As one of the oldest cultivated plants in history, cannabis has become a culturally significant crop in many societies all around the world. From hashish to brownies, this versatile plant has been prepared in countless ways over millennia. But perhaps one of the most enduring cannabis products, which has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years, is Bhang.
We’re taking a look at the history of Bhang – the famed Indian delicacy that has survived various attempts to criminalise cannabis across the Indian subcontinent.
What is Bhang?
If you were able to visit India at any time over the last 500 years (perhaps even longer), it is likely you would come across shops or stalls selling Bhang. This now-traditional product is, in essence, a type of cannabis edible that is prepared by grinding the leaves, flowers, and stems of the cannabis plant and mixing the resulting paste with milk or yoghurt. It is most commonly consumed as a drink, known as Bhang Thandai, which combines cannabis and milk with other ingredients such as spices and ground nuts.
While Bhang can be found year-round in some parts of India, it is traditionally consumed during religious festivals such as Holi – the Hindu Festival of Colours, Love and Spring – and Maha Shivaratri, an annual festival celebrating the Hindu deity, Shiva. Cannabis may also be rolled into small balls known as Bhang Goli.
The origins of cannabis in India
While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when cannabis was introduced in India, Ancient Hindu texts – The Vedas – which are believed to have first been compiled around 2000-1400 BC, name “bhanga” as one of the five sacred plants. Many scholars believe that “bhanga” is cannabis, however, there remains some debate on this front. Nonetheless, it is clear that the cannabis plant is deeply connected with the Hindu religion.
Shiva, the God of Destruction and new creation, is widely associated with cannabis in Hindu tradition. Legend has it that, after having a fight with his wife Parvati, Shiva stormed into the woods and rested under a plant. On awakening, Shiva was hungry and so began to eat the leaves of the plant, which he soon noticed turned his anger into happiness. The plant is said to be cannabis, which The Vedas also describe as a source of happiness, “joy-giver”, and a reliever of anxiety. As a result, Shiva is sometimes known as the “Lord of Bhang”.
The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission
Since ancient times, cannabis is believed to have been consumed across India, eventually prompting British colonialist powers to conduct a review into its effects. In 1893, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was launched to establish “the extent to which the hemp plant is cultivated in each of the provinces of India in which it is grown, […] by whom, and the extent to which [the plant] is used, [and] whether, and in what form, the consumption of the drugs is either harmless or even beneficial as has occasionally been maintained.”
Despite obvious objections among the British toward “Ganja” or “Bhang” consumption in India at this time, the commission concluded that “the moderate use of hemp drugs is practically attended by no evil results at all” and “produces no injurious effects on the mind.” Ultimately, the authors of the commission recommended that “to forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious an herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance.”
Cannabis in modern India
Thanks to its role in ancient traditions, cannabis – in particular, Bhang – remained largely untouched by prohibition in India until the late 20th century. Having so far resisted the outright ban on cannabis, in 1985, the Indian government succumbed to pressures from the US and other world powers and passed the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act.
This legislation prohibits the production, possession, distribution and consumption of narcotic and psychotropic substances, including cannabis. However, attitudes toward cannabis have remained relatively tolerant in India, allowing for the continued production, sale, and consumption of Bhang in many parts of the country. Bhang can even be purchased at government-sanctioned stores, particularly during religious festivals and celebrations.
Despite the continued availability and social acceptance of Bhang, it is important to remember that all forms of non-medical cannabis are officially illegal in India, as in most countries around the world.
Try it for yourself – Bhang Thandai
Bhang Thandai is one of the most traditional preparations of cannabis in India. It combines cannabis with milk or yoghurt and a number of spices. Take a look at the recipe below for a guide on how to make your own traditional Bhang Thandai.
- 14-28 grams chopped fresh cannabis (flowers and leaves)
- 500ml water
- 500ml whole milk
- 250 ml honey
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- ¼ tsp garam masala
- ¼ tsp ground black pepper
- ¼ tsp ground fennel seeds
- ½ tsp cardomom
- 2 tbsp ground almonds
- Handful of chopped pistachios
- Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan and add the chopped cannabis leaves and flowers. Remove from the heat and set aside for around 10 minutes.
- Strain the cannabis mixture through a cheesecloth and set both the water and cannabis aside.
- Warm the milk in the saucepan. Meanwhile, grind the cannabis with a few teaspoons of the warmed milk using a pestle and mortar until it forms a paste.
- Continue adding the milk, a few teaspoons at a time, until you have used around half of the warmed milk.
- Strain the mixture to remove any plant matter and combine the milk mixture with the water.
- Add the remaining milk, honey and spices, stirring well until combined.
- Chill until cool in a refrigerator. Stir again before serving and top with chopped pistachios.