Even if you consider yourself a cannabis connoisseur, you may have never heard of a marijuana-infused drink called bhang. It’s a spicy concoction that has been consumed across the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, but the important role it plays in these cultures makes it much more than simply an intoxicating drink.
Bhang is Made of Cannabis
India is a land of cultures and traditions. The consumption of bhang is one of them. Dating back to around 2,000 BC, bhang has become a fundamental part of Indian culture. It is made by infusing the flowers, leaves, and stems of cannabis plants into a dairy product, like a yogurt or milk, and mixing in herbs, spices, honey, nuts, almonds, pistachio, rose petals, black pepper, and cloves, depending on one’s recipe. The heating of cannabis during the preparation of drinks leads to the formation of additional Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is responsible for a euphoric high. A popular drink in Bangladesh and India, Bhang ki Thandai is made with milk and cannabis paste. It is generally consumed for the annual festival of Shiva. The preparation of thandai is a culture in itself and has great significance. Throughout Southeast Asia, you can find the different variations of the bhang drink (or sometimes a yogurt or gelatin solid) that locals make such as jalebis, kulfis, thandai, and pakora.
Bhang is Traditionally Associated with Lord Shiva
Cannabis has a long-held reputation in India for its religious and spiritual implications, particularly in Hinduism. According to the Hindu religion, cannabis is so loved by Lord Shiva, principal deity of transformation, that he is known as the “Lord of Bhang” by his followers. It is believed that Shiva used bhang to focus inward and to harness his divine powers for the good of the world. Often portrayed as the supreme ascetic with a passive and composed disposition, Lord Shiva is fed with opium in order to numb his negative potentials. His devotees follow his example of using bhang to calm the mind for meditation, purify the body, and cleanse the soul of sins, especially during the festivals Holi (Festival of Colors), Janmashtami (Birth of Krishna), and Maha Shivaratri (The Great Night of Shiva). Indian devotees drink bhang in an attempt to mimic the path to salvation. It is considered holy to use bhang to facilitate communication with the divine, but foolish and sinful to consume it mindlessly.
Bhang is the Official Holi Drink
One of the most important festivals in India, Holi marks the coming of Spring, after the harvest has been completed. It is celebrated by throwing colored powder or water at each other, resulting in exuberant expression of joy, playfulness, and camaraderie. Originated in the North of India, bhang has become synonymous with Holi to such an extent that it is recognized as the official Holi drink in many parts of India. Culled from the leaves and buds of Cannabis, the intoxicating bhang helps to escalate the spirit of Holi. During this festival, bhang is usually prepared in the traditional way. Using a pestle and mortar, the fresh leaves and flowers are pounded to a thick green paste, which is then added to milk and yogurt. The paste is also used to make bhang halva (sweet confection) by adding ghee and sugar. According to sources, sales of bhang go up more than four times the average around Holi.
Cannabis is Used in Ayurveda Medicine
India is a country of faith and mysticism. Ayurveda is a system of medicine used by the Indians and is based on a conceptual medical system which depends on balancing three functional elements of the human body – air, fire and water, and earth. As per Ayurvedic system, good health depends on equilibrium among these three factors. Cannabis is listed in the Atharva Veda (a sacred text that dates back to 2000 to 1400 B.C.) as one of five sacred plants and it states that bhang is a beneficial herb that frees us of anxiety and brings peaceful sleep. It has been called a “liberator” and “source of happiness” and has been used to treat depression, increase libido, and ready warriors for battle. Bhang has also been administered as a cure for several ailments including fever, malaria, dysentery, rheumatism, sunstroke, and poor digestion.Researchers claim that marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis, it can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care. The medicinal values of marijuana and cannabis include intoxicant, analgesic, narcotic, stomachic, antispasmodic, anodyne and sedative.
Cannabis Cannot Be Fully Prohibited in India
India is a land of traditions and cultures, some ancient, some recent, some bizarre and some downright trippy. One such tradition is the consumption of bhang, which has been present for four thousand years. Cannabis and bhang are so important throughout the Indian subcontinent that it is impossible to completely prohibit their use. This fact was recognized by colonial British doctors who produced the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report in 1894. The seven-volume report was based on a study that concluded any major outlawing of cannabis would cause “widespread suffering and annoyance” because of its long-standing role in social, moral, and spiritual practices. Since then, sales of bhang are government-authorized with the issuance of a permit for vendors. Unlike alcohol and other drugs, there is little or no social stigma attached to bhang in India.
Bhang is Popular Worldwide
One of the many advantages of tourism is that it celebrates cultures and diversity. Tourists who travel to India aren’t immune to the popularity of bhang. Many visit the country especially during festivals like Holi and Maha Shivaratri to taste the divine drink. Highly recommended among tourists or locals, bhang will be rooted in Indian culture for years.
Banner Image: Bhang Eaters from India c.1790, San Diego Museum Collection