Bhang-On! How India Romances Cannabis

In 1598, the great explorer John Hugen Van Linschoten published an account of his great findings in the East Indies: there was the elephant, and the rhinocerous, and cajjoos and bettele and stones used against poysons and a certyn fruit called annanas — and this: “They take about an ounce & at first are merie talking much & singing pleasant songs, laughing without measure and using many foolish toyes: which continueth with them almost an houre. After that they are in a manner furious, which continueth likewise a little space that done they are possessed with heavynesse and [a certein kind] of feare that many tymes they creye out. In the end when they have played all these partes, theye fall asleep”.

‘Bangue’, he called it.

According to legends, it was Goddess Parvati who first recommended bhang (a narcotic drink made with the leaves of the female cannabis plant) to Lord Shiva after he sucked up the poison that came up along with the nectar, as gods churned the primordial ocean (the amrit manthan of our myths). The poison turned Shiva’s throat blue, earning him the name Neelkanth, and the pain killer turned the god into a cross-generational poster boy for the narcotic. His image today is the reigning motif of the Goa trance scene.

Bhang-On! How India Romances Cannabis

Representational image

The antithesis of Brahminical morality, Shiva — in popular imagination — is the ageless rebel forever on a bhang (or ganja)-induced high. But Vishnu the Preserver, is not far behind in his love for cannabis. As contemporary mythologist Devdutt Patnaik has pointed out, bhang is an important part of offerings in Vishnu temples: from the Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha, to the one dedicated to Srinathji at Nathdwara, Rajasthan. The image of Lord Krishna’s elder brother Balarama is bathed with bhang daily at Puri. It was not coincidental, therefore, that the home of Krishna — Mathura — has surpassed Lord Shiva’s Varanasi as the highest consumer of bhang (known locally as siddhi, or enlightenment).

These divine associations may be responsible for Holi and Maha Shivaratri being the most-popular occasions for people imbibing bhang in two popular ways: as a thandai or in a pakoda, or even as a goli. Holi accounts for 30 per cent of the cannabis consumption in the country, marking the culmination of the auspicious period, starting from Basant Panchami, for serving bhang to Lord Shiva. Not many of us can claim not to have experienced the somewhat-disturbing hallucinogenic effects of bhang, but we seem to be locked in a romantic embrace with it.

The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, does not ban bhang, although it prohibits two other products of the cannabis plant — charas and ganja. States like Assam and Maharashtra have declared bhang illegal, but counter-currents have been equally strong. Uttarakhand legalised bhang in 2017, and so did Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat, because, as a state minister famously said, it is “consumed only as the prasad of Lord Shiva”. In Rajasthan, the bhang ki lassi at the government shop — owned by Chander Prakash Vyas or ‘Dr Bhang’, at the foot of Jaisalmer’s famous Golden Fort — enjoys higher TripAdvisor ratings than the historic landmark in whose shadow it thrives, thanks to its discovery by the late Anthony Bourdain.

In Varanasi’s Godowlia Chowk, the 150-year-old Kashi Vishwanath Thandai Ghar is famous for its year-long supply of ‘special thandai’ spiked with Lord Shiva’s prasad (the lassi is one of the offerings made to Shiva at the pre-dawn arti at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple). The city has 200 such shops, including the Blue Lassi Shop, whose menu has 80 variants of this summer drink, but when you ask for the unlisted ‘special’, it is understood you are a good devotee. Mathura’s Sarkari Theka Bhang is another eternal favourite for its golis and lassis, as are Pushkar’s many hole-in-the-wall cafes.

The voices in favour of legalizing government-supervised production and sale of non-synthetic bhang — and its siblings charas and ganja — are getting more influential, starting with Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi (specifically in the context of people living with cancer) and two of the most eloquent MPs from the outgoing Lok Sabha — Tathagatha Sathpathy (Biju Janata Dal) and Shashi Tharoor (Congress).

What used to be a voice in the wilderness, that of Bengaluru resident Vicki Vaurora and The Great Legislation Movement he launched in 2014 with the purpose of legalising cannabis, is finding echoes in the highest echelons of our constitutional institutions. Bhanga (as it is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts) is hailed as one of the five sacred plants by the Atharva Veda (c. 1500-1000 BCE), held up by the Sushruta Samhita (c. 650 BCE) as a treatment for diarrhoea, and recommended by Vangasena’s encyclopedic compendium of ancient Indian medical wisdom, Chikitsa-sara-samhita (c. 1000-1100 CE), as an appetiser and digestive. As our British rulers realised, and so recorded in the eight-volume report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission — based on statements of more than 1,200 witnesses in 1893-94 on a directive of the House of Commons — the use of bhang was too widespread and too much a part of religious rituals and celebratory occasions to merit a blanket ban. This, despite bhang and siblings being taxed by the East India Company since 1798.

The testimony of a contemporary official, JM Campbell, Collector of Land Revenue, Customs and Opium, Bombay, reads like an ode to bhang. Campbell made two important points: even Hindus who were against alcohol for religious reasons did not seem to have any reservations about bhang, and Muslims, too, were not far behind in their admiration for the narcotic. Campbell quotes Urdu poets of his time identifying bhang with the spirit of al-Khidr (Khizr), a messenger of the Prophet celebrated in the Quran (and held in high esteem in Sufism). Khizr wore a green turban and robes of the same colour, and is hailed as the Prophet of Water, and the poets quoted by Campbell, notably Delhi’s Sufi troubadour Mohammad ‘Shah Naseer’ Nasiruddin, linked the two characteristics with the cult of bhang.

“Viewing the subject generally, it may be added that the moderate use of these drugs is the rule, and that the excessive use is comparatively exceptional,” the Commission noted. “The moderate use practically produces no ill effects. In all but the most exceptional cases, the injury from habitual moderate use is not appreciable. Excessive use may certainly be accepted as very injurious, though it must be admitted that in many excessive consumers the injury is not clearly marked.” British Raj did not allow Victorian morality to come in the way of its acceptance. The official attitude hasn’t changed much since Independence. Now, with the chorus getting louder, the devotees of Shiva and Krishna can hope to soon get a bigger bhang for their buck.

(Sourish Bhattacharyya has been a journalist for 33 years. He is now a blogger and founder director of the Tasting India Symposium)

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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 15:15:09 IST

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