Bhaang-wali Holi: When 'getting high' is acceptable in India

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaMar 07, 2023 | 16:11

Bhaang-wali Holi: When 'getting high' is acceptable in India

Even though cannabis is a taboo subject in India, consumption of bhang is normalised as a Holi tradition (photo-DailyO)

Bura na maano, holi hai” (Don’t mind, it’s Holi) is a common phrase during Holi celebrations in northern India. It is often used as a justification for applying colours on others. But this might also be the justification for perhaps the only time in the year when cannabis usage seems to be normalised in the country.

A bhang thandai AKA milkshake (photo-GETTY Images)
A bhaang thandai AKA milkshake (photo-GETTY Images)

The Hindu festival of colours is synonymous with gulaal (colour powder), water guns, and, of course, bhaang. Infused with leaves of the cannabis plant, bhaang is an edible with potency levels higher than the conventional eyebrow-raising “weed joint” or “bong”. 


And yet, in a country that otherwise shuns cannabis (AKA marijuana or weed) as a “hard drug” and where the government has classified it as an illegal substance, it is all the more amusing to find how seamlessly bhaang has seeped into Holi celebrations for generations. 

So, when did Indians start consuming bhaang? 

While Hindu mythology has always regarded the god Shiva as an active cannabis-user, historians trace the usage of cannabis in the Indian subcontinent as far back as 2000 BC. The cannabis plant’s multiple uses in the region eventually set a precedent for its variations all across the globe. 

It is public knowledge by now on how multi-purpose the plant is: the resin can be used to prepare the concentrate called charas while the plant’s flower can be crushed, rolled, and smoked up as the convention goes. 

Photo of bhang drinkers, from the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report, 1893.
Photo of bhaang drinkers, from the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report, 1893.

But when it comes to bhaang, the leaves and seeds of cannabis are crushed and often added to eatables such as pakoras (fritters) or pedas (a kind of milk-based sweet), and the Holi classics thandais and lassis (both being milkshakes). 

Bhang peda (a sweet) being sold in Nepal's Kathmandu (Photo- r/trees on Reddit)
Bhaang peda (a sweet) being sold in Nepal's Kathmandu (Photo- r/trees on Reddit)

Even though the 2000 BC time frame is determined through archival digging and a lot of historical speculation, the earliest documentation of bhaang usage by Westerners started only in the 16th century. 


How does bhaang make one “high”?

Calling it “bangue”, Goa-based Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta wrote about how the substance was commonly used by the Gujarat Sultan Bahadur Shah for recreational purposes. Later accounts by such traveller-historians detailed the process that involved grounding the cannabis leaves into a paste and then mixing and boiling it with milk, the heat converting the THCA (Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid) into THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). 

A few steps of the bhang-making process (photo-Wikimedia Commons)
A few steps of the bhaang-making process (photo-Wikimedia Commons)

Although the scientific jargon of THCA and THC was introduced much later, medieval-era Indians probably used the trial-and-error method to determine the exact temperature that would release enough THC. It is a common myth to think that just mixing the crushed leaves with anything will make you “high”. 

When it comes to cannabis edibles, heating the raw material at a certain temperature is essential as the released THC is the main component that leads to the psychoactive effects of cannabis (it makes you high in simpler terms). 

But then how “high” does one get with bhaang?

As mentioned earlier, bhaang much like other cannabis edibles like “weed gummies” and “weed brownies” is much more potent than the average joint and bong hit. Hence, understanding the difference between “inhaling” cannabis and “ingesting” cannabis is essential. 

When it comes to inhaling it (either through a joint, a weed pen and other related paraphernalia), the cannabis vapour delivers THC to your lungs which then passes into your bloodstream and then your brain. And voila! You will start feeling the effects within seconds and minutes of inhaling. These effects might stay with you for up to 6 hours and they might peak within 30 minutes or whenever it is for you (the lasting and peaking can be subjective).

Edible cannabis travels first to your stomach then to your liver before getting into your bloodstream and brain. (photo-CCSA)
Edible cannabis travels first to your stomach then to your liver before getting into your bloodstream and brain. (photo-CCSA)

But then let’s come to edibles like bhaang. When you ingest the chemical THC in this way, you are most likely to start feeling the effects within 30 minutes to 2 hours. And these effects can peak within 4 hours and stay with you for a whopping 12 hours or even more. So, why is that bhaang takes more time to come into effect? And why is it more potent?

To quote a simple explanation by the Canadian Centre of Substance Abuse (CCSA), 

“Edible cannabis travels first to your stomach then to your liver before getting into your bloodstream and brain. The liver converts THC into a stronger form and this combined with the THC from the original product adds to the intensity of the high.” 

So, yes, if you happen to be at a Holi celebration and see your middle-aged uncle chugging down a glass of bhaang lassi, he is going to be way more “stoned” than the “joint-smoking hippie” he might criticise otherwise. 

Now, it is a common sight to find Holi parties in India where people are not only dunking down litres of bhaang but also binge-drinking a couple of beers or other alcoholic drinks. That might not be the wisest choice as mixing alcohol with cannabis can have its side-effects depending upon a person’s physical and mental tolerance. These side-effects can be more concerning for people who aren’t active cannabis-users. 

Wait a minute, wasn’t cannabis illegal in India?

A major argument that pro-cannabis advocates in India offer, much like their global counterparts, is that cannabis and its extracts are non-habit forming substances. So, categorising them as other life-threatening and addictive drugs like cocaine, heroin, and even some medical drugs (as the 2022 miniseries Dopesick told us about the prescribed pill oxycontin) seems irrational. 

Regardless, the Indian legal system outlaws marijuana and according to the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985, possessing a small amount of marijuana (legally established as 1kg) can be a criminal offense with a fine of Rs 1 lakh and minimum 6 months in jail. However, the usage of bhaang is excluded from Section 2 (iii) of this act. 

The famous bhang shop in Jaisalmer lies just outside the Jaisalmer Fort. (photo-TripAdvisor)
The famous bhaang shop in Jaisalmer lies just outside the Jaisalmer Fort. (photo-TripAdvisor)

Hence, most of the Indian states have legalised bhaang and places like Jaisalmer even have government-authorised bhaang shops where bhaang drinks and bhaang golis (tablets) can be sold. Uttar Pradesh that sees a spike in sales of bhaang in the period between the Hindu festivals Mahashivratri and Holi similarly has spots in Kashi, Mathura, and Kanpur where bhaang is sold with little to no regulation. 

Yet again, the fact that bhaang can get people “higher” than the other outlawed forms of marijuana, seems as ironic as ever.

Last updated: March 07, 2023 | 16:11
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