It’s hard to imagine Holi without bhang. Known as the ‘festival of colours’, Holi has quickly earned the reputation of India’s ‘high’ or ‘trance’ festival where people let loose with a glass full of bhang thandai in one hand and bright colours in the other.
Bhang’s relationship Indian culture isn’t limited to Holi, though. The first mention of the psychedelic drug can be traced back to ‘samandar manthan’ when the gods had come together to churn nectar from the sea and save the planet from impending doom; the nectar spilled on the ground a little and from which was born the cannabis plant.
Bhang is also mentioned in ancient Hindu texts like Atharvaveda as an anxiety reliever and stress-buster, and a tool to ward off evil. According to some legends, Shiva was the one to discover it. In fact, cannabis in general is strongly associated with Shiva, the meditating hermit. On Mahashivratri, or even on regular days at major Shiva temples, bhang is often offered as prasad. The consumption of marijuana is often regarded by Shiva bhakts as a surrender of all worldly intoxicants to him.
But how did bhang take on such a prominent role in Holi, a harvest festival with no strong links to Shiva?
Shiva and Holi
Most of us are aware of the legend of King Hiranyakashyipu and his sister Holika, who embody evil, and his son Prahlad, the Vishnu bhakt who braved sitting in burning flames but emerged unharmed, in an ultimate story of good over evil. But there’s another, less talked-about myth associated with the festival of Holi.
The story goes that when Shiva was deep in meditation after the his wife Sati self-immolated, Parvati, sought his attention — for which she needed Kamadeva’s help. Now, Kamadeva knew interfering with Shiva when he was deep in trance would have dire consequences. But he also knew that Shiva needed to come back to the real world. So, Kamadeva, for the greater good, took his chances. According to the myth, on the day of Holi, Kamadeva shot his arrow at Shiva, enchanting him in Parvati’s love, but getting burnt to ashes in the process. Southern India worships Kamadeva for his service and offers him sandalwood on the day of Holi to help heal the burns.
Thus, Holi becomes a celebration of Shiva coming back to the world as much as it is a celebration of harvest or the victory of good over evil. And where there’s Shiva, there’s bhang.
Loopholes make it possible
India isn’t exactly the country where you sit and have your first drink with your parents, but for many families, Holi is the exception. But how is bhang so easily available in India when cannabis is a scheduled drug? The answer lies in a simple word: Loopholes
While the 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act lists cannabis as a narcotic drug, prohibiting its cultivation, possession, consumption or transportation, it only lists some parts of the cannabis plant as narcotic, like its bud and resin. It conveniently omits the leaves, the part of the plant that’s used to make bhang.
The second loophole lies in the fact that while the cultivation of the plant invites imprisonment of up to 10 years, it doesn’t talk about the plant growing in the wild, harvesting which is perfectly legal.
The legality of bhang has been unsuccessfully challenged in courts several times, a popular case is Arjun Singh v The State of Haryana, in which the Punjab and Haryana High Court had ruled that under the restrictions of the law, it’s not illegal to consume cannabis leaves, but it is illegal to grow the plant, making the whiff of bhang in the Holi air, completely legal.