Varanasi is India’s spiritual heartland. Said to be founded by the Hindu god Shiva, who came to live here with his new bride, the goddess Parvati, shortly after their wedding. It is the oldest living city in the world, and it is situated on the west bank of the sacred river Ganges, perfectly positioned to greet the rising sun.
It’s late March, a particularly auspicious time in the Hindu calendar. Hindus had celebrated the major festival of Maha Shivaratri just two weeks ago. Now, it is the time of the Holi Festival.
Legend has it that Parvati sought to make Shiva her husband, but he was unresponsive to her advances due to his state of deep mourning for his former wife, Sati. His melancholy was so profound that it threw the world out of balance. Parvati enlisted the help of Kamadeva, the god of love, who shot his arrow into Shiva’s heart as he sat deep in meditation.
“Local Youths Celebrating Rangwali Holi, the Festival of Colors”
This action so enraged Shiva that he opened his third eye and burned Kamadeva to ashes. However, it also had the desired effect of reopening his closed, unhappy mind. He then became receptive to Parvati and accepted her offer of marriage, restoring balance to the universe. Now, fires are burned on the first night of Holi in imitation of the sacred fire that burned Lord Kamadeva.
Many things are considered sacred to Shiva—the white bull, the snake, the river Ganges itself—and another of his many sacraments is bhang, a traditional cannabis preparation added to drinks such as thandai (a blend of almonds, milk, pepper ,and sugar) and snacks such as ladoo (balls of sugar and garbanzo bean flour cooked in ghee).
According to the Sanskrit Vedas, long ago the gods churned the ocean like a vat of butter to produce an elixir of immortality; as they churned, some droplets sprayed out and fell to the ground. Cannabis plants sprouted wherever these drops of nectar touched the ground, and the gods wasted no time in making a sacred drink from it, which quickly became a favorite beverage of Lord Shiva’s.
During Holi, bhang consumption is unrestrained and ubiquitous in Varanasi, and the government-licensed shops that are permitted here in the state of Uttar Pradesh enjoy a roaring trade. I pass by a shop, its entrance obscured by dozens of local men waving 20-rupee notes. I am afforded mere glimpses of its seated owner as he doles out chunks of leaf-wrapped paste to his clamoring customers.
On the eve of Holi, I am lucky enough to be permitted to visit the home of a local bhang maker to learn about her trade and take a few photos of her in action. She is a mother of several boys and she plies this trade year-round, although festival periods are far more profitable than the usual daily grind.
She uses sacks of dried, ground cannabis flour that are legally obtained from the neighboring state of Bihar; a 20-kilo sack costs 800 rupees, and the fist-sized ball she is preparing will fetch around 50 or 60 rupees at retail prices.
It takes her half an hour to mix and pound the paste to her satisfaction. Once pounded, she will portion it into individual bite-sized lumps that will be wrapped in mango leaves and sold for one rupee each.
The following morning, the sun rises to herald in a bright, clear day, ideal for the color-throwing mayhem that will begin in earnest in an hour or two. Varanasi authorities limit the colorful celebrations known as Rangwali Holi to noon on the main feast day, so the city’s youths will have just a few hours to unleash havoc on their friends, neighbors, and whoever else happens to be passing.
Soon, the narrow alleyways and ancient courtyards of the city resound to the excited shouts of groups of dozens of teenaged boys and girls as they rush back and forth, playing and dousing each other with buckets of colored water and handfuls of powder dye.
The streets and everyone in them are soon marbled with rainbow streaks, a spectacular celebration of light and life that is perfectly characteristic of this most colorful and ancient culture.
While other countries struggle to define and consolidate their approach to cannabis, India’s bhang traditions have persisted for centuries, if not millennia—and by all appearances, they will continue to exist long into the future.
Seshata is European Senior Editor for Skunk Magazine and co-founder of the Barcelona-based, organic cannabis collective Terps Army Farm.