Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Across borders and divides, one 'heavenly' refresher cools summer heat

The incredible story of how Rabea Begum built Rooh Afza, that brings about $45 million of profit a year in India alone, into South Asia's favourite summer cooler

By Mujib Mashal
Published: Jul 8, 2021

Across borders and divides, one 'heavenly' refresher cools summer heatA vendor sells Rooh Afza at a stall in New Delhi, April 15, 2021. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alike enjoy the sweet and herbal taste of Rooh Afza, a beverage that has endured the region’s turbulent history. Now it is aiming for the palates of a new generation. Image: Rebecca Conway/The New York Times

NEW DELHI — Its original recipe, more than a century old, is tucked away in a highly secure, temperature-controlled family archive in India’s capital.

But the sugary summer cooler Rooh Afza, with a poetic name that means “soul refresher” and evokes the narrow alleys of its birthplace of Old Delhi, has long reached across the heated borders of South Asia to quench the thirst of generations. 

In Pakistan, the thick, rose-colored syrup — called a sharbat or sherbet and poured from a distinctive long-neck bottle — is mixed with milk and crushed almonds as an offering in religious processions. 

In Bangladesh, a new groom often takes a bottle or two as a gift to his in-laws. Movies even invoke it as a metaphor: In one film, the hero tells the heroine that she is beautiful like Rooh Afza. 

And in Delhi, where the summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the city feels like a slow-burning oven, you can find it everywhere. 

The chilled drink is served in the plastic goblets of cold-drink vendors using new tricks to compete for customers: how high and how fast they can throw the concentrate from one glass to the next as they mix, how much of it they can drizzle onto the cup’s rim. 

The same old taste is also there in new packaging to appeal to a new generation and to new drinkers: in the juice boxes in children’s school bags; in cheap one-time sachets hanging at tobacco stalls frequented by laborers; and in high-end restaurants, where it is whipped into the latest ice cream offering. 

As summer heat waves worsen, the drink’s reputation as a natural, fruits-and-herbs cooler that lowers body temperature and boosts energy — four-fifths of it is sugar — means that even a brief interruption in manufacturing results in huge outcries over a shortage. 

Behind the drink’s survival, through decades of regional violence and turmoil since its invention, is the ambition of a young herbalist who died early and the foresight of his wife, the family’s matriarch, to help her young sons turn the beverage into a sustainable business. 

The drink brings about $45 million of profit a year in India alone, its manufacturer says, most of it going to a trust that funds schools, universities and clinics. 

“It might be that one ingredient or couple of ingredients have changed because of availability, but by and large the formula has remained the same,” said Hamid Ahmed, a member of the fourth generation of the family who runs the expanded food wing of Hamdard Laboratories, which produces the drink. 

In the summer of 1907 in Old Delhi, still under British rule, the young herbalist, Hakim Abdul Majid, sought a potion that could help ease many of the complications that come with the country’s unbearable heat: heat strokes, dehydration, diarrhea. 

What he discovered, in mixing sugar and extracts from herbs and flowers, was less medicine and more a refreshing sherbet. It was a hit. The bottles, glass then and plastic now, would fly off the shelves of his small medicine store, which he named Hamdard. 

Majid died 15 years later at the age of 34. He was survived by his wife, Rabea Begum, and two sons; one was 14, and the other a toddler. Begum made a decision that turned Hamdard into an enduring force and set a blueprint for keeping it profitable for its welfare efforts at a time when politics would tear the country asunder. 

She declared Hamdard a trust, with her and her two young sons as the trustees. The profits would go not to the family but largely to public welfare. 

The company’s biggest test came with India’s bloody partition after independence from the British in 1947. The Muslim nation of Pakistan was broken out of India. Millions of people endured an arduous trek, on foot and in packed trains, to get on the right side of the border. Somewhere between 1 to 2 million people died, and families — including Begum’s — were split up. 

Hakim Abdul Hamid, the older son, stayed in India. He became a celebrated academic and oversaw Hamdard India. 

Hakim Mohamad Said, the younger son, moved to the newly formed Pakistan. He gave up his role in Hamdard India to start Hamdard Pakistan and produce Rooh Afza there. He rose to become the governor of Pakistan’s Sindh province but was assassinated in 1998. 

When in 1971 Pakistan was also split in half, with Bangladesh emerging as another country, the facilities producing Rooh Afza in those territories formed their own trust: Hamdard Bangladesh. 

All three businesses are independent, run by extended members or friends of the young herbalist’s family. But what they offer is largely the same taste, with slight variations if the climate in some regions affects the herbs differently. 

The drink sells well during summer, but there is particularly high demand in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Around the dinner table or in the bazaars at the end of a day, a glass or two of chilled Rooh Afza — the smack of its sugar and flavors — can inject life. 

“During the summer, after a long and hot day of fasting, one becomes more thirsty than hungry,” said Faqir Muhammad, 55, a porter in Karachi, Pakistan. “To break the fast, I directly drink a glass of Rooh Afza after eating a piece of date to gain some energy.” 

In Bangladesh, the brand’s marketing goes beyond flavor and refreshments and into the realms of the unlikely and the metaphysical. 

“Our experts say Rooh Afza helps COVID-19-infected patients, helps remove their physical and mental weakness,” said Amirul Momenin Manik, deputy director of Hamdard Bangladesh, without offering any scientific evidence. “Many people in Bangladesh get heavenly feelings when they drink Rooh Afza, because we brand this as a halal drink.” 

During a visit to Rooh Afza’s India factory in April, which coincided with Ramadan, workers in full protective gowns churned out 270,000 bottles a day. The sugar, boiled inside huge tanks, was mixed with fruit juices and the distillation of more than a dozen herbs and flowers, including chicory, rose, white water lily, sandalwood and wild mint. 

At the loading dock in the back, from dawn to dusk, two trucks at a time were loaded with more than 1,000 bottles each and sent off to warehouses and markets across India. 

Ahmed — who runs Hamdard’s food division, for which Rooh Afza remains the central product — is trying to broaden a mature brand with offshoots to attract consumers who have moved away from the sherbet in their teenage and young adult years. New products include juice boxes that mix Rooh Afza with fruit juice, a Rooh Afza yogurt drink and a Rooh Afza milkshake. 

One survey the company conducted showed that half of Rooh Afza in Indian households was consumed as a flavor in milk, the rest in cold drinks. 

“We did our twist of milkshake,” Ahmed said, “which is Rooh Afza, milk and vanilla.” 

The milkshake “has done extremely well,” Ahmed said. But he is proud of two products in particular. One is a sugar-free version of the original Rooh Afza, 15 years in the making as the company looked for the right substitute for sugar. More than twice the price of the original, it caters to a more affluent segment. 

“There is growing market for runners, athletes, those who watch what they eat and drink,” said Ahmed, who is himself a runner. 

The other product comes from a realization that the original Rooh Afza, with all its sugar and flavor, still has vast untapped potential in India’s huge market. He is targeting those who cannot afford the 750-milliliter bottle, which sells for $2, offering one-time sachets that sell for 15 cents — a strategy that revolutionized the reach of shampoo brands in India. 

In vast parts of India, the reality of malnutrition is such that sugar is welcome. 

“The people in India in fact want sugar,” Ahmed said. “It’s only the metros that knows what diabetes is.”

©2019 New York Times News Service