This article appears in Volume 7 – Issue 3 of SKUNK Magazine.
Ed standing by a column of Shiva at the ghats on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi
SIMPLY PUT, bhang is cooked leaf pulverized to a fine paste until the water has boiled away. Then, it is formed into balls that are added to drinks such as lhassi (a yogurt drink similar to a milk shake), tea, or added to desserts. In India, bhang escaped the criminalization of other cannabis products such as bud and hash that took place in 1968.
Jane and I traveled through India on a vacation, to see the sights, not to investigate the herb at its original source, the Himalayan foothills.
India and Hinduism have a long and intimate relationship with Ganja. Shiva, one of the primary deities of Hinduism retreats to the Himalayas to get away from his two wives, especially the mean-spirited Kali, who wears a necklace of human skulls. Of course the best way to contemplate those wonders is when you’re high. Shiva is a connoisseur aficionado, as a God should be. His holidays, such as Holi, are celebrated using cannabis. And his followers, the Saddhus, renounce possessions. Instead they seek the kindness of strangers as they devote their lives to honoring him. Traditionally this includes partaking of the herb in a chillum.
But we were not up in the mountains. We were cutting a wide swath across the mid-range of the country. Landing in Delhi, our itinerary included Pushkar, Udaipur, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Varanasi, the sacred city along the Ganges River.
And in those cities the Saddhus were quite circumspect. I didn’t actually see them smoking any pot. Later, I learned that there was a continual smokefest behind some temples in Varanasi, but it wasn’t apparent to us.
We had planned ahead and were travelling with medicine in the form of 4x tincture that some friends had made for us to take on the trip. When the glycerin-based tincture is dropped under the tongue, sublingually, it quickly passes through the mucus membranes into the bloodstream. It’s not quite as fast as smoking or vaporizing, but much faster than eating. And it’s virtually the same high as smoking, not the body high resulting from conversion of THC to an analog when it goes through the digestive system. We were also travelling with some very sativa lozenges that we used occasionally when we were walking around, exploring the sites.
Even though we had the tinctures and lozenges, I purchased about 10 grams of mid-grade hash in Delhi at the start of our trip from a friend of our travel agent. It was unexceptional. Then a friend of ours purchased some hash from a camel driver in Pushkar, but this was a bit disappointing, too. Still, the hash was an alternative to the very powerful drops and lozenges.
Now we were in Varanasi and we decided to try some bhang. We asked our driver to take us to a shop and he had us wait in the car while he procured for us. The single ball cost us about 25 rupees, about 50 U.S. cents. We returned to our hotel and ordered lhassis. I cut the ball in halves and one of the halves into thirds. I added two of the pieces to my drink and one to the other. As we were doing this I looked up to see that two of the waiters were watching us prepare the drinks. One of them came over and told us that he preferred mixing the bhang into a cup of milk-tea. We finished the drinks in a few minutes and the first wave of highness swept my body about half an hour later. Jane was also feeling quite relaxed.
The good feeling didn’t stop us from touring the alleys leading to the long flights of stone steps, known as ghats, that lead down to the Ganges edges. The streets were lined with shops decorated with bright strings of lights used as architectural decoration, creating light structures. Music blared from the shops creating a cacophony of sound. Enticing exotic aromas from the small restaurants engaged our senses of smell. We were feeling very pleasant, almost dreamy, as we explored the city, The walk was turning into a surreal experience.
The next morning we continued our bhang experience with the other half of the ball, mixing it into our breakfast chai teas and then went out touring again.
This time we took a boat ride on the Ganges where people were bathing in the sacred waters. The slow flowing river was also a sacred receptacle for a safe trip to reincarnation. No, dead people are not thrown into the river. They are cremated at its banks after their bodies are bathed in its waters.
We did however see a few dead cows floating in the water. Cows are holy to Hindus. Throwing “Elsie” in the river with some prayers provides her the best opportunities as far as reincarnation is concerned. Still, it gives most westerners, including me, some trepidation about drinking the water, or bathing in it, or touching it.
Before you scoff just think of our relationship to our dogs, cats, and other furry and feathery creatures. Considering the pains many Americans go through to have their beloved pets buried or cremated, tossing a cow in a river doesn’t really seem that extreme.
After we left the river we were walking back to the hotel when we decided to buy some more bhang balls. Luckily, the shop wasn’t far from our hotel. The fellows running the shop could tell we were experienced users. They were quite hospitable and invited us inside.
They shared cups of tea with us poured from plastic bags. They showed us their tiny quarters where they turn the leaf into magic balls. Then they sell them out the front window through a bankers grill. There was a steady stream of customers for the balls as we sat there. Just as in the U.S., where marijuana cuts across class, ethnic, racial and cultural lines, the clients of this small shop showed great diversity.
There was a bit of a language problem, since our knowledge of Hindi is non-existent and the shop workers had just a rudimentary command of English. Still, we were able to communicate a enough. They showed us the bags of dried leaves used to make the balls and roughly described how they do it.
The leaves come from the state sanctioned distributor. They are free of debris and stems but the leaf veins have not been removed. Most of these “sticks” are picked out as the first step of the processing. Then the leaves are mixed with a little water and mashed with a bamboo stick and a ceramic bowl. More water is added and the mix is left to simmer. Eventually the water boils off. The mash cools a little and is rolled into one and a half inch balls.
We purchased balls there but were referred elsewhere for weed and hash. There is a clear legal distinction between bhang and any other form of marijuana. Everything but bhang is strictly proscribed and has been driven underground. We purchased some mid-level hash and some grass. These were gnarly pieces that were too unappetizing to smoke.
That evening we went back to the Ganges and rented a boat under continuing bhang influence. There was a religious concert at one of the ghats with some buff singers doing a choreographed version of religious songs. We watched it on the river in a rowboat, one of many that filled the river far from the banks, mostly rented with rowers by tourists. For the price of a boat rental we were at the big concert in town. We left part way through; after about a half hour we left the show. It was more interesting anthropologically than inspirationally or as entertainment.
Since bhang is legal it remains safe and inexpensive and it is a great way to stay stoned while touring, where or when it is inappropriate to smoke or vaporize. Then too, it has its own special high because of the chemistry of ingestion, so it lasts much longer than a joint would. Also, acquisition was easy and accessible.
I decided to try to make my own bhang balls when I got back. Rather than use a mortar and pestle, I decided to use a blender and to simmer the mix using a slow cooker. Here’s the recipe I used:
- Measure out an ounce of leaves and remove any stringy or sticky pieces that are obvious.
- Place the grass into the blender and turn it on the fastest setting, “liquefy.”
- Let it run for three minutes or more, until the leaf looks like flour.
- Let the dust settle. This is important because it consists mostly of glands containing THC.
- Add enough water to make slurry.
- Simmer until the paste has enough consistency to form into balls. Roll into four or five equal sized balls.
- Let them stand for a few hours so they bind together a bit.
- They’re now ready to use!
Some bhang makers add milk to the water. Milk contains lecithin, which is an emulsifier. It helps THC, which is oil soluble, mix with water when the ball is added to a drink.
A day after I made the balls I tried a half out in a country retreat a friend had generously provided me, where I was supposed to be writing. As a result, a few prime hours of writing time were spent in the same relaxed state I had experienced in India and not much writing actually got done. Bhang is an under-utilized way to get high and I definitely recommend that everyone give it a try.