Bhang, a traditional intoxicant, is made by grinding the leaves and stems of the Indian hemp
Let us concede, you cannot divorce Holi from bhang (the most innocent form of intoxicants) especially in North India and the sophisticated metros of India. The traditional harvest and preparation of bhang occurs during the celebrations of Holi in March. It has now become synonymous with Holi, to the point, where consuming bhang at that time is standard practice.
Bhang, a traditional intoxicant, is made by grinding the leaves and stems of the Indian hemp (cannabis indica). It can be consumed either as a pellet, or stirred into a lassi or thandai and there are also bhang pakoras, and other diverse creations.
The hub of bhang during Holi is Varanasi or Benaras, the Land of Shiva, where it is prepared on its famous ghats. It is not surprising then, that the culture of intoxication flourishes here, especially the consumption of bhang, which is part of the ritual worship of Shiva.
Anywhere on the ghats, one can find large number of men engaged in the process of preparing bhang. Using mortar and a pestle, the buds and leaves of cannabis are ground into a green paste. To this mixture milk, ghee, and spices are added. The bhang base is now ready to be made into a heady drink, Thandai. Bhang is also mixed with ghee and sugar to make a tasty green halva, and into peppery, chewy little balls called golees.
However, in Benaras, you need not wait for Holi or Shivrathri to have your dose of bhang! On any given evening at Gaudhaulia Chowk, the Mishrambhu thandai stall attracts large crowds. People flock to feast on this delicious coolers, made using an assortment of dry fruits. Added to the drink is a lump or two of bhang, transforming it into a delightful murky green mixture (non bhang thandais are also readily available). But real connoisseurs head for Baba Thandai, a tiny shop deeper in the city. In spite, of its melodramatically orange walls and seats, the shop offers more subtle and authentic flavoured milks, definitely catering to the more discerning customer. A good thandai in Benaras costs anything between Rs 30-40.
In Nepal, on the day Maha Shivaratri, bhang is taken in different forms. Among the Sikhs, the martial community known as Nihangs are traditionally very fond of bhang, which they call Sukkha Prasad.
In our metros, with the Gen X on its prowls, the weed takes on innovative forms with bhang cocktails, bhang brownies and bhang ice cream, especially during Holi. Ground bhang leaves make a potent mix on being added to a sugar-based dish. Hot buttered bhang shots with vodka are a new fix.
But is the sale of bhang legal? There is lack of clarity on the legality or illegality of bhang. A superintendent of the Narcotics Control Bureau, says, “We have no control on consumption or sale of bhang. The percentage of dehydrocrotonin (the narcotic content) in bhang is negligible, so there is no outright ban on its consumption or sale.” And, in several parts of India bhang is legal. In fact, there are government authorised bhang shops. But the other shops, like paan shops, do not publicise their sales of bhang.
Hotels and restaurants cannot serve concoction made from bhang. However, sources in the police admit that since bhang is traditionally associated with the festival, they tend to ignore its use during Holi. So from the look of things, its sale goes unchecked during the festival.
By Dhananjaya Bhat
March 8, 2009