The ancient cannabis tradition of bhang in India
Bhang is a potent cannabis concoction with a millennia-old legacy of consumption in India. Even for experienced cannabis consumers, this blend is not for the faint of heart.
This traditional sacrament is made from the sugar leaves of the cannabis plant, and is the favored inebriant of the Hindu god Shiva. It’s traditionally consumed by devotees during the Holi festival each Spring, but bhang use is normalized throughout the rest of the year thanks to a special government exemption that allows for the presence of licensed shops selling it throughout multiple states across the country of 1.5 billion people.
Cannabis in the Indian subcontinent and surrounding regions has been a prolific part of herbal medicine and folk traditions for several thousand years at least. It’s mentioned in the Vedic texts, specifically in the Atharva Veda, and is referred to as the “source of happiness” and “liberator.” It is the favored inebriant of the Hindu god Shiva, known as ‘The Destroyer.” This nomenclature should provide some context for the potency of the cannabis experience delivered by bhang.
Despite a 4,000 year old cultural history, weed only recently became medically legal in India. To get your hands on some flower, you must apply for a medical card in a process that apparently doesn’t require much due diligence and is rather easy to complete according to multiple people I met while in India. Despite official ordinances, entire regions of India such as Himachal Pradesh produce a massive volume of cannabis that yield some of the most desirable varieties on the planet, such as “Malana Cream” hash.
A Legal High
Bhang is legal because the letter of the Indian law prohibits the sale of cannabis resin and flowers outside of the medical context, but there is no legislation or regulation around the leaves of the plant. It’s quite common to see wild cannabis plants growing in public places and on the side of the streets in various areas across the country.
While visiting the Rajasthani town of Bundi recently, I inadvertently stumbled upon one of the government-licensed Bhang shops operating across India.
The hole-in-the wall “legal cannabis dispensary” was a sole proprietorship with a man in a white tank top serving viscous cupfulls of the blend from behind a low counter in a fluorescent lit room with a vibrant tapestry depicting Shiva on the rear wall.
A few metal cups and bowls sat on the white counter before him next to a mesh strainer. I used my well-honed translinguistic body language to order a bhang lassi and watched him go about the process of making one. The man procured a doughy green ball of cannabis concentrate that looked and morphed like playdough, then started grating it on the metal strainer over a silver bowl while pouring milk on top. He massaged every little bit of the bhang ball until it disappeared with the milk in the bowl, then poured the thick green potion back and forth between the bowl and a cup to further mix the two substances.
He handed me the bhang in a to-go cup as requested, because the thought of consuming it anywhere besides my comfortable and private hotel room lacked any appeal given the reputation of this powerful inebriant and the unpredictable nature of a chaotic public environment. Three young teenagers followed me into the shop and successfully managed to convince the owner to give them the remnants of the bhang ball that had been inched off of its initial formation. Some might call this the “tourist tax.”
Back at the hotel room, the thick concoction sent me into a prolonged altered state that required complete submission and a supine positioning of the body. I was powerless to do anything but remain in a reclined position and allow the bhang to run its course through my body. Having consumed high potency edibles up to 50 milligrams in strength before, I can safely say that bhang is in a league of its own. It is known more as a sacrament than a recreational high for a reason.
It felt like a six hour Shavasana yoga pose, a departure from the trivialities of ordinary thought and an initiation into some kind of ancient and prolonged stupor. If I could have opened my eyes, they probably would have had blood vessels bursting a brighter red than the brilliant hues of the famous cane sugar root derived dye used as a pigment across India. Several times throughout the experience, I tried to grab my pen and paper to jot something down, only to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to remember what it was I was thinking in the first place once I maneuvered my hand into writing position.
The outcome of the experience was very much one of reverence for the potency and tradition of this powerful cannabis concoction, and a sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to be initiated into a millennia-old tradition that is still alive and thriving in this wonderful corner of the world. I’ve heard many stories from other veteran cannabis consumers that consuming bhang in public as part of a religious rite in India was one of the most “psychedelic” experiences of their lives, and I have no doubt that this would be the case for anyone so brave and inclined to drink bhang in such a setting.
For me, relaxing safely in the room and tapping into the ancient lineage of bhang consumption in its native land was quite enough, and I’m glad to have safely completed the journey.
This article was submitted by a guest contributor to GreenState. The statements within do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GreenState, Hearst, or its constituents. The author is solely responsible for the content.