During Holi, the annual Hindu festival of colors, a drink called thandai, which literally translates to “to cool off”, makes its appearance in India. Depending on where you go, the traditional milky concoction may be enhanced with notes of edible Indian cannabis called bhang.
What is bhang? An avocado-green paste made with the young leaves, flowers, and stems of the cannabis plant, which are steeped, ground, and then mixed with whole milk or yogurt to make a shake. The legal status of cannabis in India is unclear – in some states it’s allowed, in others it’s not – but take a drive in many places and you’ll spot government-run shops that will answer you with the words “Bhang Shop” in plain scarlet letters.
Cultivation of this plant has been a part of Indian cuisine and culture since the time of the Vedas, appearing in early scriptures from 1500 BC onwards. “It’s a native plant that has existed for over 3,000 years on the subcontinent,” says Indian archaeologist and culinary anthropologist Kurush Dalal of the strain known as cannabis indica.
During this time of the year, the bhang takes on cultural significance for the Indians. Holi is related to various Indian gods and goddesses like Krishna, Radha and Vishnu, and from a bhang perspective, in particular, to the story of Shiva. According to legend, during the “churning of the ocean of milk” (samudra manthan), an act undertaken by the Hindu gods to obtain an elixir of immortality (amrit), it is believed that cannabis grew wherever droplets of this elixir fell to earth. A parallel account tells that this churning led to the creation of a poison which Lord Shiva was told to drink. His wife Parvati offered bhang to ease the pain. In yet another tale, on the day of Holi, the god of love – Kamadeva – shot an arrow at Shiva and interrupted his meditation. It is therefore not surprising that cannabis is used in the worship of Shiva by some schools of Shaivism, and since Holi is linked to him, it is a day to indulge in bhang.
“In popular culture, the consumption of cannabis started as a recreational activity of a farmer. India is an agricultural country and life on the farm is difficult, so the farmer used it to relax his muscles in the end. of the day,” says Dalal. The country has several varieties of cannabis, and every region, from the northern state of Himachal Pradesh to the southern state of Kerala, has hybrid varieties of cannabis known as malana cream and idukki gold respectively. Dalal took a road trip to the northwestern state of Rajasthan and spotted shops selling bhang granules which are either enjoyed on their own or mixed with dairy drinks like lassi or thandai.
On Holi in particular, the pellets are mixed with thandai, a mixture of almonds, cardamom, fennel seeds, rose petals, peppercorns, poppy seeds, saffron and milk. The resulting drink can range from mildly to moderately intoxicating. With brief hints of spice, as if to indicate the decline of autumn-winter, and refreshing floral notes of rose jam, as if to indicate the waxing of spring-summer, this is a drink that tastes at the turn of the season.