A Rare Glimpse Into India’s Historic Cannabis Cuisine

May 10, 2019

Thick, sugary, and creamy, rich with saffron and almonds, bhang thandai is so sweet that at first it’s hard to pinpoint the drink’s secret ingredient. After a sip or two, however, the telltale taste lingers: spicy and slightly musky, it’s the signature whiff of cannabis. After a few minutes, the high comes, dreamy as the rainbow play of Holi colors. An Indian festival staple, drunk especially during North Indian Holi celebrations, bhang thandai is part of a long history of South Asian cannabis culture.

Mentions of cannabis in South Asia date back to at least around 1500 BC, where it makes an appearance as one of five sacred plants in the Atbarva Veda. Beloved by Sikh soldiers and Mughal kings, cannabis has also long been part of spiritual practice across South Asian religions, from Shiva devotees who smoke the god’s treasured herb, to Sufi seekers who use hashish as a tool to unite with the divine.

Today, bhang recipes are widely available, and the drink, made from the leaves of the plant, is legal and broadly accepted. Yet British colonialism dramatically shaped modern attitudes toward cannabis in South Asia and, in turn, around the world.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy could have given you a bhang recipe or two. In early 1830s England, O’Shaughnessy, a young Edinburgh graduate, had gained recognition as a clever chemist. But when he found himself unable to acquire his license in London, he followed in the footsteps of many a young British lad unsure of his next step, and hightailed it to the colonies.

At that time, India was still controlled by the East India Company; it wouldn’t be officially “transferred” to the British crown until 1858. But in the colonial capital of Calcutta, British elites, often in collaboration with elite classes of Indians, had embarked on a grand scholarly mission.

Their aim was to learn everything possible about the subcontinent, from its history and languages to its flora and fauna, in order to better understand—and thus, better control—the Indian population. O’Shaughnessy, the bright, young Irish physician, was no different. Upon his arrival in Calcutta, he took up a post at the Medical College Hospital, where he turned his attention to studying a unique aspect of Indian medical and culinary culture: cannabis.

At the time, cannabis use was uncommon in England, and British colonials regarded the drug with suspicion. They had long feared that cannabis could cause madness, and 19th-century colonizers considered its use a threat to colonial power. “Murderous assaults by individuals under the influence of Indian hemp have been somewhat frequent,” declared one Bombay newspaper in 1885.

As a result of this violent influence, an Allahabad newspaper opined, “The lunatic asylums of India are filled with Ganja smokers.” This was true, but not necessarily because the drug caused madness. Instead, officials running “native-only” colonial asylums sometimes admitted Indian people suspected of being habitual ganja smokers for the mere fact that the system regarded them as unruly.

But British colonials were interested in anything that could yield knowledge about the colonized population. So in the 1830s, O’Shaughnessy set out on a rigorous program of research, detailing his inquiries in his 1842 The Bengal Dispensatory.

Drawing from interviews with Indian colleagues, The Bengal Dispensatory provided—among descriptions of hemp plants and hemp-related literature in Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian—several cannabis recipes detailed enough for an ambitious home chef to attempt today.

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