By Madhulika Dash
Considered to be Lord Shiva's gift of 'inner peace', bhang has remained an intrinsic part of the Indian cultural tapestry. What gives it that indisputable supremacy? Legendary mixologist and Sidecar owner, Yangdup Lama decodes Holi's traditional drink.
B H A A NG. Nothing describes joy as this holy spirit. It is perhaps the only word in the Indian beverage dictionary that is socially acceptable (and permissible) – one can talk about it, consume it and even like it for the wave of sheer madness the “joy giver” it is capable of unleashing, and yet never be judged. It is the single Indian obsession that has ably confused the West that has tried in vain to ban the liberal consumption of the world's oldest intoxicator. The first ban on Bhaang came in 1861 when the British decided to control it but with no affect, whatsoever.
Interestingly, it wasn't the first time for Bhaang to come under the scanner and slip away – the Mughals– and many Muslim conquerors before them – tried to get rid of it, failed and took to the pleasure of it. Humayun and then Shah Jahan were two known patrons of this ancient ayurvedic antidote. A hopeless drinker, both the emperors are said to be so fond of this harmless intoxicator that they switched loyalty from opium to Bhaang. When brought to the notice, Jahangir is said to have said, “I loved the high, but I need to be alive to enjoy it more often.” The fact that Bhaang helped numb pain – physical and psychological – only added to its popularity as a “happy treat” among royals, wealthy and the weak. Such was the addiction to this tasteless narcotic that often queens and princess would carry it in the crevices of the ring to be enjoyed in discretion. Chadragupta Maurya too enjoyed a glass or two of bhang sura (the earliest alcoholic beverage) after the war to numb the pain.
Intriguingly, Bhaang debut was more of an antidote. Old text suggest how bhang was a pill to treat a variety of health issues including reliving aches and pains and even improving the appetite. Called “Vijaya” because of the bliss mood the resin left its consumer with, it was widely used for surgery and as a pain reliever. Such was the level of acceptance of this sacred plant (according to Atharva Veda) and its wellness and pleasurable virtues that it soon become the magic pill that every soldiers, messenger and traveler to carry along to make the long, arduous journey, plausible. It is common knowledge today how Sikhs used Bhaang to be able to fight harder and longer without feeling the pain.
The popularity of Bhaang however came as a mood setter that made it a choice among poets, singers, dancers and even the farmers who would use it to escape the dreariness of life into a world that allowed them to be free and think.
How did Shiva's drink become a part of the Holi ritual? Story goes that during Holi in Vrindavan, every Gopi wished to dance with Krishna. And since, it wasn't possible humanely possible, a clever Krishna took the help of bhang, which was given to all the gopis. So when it was the time to dance, each Gopi could see a Krishna standing next to him. The hallucination was often explained as a means to connect with divinity. And just like that the royal “joy giver” became a part of the celebrations. Today, of course, Holi is a ruse to enjoy the oldest popular hemp, which, over the years, has become conspicuous in its absence, but comes back to play its magical trick just like an old friend.
Clearly, not much has changed since the mythical time. Even today Bhaang remains the choice for “inner joy”. Just that now, instead of just being an ordinary drink, it has taken shape of a fascinating mocktail that most likely came at the time of the latter Mughals, especially Rangeela, and goes by the name of Tandai. The idea of course is more noble than just having people experience a temporary high. Bhaang, due to its natural composition, is an excellent coolant and to keep the stomach in top shape during monsoon. At smaller quantities, it even protect one against sunstroke, fever, appetite loss, malaria, headache and asthma.
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