five hectic days of diplomatic engagement, and was on the last leg of his three-nation tour, with the first stop having been to Myanmar. Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit the Pacific Ocean island nation in 33 years after former prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1981.
Yaqona is consumed by ethnic Fijians - known as iTaukei, Indo-Fijians, who make up around 37 percent of Fiji's 827,900 people, as well as the other ethnicities that make up its populace. According to a Fiji official site, the drinking of yaqona or kava, is a common ceremonial and social custom. The yaqona ceremony has great significance in Fijian life but is now considered a social drink as well as a ceremony.
There is a humorous story about the Prince of Wales who took part in a kava-drinking ceremony at the village of Viseisei, near Nadi, in March 2005. Prince Charles had just landed after a three-hour flight from New Zealand and was still dressed in his dark, double-breasted Saville Row suit. After the 90-minute ritual, the British royal was presented a dish of kava. He "cautiously raised it to his lips and grimaced. It cannot be said with certainty whether he took a sip or a gulp; whether he was a polite social drinker or a kava lout," said a report in the Independent.
"He seemed suitably sedated after his 90-minute session, and in his thank-you speech got all his dates mixed up. The generous Fijians put it down to jet-lag rather than kava abuse," said the Telegraph.