Call it Mahaprasad, Vijaya or Siddhi, there is little denying the virtues of bhaang or Himalayan hemp — as one of the ancient antidotes, a joy giver, as well as a modern-day pleasure tipple.
A familiar sight that greets every traveller visiting Kumaon and Himachal Pradesh is this: locals while walking through the meandering roads of the hills continue to massage the leaves on the side as they go about their daily chores. This ritual, which, incidentally, says Kasauli-born Yogendra Pal, Executive Chef at Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, “is common to the entire Himalayan belt isn’t just a way to know your way back home, but is an age-old practice of how denizens here like to consume hemp — a plant that grows with abundance across the belt. Bhaang in the hills is a weed, and the only one that is the most sought after for not only the high it gives, but also its medicinal properties.”
Incidentally, in the entire stretch of Kumaon and the apple orchards of Himachal Pradesh, this is the way, says Chef Pal, “that denizens get their high. The residue that stays in the palm from all that rubbing of the leaves through the day is what forms the bhaang goli that is often used to alleviate pain and fatigue that comes from a hard day at work and is often consumed in the form of a drink prepared with water, as tea or with a little sweet milk.”
“These indigenous golis,” says Garhwal food specialist Chef Vineet Bahuguna, Executive Chef, Hilton Garden Inn New Delhi, “have the same placebo effect as a well-aged port wine or rum, albeit with no hangover and a fairly good dose of physical and psychological wellness. In fact, in most villages, hemp was once a preferred method to treat quite a few conditions including insomnia, muscle spasm and even rev up someone’s appetite.” A fact that is corroborated by ancient medical texts like the Chikitsa-sara-samhita which considers bhaang good for the digestive system and Sushruta Samhita (c. 650 BCE) where it’s cited as a treatment for diarrhoea, headaches and inflammation, among others.
And yet, for a region where bhaang need not be grown, the value of this miracle plant that takes lesser than 100 days to be ready for consumption is, say Chefs Pal & Bahuguna, “often as a desi nuskha and occasionally as a heady gruit.”
In fact, adds Chef Bahuguna, “there are two types of bhaang that grow in the hilly regions. One is, of course, the famous hemp that is much sought after because of the water and the climate condition in the hills that helps build its curative properties called cannabidiol (CBD); and the other is a more indigenous variety called Bhaangjeera, which is used widely in cooking, and is more valued than the former. The seeds, which are equally packed with nutrients, are the secret behind the nutty, balmy taste of Sidku or Siddu (steamed, griddle-roasted, stuffed flat bread), give meat dishes a unique flavour, and fritters that fresh contrast.”
As a matter of fact, says Chef Pawan Bisht, Corporate Chef of One8 Commune, “it is a staple ingredient in the spice box, and is used widely as a tastemaker in food across the region. The popular Bhaang Ki Chutney that forms an essential part of the Uttarakhand food experience is made with the seeds of Bhaangjeera and not the Bhaang that most people believe it is. The seeds once sun-dried are dry roasted before being ground with fresh coriander, green chillies, fresh garlic, fresh ginger, fresh garlic leaves, roasted cumin, fresh mint leaves, lemon juice and salt on a sil-batta to give it that great texture and taste. The characteristic green colour in the chutney, in fact, comes from the use of tender leaves of coriander and garlic that also give the dip its tangy mouthfeel.”
Curiously, adds Chef Bisht, “it is the seed from the female Bhangjeera plant that is more delicious, and is used in cooking, and its leaves to add that zestiness in the batter. The male plant is for its fibre that is used mostly to make ropes, paper, sacks and even cloth.”
But come March and the time of Holi, and the lovable scale tips from the Bhaangjeera to Bhaang, the hemp. The shift, says Chef Bahuguna, “is partly because of the long-standing tradition of celebrating Holi since the time of the Dogra kings when the bonfires would signify a change in the season and would often be accompanied with the prasad of ‘Vijaya’, a special bhaang drink made with water and offered to Lord Shiva, and in some places Lord Vishnu too; and also because of its curative digestive properties that makes bhaang a must-have during Holi.”
Bhaang or hemp is a brilliant pick me up for the whole body, especially, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “to restore the digestive ability of the body; help in the repair of the digestive organs, especially the liver and gall bladder that work overtime during winters because of the need of extra energy to keep the body warm; pare down aches and pains; and in doing all this also calm the nervous system.”
In fact, she continues, “bhaang’s cannabinoid or CBD factor is what allows it to heal us not just physically but psychologically as well. CBD as per ancient (and now modern) studies is the non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is behind bhaang’s spa-like therapy for restoring the circadian rhythm or, as Ayurveda explains, the re-syncing of the Vata, Pitta and Kapha, whose imbalance turns not just the digestive system sluggish especially during Holi week when the temperature (and humidity) suddenly soars up.”
A shot of hemp drink proves to be like a booster that turns one energetic, happy and high. In fact, the inclusion of bhaang in thandai — a combination that was popularised immensely by the Nihang community (Sikh warriors) through their favourite Sardai — was a carefully constituted potion that, says Bhassin, “could do so effectively because milk lessens the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) levels, responsible for that euphoric high.”
How did it do so? Because of the fat in the milk and the nuts in thandai, which delays the absorption of the THC in the body and activates the CBD. Thus, instead of just being high like in the case of other psychoactive weeds, here the effect is more therapeutic and effective. The other reason that nutrient dense and heavy drinks like thandai or Sardai were chosen for the purpose was portioning. Hemp, says Bhassin, “when consumed without restraint can have the reverse effect on the body and isn’t recommended. And this applies for Vijaya as well, which is a popular prasad across India when bhaang is added to water.”
Fascinatingly, to ensure the goodness of hemp was taken in the right way, says culinary anthropologist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “bhaang wasn’t just made an official part of Holi, when its maximum benefit can be extracted, but different versions were created to ensure the right administration of bhaang’s wellness properties. Like Indrasana churna for Kushta roga, which is of the skin; Kameswara modaka as an aphrodisiac and Naradiya lakshmivilasa rasa for rejuvenation.”
In fact, back in the day, Holaka, which was the Holy of Bonfires, was often celebrated with a concoction called Somapani rasa, which according to traditional Vedic practitioners’ belief was the first iteration that eventually created Vijaya that is served across all Shiva temples in India, and became the muse behind the popular Bhaang Sardai.”
Of course, he continues, “the consumption pattern of bhaang and in what format depends on the region, and the quality of hemp growing there as a weed, since cultivation of bhaang since ancient times is illegal in India, unless it is done for medicinal purposes only and is approved.”
This perhaps explains why in the north of India, which has access to Malana hemp, considered to be the saffron of bhaang, takes it with thandai, while the rest of the country has it as part of Vijaya or as bhaang ladoos, gujiyas and paan.
Yet, thanks to the free-spirited weed that grows in abundance across the state and matures around the time of Holi, bhaang continues to be a widely loved and permitted tipple for rejoicement, especially during Holi.
What adds to the allure of hemp is its neutral taste. This makes it an extremely versatile ingredient that can be added to a variety of dishes and makes a great base for a cocktail, but only when done in small doses and with care, moderation which traditional medicine also recommends.
Is there a right measure of having bhaang? It is a question, says Sandeep Singh, co-owner, Ministry Of Beer, “that is hard to quantify, but it often depends on the quality of the bhaang and how it is prepared. Most good quality bhaang — by which I mean hemp that is of good quality, which has been prepared the traditional way using the leaves with spices and rose, and ghee — will give you that joyous, light-headed feeling after the glass is over and the effect will come in slowly. And that is the best way to have bhaang, preferably after a good meal that delays the onset and limited to one or two glasses.”
Anything more can set off the THC, responsible for the sense of euphoria, and that, says Singh, “is the real trouble as it not only lasts longer but is often accompanied with a hangover of the worse kind.” One of the many reasons that bhaang smoking was never encouraged through the history of hemp, which started as an antidote to recovery and soon became the drink that liberates.