India and Its Unusual History with Cannabis

  • 17 Jul 2019

Bhang Thandai is a popular drink that is drank during festival time in India especially during Holi in North India. It is thick, creamy and sweet - made with saffron, almonds and... cannabis.

Cannabis has been long recognised in India since 1500 BC, as it is one of the five sacred plants in the Atbarva Veda.

Used by Sikh soldiers and Mughal kings, cannabis has also been part of the 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.

It had always been widely accepted in South Asia until the British began infiltrating India and tried to discourage its usage because they saw it as a threat to their efforts of colonisation. However, there was one British citizen who decided to investigate the usage of cannabis by the local Indians.

William Brooke O'Shaughnessy was a young Edinburgh chemist graduate who left to India in the 1930s in order to find for a job. At that time, India was still controlled by the East India Company and not fully colonised by the British crown until 1858.

In Calcutta, the British would befriend the elite Indians to learn more about India - its history, languages, flora and fauna, in order to better understand (and better control) the Indian population.

When O'Shaughnessy arrived in Calcutta, he had worked at the Medical College Hospital and studied the importance of cannabis in India's medical and culinary fields. Cannabis was not accepted by the British and they had feared that it would cause madness among its users.

They tried to stop its widespread by the use of media headlines such as "Murderous assaults by individuals under the influence of Indian hemp have been somewhat frequent" and "The lunatic asylums of India are filled with Ganja smokers."

But O'Shaughnessy was still interested in knowing why Indians were using cannabis in their dishes and wanted to see their effects. Among the recipes he had tried was sidhee, subjee, or bhang-drinkable cannabis preparations similar to bhang thandai.

The recipe that O'Shaughnessy was given was - "About three tolaweight [of hemp seeds] are well washed with cold water, then rubbed to powder, mixed with black pepper, cucumber, and melon seeds, sugar, half a pint of milk, and an equal quantity of water. This is considered sufficient to intoxicate a habituated person. Half the quantity is enough for a novice."

He provides similarly detailed descriptions of majoon, or ma'jun, a cannabis-infused milk-based sweet that was a favourite of the Mughal emperor Humayun. O'Shaughnessy details, "The operator then takes two pounds of sugar ... when the sugar dissolves and froths, two ounces of milk are added; a thick scum rises and is removed. Finally, the chef adds the cannabis butter, pours and cools the mixture on a pan, cuts it into small slabs, and enjoys."

While O'Shaughnessy did not fully approve of the dishes and labelled them as a vice, he acknowledged that the effect of a bhang intoxication is "of the most cheerful kind, causing the person to sing and dance, to eat food with great relish, and to seek aphrodisiac enjoyments."

Intriguingly, O'Shaughnessy found that hemp was effective in treating "infantile convulsions"-over 170 years before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came to a similar conclusion.

Yet even after India had gained her independence from the British, their disapproval of cannabis still had an effect on how it was viewed in the country.

Today, the Indian law on its usage is more relaxed, influenced by both global drug policy and the historical belief of some elite Indians that edibles are more socially acceptable than smoking.

Consuming the leaves of the marijuana plant, used to make bhang, is legal throughout much of India, but smoking the resin and buds is mostly forbidden.

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Source: Atlas Obscura
Photo Credit: Change

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