Of all Indian festivals, Holi is hands down the wildest.
There are packs of gulal-smeared revellers hollering on the streets, kids hurling well-aimed water balloons at unassuming strangers, passersby being drenched in buckets of coloured water being thrown from balconies and sweets that are bound to bring out the glutton in you.
And as if all that was not enough anarchy for one day, we Indians decided to throw another crazy element into the mix – bhang.
Bhang, an edible preparation of cannabis, has been synonymous with Holi since the festival’s inception.
For the uninitiated, bhang is usually consumed with thandai, a sweet milk-based drink. Thandai is ideal for the occasion, as bhang becomes much more potent when ingested with something sweet. Consuming bhang tends to lift one’s spirits and lower inhibitions, setting just the right mood for a wacky festival like Holi.
But bhang is cannabis and cannabis is illegal. So how do people manage to procure it?
Well, if you live in Noida, you can just ‘score’ some from a government-approved bhang shop in Sector 15!
Photo: Tathagata Sen
The nondescript shop is in a seedy lane in the Nayabans area, at a walking distance from the Sector 15 Metro station. Bold red letters on the shop’s name board announce that it is a bhang theka.
Sukhpal Singh, the cheerful man who runs the place, sits behind a grill, doling out small lumps of bhang from the two plates on a low table in front of him. All the walls in the shop are green, as if to match the colour of their product.
“We’ve been around forever,” says Singh, as he rolls some bhang balls in a piece of old newspaper for a customer. “And we have had a steady footfall of about 30-odd people every day since the very beginning. It's the same few dedicated customers. The number of customers does go up during Shivratri and Holi, but only marginally. What happens is that the demand shoots up around this time of the year, as people tend to buy in bulk.”
The bhang golis come at five bucks a piece (bhang for your buck!). For Holi, people were usually picking up stuff worth Rs 100.
“While using bhang for recreation is controversial, it does have some medicinal properties if consumed in limited quantities,” explains Singh. “It helps improve metabolism, helps patients of depression and is a great stimulant that helps to loosen up in general. Plus, bhang is completely natural and devoid of any added chemicals. There are no long term side-effects of bhang.”
“I usually take one goli every two-three days,” says Yash Kumar, a senior citizen from Sector 31, who bought bhang worth Rs 120 from the shop. “Anything in excess is bad and it’s the same thing with bhang. Consuming a little of it every now and then is good for health. I usually consume it with water but this lot will be mixed in thandai for Holi.”
“I have bought bhang worth Rs 200,” says Kaustav Mitra, another customer, who drove down from his home in Sector 62. “Bhang heightens my senses and that’s what I love about it. I’m not a regular user but having bhang on Holi is a must. I came to know of this shop about three years back and have been coming here for Holi ever since.”
“We don’t promote or advertise our product, so people who know about our shop are usually from around Noida," said Singh. "Most people come to know of us through word-of-mouth."
I made a mental note to spread the word too, as I handed him a ten-rupee note in exchange of two small dollops of my own government-approved bhang...