India's 'High' Holiday

During Holi, Hindus welcome spring with bursts of color and marijuana-laced treats.

A Hindu woman prays at a temple during Holi in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, on March 17. (Reuters/Amit Dave)

HYDERABAD, India—To get to Bandosingh Hazaari’s bhang shop you have to follow the gods.

In the maze of nameless alleys in Dhoolpet, a working-class neighborhood in the southeastern Indian city of Hyderabad, enormous fiberglass figures of Hindu gods and goddesses peek out of temple doors and between buildings. It’s a part of the city that’s known for creating and selling these 30-foot avatars, which are used in festivals and parades.

It’s also known for selling bhang—cannabis leaves that are crushed, mixed into drinks and sweets, and often served during Hindu holidays like Holi, the celebration of color and spring. During the festival, which falls on March 17 this year, crowds gather in Indian cities to throw colored powder and water on friends and strangers, leaving the streets tie-dyed and the air hazy with ribbons of rainbow dust. In a country where possessing and selling cannabis is generally prohibited, and where levels of cannabis use are low relative to other countries, it’s one day of the year when consuming marijuana is socially acceptable. There are even Bollywood songs extolling bhang’s virtues:

While the observance of Holi varies by community and region, serving bhang is part of the celebration in many Indian homes. The intoxicant takes many forms—from simple pills, or golis, created by mixing the leaves with water, to sweet bhang lassis, where the cannabis is ground up and added to heavy milk with almonds, sugar, and other flavors. It can also be packed into Indian mithai, or sweets made with nuts and condensed milk, and decorated with silver and gold edible foil. In its diluted form, bhang offers a mild buzz or high. Consuming it in larger quantities is akin to smoking weed, and vendors like Hazaari claim that the substance can put you to sleep for three days straight.

On a warm spring afternoon, just a few days before Holi, the 50-year-old Hyderabad native sat on a dusty plastic chair in his dark warehouse, surrounded by divinities. Hazaari said thousands make their way to Dhoolpet during the festival to find bhang, which he sells in the form of small, cake-like sweets for 50 rupees (less than one dollar) each. He instructs customers to share each piece among six people for a mild high, or among four people for a stronger effect.

Bhang is sometimes mixed into desserts for Holi.
(Ankita Rao)

“This is our culture, something passed down from our saints,” he told me, smiling beneath his white beard and weathered skin. It is not, he added, a drug, but rather an integral part of the Holi celebration—just like the practice of people washing colors (and, symbolically, their sins) off their body.

In Hinduism, bhang is associated with Lord Shiva, a popular deity who is often regarded as the religion’s supreme god. Some passages in ancient Hindu scriptures describe a plant with spiritual properties that Shiva discovered and brought down from the heavens for humans to consume. Shiva is often depicted with a chillum, or smoking pipe.

According to Travis Smith, an expert on Hinduism at the University of Florida, cannabis is an element of the faith’s yogi or sadhu (ascetic) culture, and “part of the yogi’s toolbox.” In places like the Indian city of Varanasi, a holy spot for Hindus along the Ganges river, many sadhus smoke marijuana from chillums. The drug's psychoactive properties make people sensitive to the energies in their body, Smith explained, and facilitate meditation. He added that bhang is not particularly dangerous or habit-forming, and that its use during Holi is similar to the tradition of drinking eggnog during Christmas. “It is still considered a vice, but because of this sacred association with Shiva, it is respectable,” he said.

A vendor sells fruit in the Dhoolpet neighborhood of Hyderabad, near a statue of Ganesha. (Ankita Rao)

Not all Hindus share Smith’s view. Kamala, a 45-year-old woman selling clothes in the Dhoolpet marketplace, told me that her family doesn’t approve of the tradition, which they view as a form of drug use. The Dhoolpet neighborhood where she grew up and still lives is “painted top to bottom” during the Holi festival. But it is only during the latter part of the day—when people re-emerge from their homes wearing fresh white clothes and greeting each other—that she and her children start to celebrate. “It’s different for everybody, but this is our way of doing Holi,” she said.

When India signed a UN drug treaty in 1961, the terms gave the country 25 years to rein in cannabis use while mandating crackdowns on harder drugs like opium in the meantime. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi prohibited marijuana in 1985, though officials made an exception for bhang—“as it is not made from cannabis resin or from flowering tops.” Indian state governments now regulate the production and distribution of the substance, authorizing certain vendors, most famously the Bhang Shop in Jaisalmer, to sell their products on a small scale. But it isn’t difficult to find unauthorized bhang vendors in many cities and villages, especially around Holi and Maha Shivaratri, a festival dedicated to Lord Shiva.

A tourist reads the Bhang Shop's menu in Jaisalmer, in northwestern India. (Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski)

Smith said that despite the widespread use of bhang, it remains part of a counterculture and is not always accepted in upper-caste families. But on a day like Holi, when the “upturning of general social norms” is encouraged, the substance is imbued with a more spiritual meaning. As one Times of India article noted in the run-up to Holi this year:

The explosion of colours is a ventilator of suppressed group or personal drives that allow temporary reversal of the rules of social engagement. Men are chased and harassed by women in villages of [Uttar Pradesh] while Brahmin elders and village heads are hounded and ridiculed, but they don’t complain.

For such liberated social behaviour, intoxicants act as catalysts and enrich the expression and experience of role reversal. In the haze of a hashish smoke or headiness of bhang-laced thandai [a cold drink], and the consequent preoccupation with a higher universe, the mundane doesn’t matter so much.

As Hazaari, the bhang merchant, sees it, the intoxicant is something to be carefully enjoyed and generously shared. Each year during Holi, he gives out plates of free bhang-laced desserts at a nearby temple. “Each color on Holi has a meaning: red means happiness, white means peace,” he said. “And this bhang is God’s prasad”—a holy blessing.