Cannabis sativa in India

The earliest written reference to Cannabis sativa in India is believed to have been recorded in the Atharvaveda, dating to about 1500 BCE.

From being consumed at weddings or festivals, or as an offering at temples on Maha Shivaratri, the consumption of bhang in India has traditionally been defined by religious undertones.
These ritualistic concessions may have paved the way for this by-product of the cannabis plant to be integrated across regional cuisines as an edible ingredient.
The same factor may have allowed it to feature as the key ingredient of the beverage synonymous with Holi.
“I remember my father being talked into drinking bhang with his friends during Holi and freaking out in Banaras. That cured my brother and I of our curiosity for a while — until we got to college.” For Krishnendu Ray, Associate Professor of Food Studies at New York University, it is this “funny mix of enticement and disdain” that coloured his middle-class, Odia-Bengali family’s perspective when it came to what was construed as “slightly déclassé and uncouth northern behaviour”.

Ray admits to having learned, rather late in the day, about “all the drug use by Shiva and that he was venerated for it” — an inconvenient oxymoron that his “puritan” mother struggled to justify to her children. What did, however, become apparent to him even at that young age was the understanding that bhang, a consumable by-product of cannabis, was ritually allowed, “in certain contexts and locations”.

The risk of tipping the scales when it comes to drinking and eating bhang and ganja could, in Ray’s view, be one of the reasons that they were absorbed into a more “ritualistic socialised use”. He states that this could also explain why edible drugs began creeping into households and making an appearance in the form of sweets (ritual offerings) and drinks in the hope of “containing their disruptive potential while allowing for their mild use”.

Research points towards cannabis potentially having been carried into the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 and 1000 BC, most likely a result of a series of Aryan invasions. Origin theories abound, with cannabis being thought to have evolved from areas as wide ranging as the steppes of Central Asia (specifically Mongolia and southern Siberia) to the Huang He River valley, the Hindu Kush mountains, South Asia and Afghanistan. The spatial distribution of cannabis saw a marked reshaping in the upper-Palaeolithic period as a result of its domestication by human beings.

The earliest written reference to Cannabis sativa in India is believed to have been recorded in the ancient Sanskrit Vedic poems, the Atharvaveda, dating to about 1500 BCE, in which it is revered as one of “five kingdoms of herbs headed by Soma; may it, and kusa grass, and bhanga and barley, and the herb saha”, believed to relieve from anxiety.

Before being initiated into the landscape of popular psychoactive by-products — such as bhang, ganja and charas — derived from cannabis in India, however, it is essential to scratch the surface of the much-contested nomenclatural debate and treatment. Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants in the Cannabaceae family with several closely related species, the number of which is disputed.

Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus described a single species of hemp, which he referred to as Cannabis sativa, in his seminal book Species Plantarum. It listed every species of plant, known at its time of publication in 1753, by classifying it into genera. French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, on the other hand, proposed two species of Cannabis: Cannabis sativa (a species largely cultivated in the Western continent); and Cannabis indica (a wild species growing in India and neighbouring countries). A third species known as the Cannabis ruderalis was named in 1924 by a Russian botanist, DE Janischevisky.

In addition to it becoming increasingly clear that a monotypic treatment of the varying species of cannabis was close to impossible, food historian KT Achaya elicits further doubt in his book A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food in stating that, “It is doubtful whether the bhanga of the Atharvaveda is indeed Cannabis sativa, or refers to the Indian sunn-hemp, the plants of which look alike.” Portuguese Sephardic Jewish physician and naturalist Garcia de Orta who wrote extensively on “bangue” in his work Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India (1563), in turn rejected the notion that the Indian plant from which “bangue” was derived was the same as the European hemp plant (alcanave).

While a definitive answer as to the specific subspecies of cannabis that are alluded to in texts may be close to impossible, the forms in which its intoxicating derivatives make an appearance across India can be broadly classified into three categories. Achaya states that, “Bhang refers to the dried leaves and flowering shoot, ganja to the dried flowering tops of female plants, and charas to the resinous exudate or an extract.”

Culinary chronicler and consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal draws attention to the fact that, “Bhang occupies an important space in India as people are willing to overlook traditional uptight rules about intoxicants.” This relatively relaxed outlook could well be influenced by the fact that psychoactive cannabis consumption in India has traditionally been defined by religious and medicinal undertones, seeing it being integrated into religious ceremonies as prasad offerings to the gods and subsequently assuming the label of a “religious food”. It is the unlikely concession that allows families to abandon inhibitions on festivals honouring the god Shiva (also known as the Lord of Bhang), who is believed to have brought it down from the Himalayas.

A similar sentiment is reflected by Rajasthan-based hotelier Ajwad Raza who touches upon the “religious sanction” extended to bhang owing to its associations with Lord Shiva and areas that have the strong presence of a priestly community, “whether Pushkar, Haridwar or Rishikesh”. Raza goes on to outline the method of extraction, which begins with dried cannabis leaves being crushed with a mortar and pestle and a little water and made into a paste-like slurry. This mixture goes on to be strained through a piece of cloth and the residual liquid is referred to as bhang. Preferences with respect to the consumption of bhang vary, says Raza, with some choosing to sweeten it and add dried fruit. The drink is a much-loved Holi fixture where it is “made into a sharbat with milk or water, inducing a feeling of well-being and relaxation”.

Thandai, is the much-loved beverage form in which bhang makes its presence felt during Holi in Lucknow and Maha Shivaratri in Varanasi where, “it’s a big part of the culture and you’ll find government-authorised shops selling it openly, and lassi and thandai shops offering both regular and bhang-spiked versions,” according to Delhi-based food writer Shirin Mehrotra.

Typically consumed during spring — which explains its role in the revelries of spring festival Holi — Mehrotra offers some layered insights. Made from ingredients including melon seeds, chironji seeds, rose petals, almonds, fennel and peppercorns, thandai is consumed as the weather signals change, owing to its nutritional properties. While etymologically derived from the Hindi word “thand” (meaning cold), the word is more likely suggestive of its body cooling properties or “thandi taseer”. As for the bhang-laced versions, Mehrotra suspects that this could have to do with the belief that mixing the intoxicant with something sweet is meant to get one “more high”. While ready-made powdered thandai mixes and concentrates such as the household brand Mishrambu are readily reached for, she adds that it can also be made to preference at home.

Interestingly, this concept of crushing cannabis and consuming the residual extract may have roots in an intoxicating, possibly hallucinatory, substance called soma, which was used in many rituals, especially those honouring Indra (one of the most important gods of ancient Vedic Hinduism). In Feasts and Fasts A History of Food in India, culinary historian Colleen Taylor Sen states that the identity of soma is one of the great unsolved mysteries of culinary history and outlines how during rituals, “soma is offered to the gods and ingested by the priests and worshippers, who are inspired with confidence, courage, faith, even a feeling of immorality”. Sen writes that, “The Rig Veda contains hundreds of references to soma, including an entire chapter of 114 hymns dedicated to it.”

While the source of soma may never be traced, it can be regarded as a precursor to the bhang beverage variants that are consumed across various cultures in India today. Sen writes about the plant that is described as yellow with long stalks and of how women “extracted juice from its stalk by pressing it between two stones or pounding it in a mortar. The juice was filtered through lamb’s wool and stored in jars or wooden tubs.” The brown or tawny liquid went on to be mixed with milk or yoghurt before being drunk.

Cannabis “drinkables” are not just restricted to India’s northern belt. Creative Director and food writer Shweta Mohapatra whose roots are from coastal Odisha draws attention to the fact that while there may not be as big a culture centred around drinking bhang during Holi, bhang paste can be added to the sweet concoction pana — made of fresh seasonal fruit and coconut, sugar and milk or yoghurt, sweetened with gur or sugar — that features in regional celebrations to mark Pana Sankranti or the New Year. While the drink was traditionally hand-churned, a blender is now used to achieve the desired effect.

While a liquid form may have lent itself quite conveniently to the absorption of bhang, there is fair historical documentation of its scope as an “edible”. Irish physician William Brooke O’ Shaughnessy arrived in India in 1833 and turned his attention to evaluating the medicinal and culinary properties of cannabis. His findings were detailed in his 1842 The Bengal Dispensatory. O’Shaughnessy makes mention of the cannabis-infused, milk-based sweet majoon or ma ‘jun, a preferred intoxicant of the Mughal emperor Humayun and shares a recipe for what could be likened to a weed ghee of sorts that calls for the “operator” to take two pounds of sugar and, “when the sugar dissolves and froths, two ounces of milk are added; a thick scum rises and is removed.” Cannabis butter is added and the mixture is poured on to a pan and allowed to cool, after which it is cut into small slabs.

The ever-evolving mithai landscape of India today continues to make way for bhang-infused innovation. Raza has heard of gujiyas — crescent-shaped dumplings that are stuffed with a sweetened mawa, dried fruit and coconut mixture before being sealed, crimped and deep-fried — which are synonymous with the Sheetla Mata spring festival, being given a bhang-infused lift. Mehrotra says that laddoos and pedas too, can receive a similar treatment.

Ghildiyal who chronicles the cuisine of Uttarakhand, where bhang chutney is a regional speciality, laughs while saying that the first question she is posed when people hear of this dish is, “Will I get high?” While the name suggests otherwise, the chutney is, in fact, made of the seeds of the hemp plant and is often confused for bhangjeera or perilla frutescens seeds. Bearing a distinct and “beautiful nutty flavour and high in protein”, bhang seeds, unlike the leaves of the cannabis plant, do not have any psychoactive or intoxicating qualities. Ghildiyal adds that bhang seeds can be used in tadkas as tempering and powdered with chillies as a spice blend that goes into a “mooli or kaddu ki sabzi”. There is also the “rich tradition of flavoured salts or pisyun loon and one of these is a bhang ka namak.”

“Bhang ki golis” (made from cannabis leaves that are ground with water and fashioned into lime-sized “golis”) are readily available at paan shops in Madhya Pradesh, and food and travel writer Vallari Apte speaks of bhang pakoras, which “are not frowned upon, especially during Holi season.” The golis are “quite wet” and tend to spoil very quickly so they are usually, “mixed with besan and other spices and fried and eaten in the manner of any other fritter”. The risk one runs with an edible is, according to Apte, that it “has a delayed effect and sets in only one or two hours after you’ve eaten it.” It also induces drowsiness, which is what she attributes to most people opting to sleep as soon as they begin to experience the hit. She laughs and says that it could also just be a case of older family members not wanting to get high around relatives and children, and resorting to sleep “as a getaway”.

While families may make allowances to indulge in bhang together, once a year or on a befitting religious occasion or festival, there are unspoken rules to the manner in which it becomes acceptable to do so. One is reminded of Scottish physician and botanist George Watt’s observations in his seminal multivolume work, The Dictionary of Economic Products of India, the final volume of which was published in 1893. Watt states that, “It is the artisans, mendicants and domestic servants who are the chief consumers; the middle and upper classes partake of hemp only at certain religious observances and even then but to a very small extent.”

Jehan Nizar is an independent features writer and food blogger based in Chennai, India. Her work most often explores food as a point of convergence for history and anthropology and has appeared in national and international publications such as PEN America, Whetstone Magazine, The Spruce Eats, Good Food Jobs, Gulf News, The Wire, The Wire Science, Firstpost and Verve Magazine. She formerly wrote a weekly food column for Asiaville. Jehan is also a core member of faculty at The Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, where she teaches feature writing.



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