Rang mein bhang

Colours and the potent drink go together on Holi

Holi is also called the festival of colours. The sobriquet makes obvious the integrality of the hues to the celebrations. There is something else that is equally indispensable to the festivities — the ubiquitous bhang, found in almost all sweets, savories, or drinks traditionally eaten at Holi — from thandai to pakori to ladoo. The flow of alcohol — beer, wine, and stronger stuff — may have shadowed its popularity at modern-day Holi parties but bhang dishes at Holi will never go out of fashion or tradition.

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Pot is cool

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While bhang has been part of our rustic culture for a long time, it was in the autumn of 1969 when pot became cool. It was supposed to be the miraculous leaf with many names — hash, dope, grass and of course marijuana. The escalation of the war in Vietnam had triggered massive protest on various American campuses and there was the rising tide of ‘draft dodgers’, drop-outs and hippies. The Flower Children had made being square unfashionable. The Woodstock Rock Music Festival drew an audience of over 400,000 young and young at heart. This is when I realized that what had for ages been poor man’s painkiller and mood-altering narcotic of choice was gaining ground in the West as a recreational ‘drug’.Actually, it was a few years earlier when maverick Harvard professor Timothy Leary and his colleague had lost their jobs at the Ivy League university for pushing marijuana and other hallucinogenic drugs on campus. Allen Ginsberg had spent a long sojourn with his boyfriend Neil Cassidy in Benaras and had gone into raptures about the easy availability of good quality hash along with the ghats. It wasn’t long before Kathmandu became the Mecca for those who wished to get high on grass. Since then much water has flown down the Ganga and dope junkies have started heading towards Malana in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, from where comes the whiff of the best stuff. Alas, an increasing demand has led to corrupt trade practices like adulteration and one can no longer be sure of what ones are getting. Sarkari thekas (licensed shops) are the safest bet.

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The mid-1970s were the times when Bollywood movies seduced the young in believing that ‘getting stoned’ was a cure for all ills. First, Zeenat Aman swayed to the tune “Dum Maro Dum Mit Jaye gam…’ Soon other songs did their bit to popularise bhang. “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar, Kanta lage na kankar…” Then came Big B who endorsed bhang with a bang: “Bhang ka rang Jama ho chakachak, Phir khai lo paan chaabi, Aisa jhataka lage jiya par punrjanam hui, Jaye….”  He continued the frenzied pitch in Silsila with a scintillating ‘Rang barse’ as he gulps down a tumbler full of inebriating thandai. The general atmosphere of permissiveness that coincided with the coming of age of the post-Independence generation in India went a long way towards legitimising rolling a joint and taking a puff to get rid of worldly woes or just break free from the tedium of daily chores.

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The high that is not harmless

It was argued that bhang/charas was harmless and shouldn’t be put in the category of illegal narcotic substances. While it is true that many countries fighting the menace of hard synthetic drugs have legalised marijuana, it is not quite correct to state that it is harmless. Prolonged use is addictive and almost certainly leads to personality changes. Ganjedhi or charasi are derogatory terms used to describe a dysfunctional addict. Though most of bhang/charas addicts aren’t violent and are extremely introverted, timid and dazed (stoned is an apt description).

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A person talking gibberish or acting in a strange absentminded way is often admonished with the phrase “Kya bhaang Kha ke Aaye ho?”

For millennia, bhang, charas, and ganja — all products of the Cannibus indica or Cannibus Sativa plant — have been used for medicinal purposes and ostensibly as trance-inducing aids to meditation. The resinous residue obtained by rubbing the green leaves slowly between palm yields charas and dried leaves are usually identified as ganja. Charas or ganja can be smoked mixed with tobacco in a cigarette or traditionally in a chillum (small hand-held clay pipe). Bhang is commonly imbibed infused in a sweet or savory snack — ladoo, pera, burfi, or pakori.

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The popular beverage in Benaras is seldom consumed by connoisseurs without a marble-sized globule (goli) of bhang. Our personal favourite is munaqqa, a specialty from Benaras, a toffee-like confection that is made blending bhang with gulkand, saffron, sultanas, silver leaf and cardamom seeds. You can slowly dissolve a lozenge in your mouth and experience an exquisite mildly euphoric ‘high’. Repeat, if desired, but don’t forget the cautionary warning about it being injurious to health.

‘Benefits’ of booti

Those who claim that they partake bhang only for medicinal purposes never tire of extolling its virtues — it stokes sluggish appetite, builds up stamina, enhances sexual prowess, sharpens concentration and so on. There is no dearth of stories associated with world champion wrestlers whose daily diet included an amazing dose of bhang. However, assertions made on the basis of subjective experience and anecdotal evidence can’t substitute scientific tests in the laboratory.

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Denizens of the holy city of Banaras enjoy thandai round the year but in other parts of North India the drink is prepared and served to celebrate Holi.

A masterclass of making thandai

Preparing thandai is an art that is on the verge of extinction. First, the finest quality ingredients have to be assembled. Besides pure unadulterated bhang, full-fat milk, almonds, pistachios, sultanas, green cardamoms, poppy seeds, char magaz (melon and pumpkin seeds), black peppercorns, fennel seeds and dried rose petals, maybe a few strands of saffron, are indispensable. Milk is boiled on low heat and is constantly stirred until it is reduced to almost one-third of its original volume. The grinding of bhang is already underway. No mixer and blender is allowed. Old fashioned mortar and pestle or better still sil-batta (grinding stone) should be used. Not only the bhang but the seeds, nuts etc also have to be hand-ground to a smooth paste. This is stirred in to by now cold milk. Bhang is then put in a fine muslin cloth tied into a pouch and soaked in the milk. It is squeezed at regular intervals and only when the thandai has acquired a pale mossy tint and absorbed the intoxicating taste is it ready to be served.

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Tripping on the trip

Bhang doesn’t hit you immediately. It creeps in slowly to overpower your senses. The ‘trip’ often starts with uncontrollable giggling, stoking a ravenous appetite and ends up with long slumber. But there are times when the ‘trip’ turns bad and instead of euphoria, a fit of paranoia sets in. There is disorientation of time and space, the sensation of nausea and hallucinations. The distressing after-effects may linger for days.

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One recalls the days when in hostels bhang-laced thandai was mass produced for Holi. The usually laborious and expensive process of making thandai was dispensed with. Bottled thandai mixture was poured in buckets of milk and the bhang was stretched by rubbing a copper coin in the ground bhang. It was believed to enhance the kick. Bhang doesn’t loosen the tongue like alcohol but does remove inhibitions or at least takes away the will to resist. The suspicion isn’t baseless that popularity of bhang at no holds barred revelry during Holi is largely due to use the state of intoxication as an excuse for intentional advances that would be considered objectionable otherwise. Bhang ki pakori used to play a strong supporting (mischievously villainous) role in Hindi pornographic literature before internet dealt it a mortal blow.

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Whatever are the highs or lows associated with the intoxicant, the ever-present duo of colours and bhang at Holi are not going anywhere anytime soon.

The article first published in The Tribune

Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi: 

Pushpesh Pant

Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian. He retired as a Professor of International relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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