Holi – the Festival of Colours is intimately associated with Thandai (a cooling summer drink) and Bhang (cannabis) in North India especially in Uttar Pradesh. The intoxicating combination heralds the beginning of summers in this part of India.
As the name itself suggests, thandai means providing refreshing coolness from the summer heat. And consumption of bhang soothes the mind and body as it has relaxant properties. Having thandai with bhang on the day of Holi when people play with colours till the sun rises high in the sky makes it little more special, the cool relaxing drink takes the edge off the heat of the day. After long, dark and cold winter days; the festival comes when the days are just becoming hot, and the mornings and evenings are still little cooler – the ingredients in the drink are meant to nourish the body with their inherent properties of providing both coolness and warmth.
Story behind thandai, bhang and holi
Most of our traditions have a mythological tale or two behind their celebration, and the consumption of bhang is closely associated with the ascetic god Shiva. It is said that during the samudra manthan (the churning of ocean), one of the many treasures produced was halahala – the poison. Since neither the devas (Gods) or the asuras (demons) wanted the poison, Lord Shiva decided to drink it; and to counter its poisoning effect Goddess Parvati gave him the bhang as a preventive measure.
Another story around Lord Shiva and his association with bhang revolves around the time when his consort Sati died, and in the grief Shiva renounced the world and retreated to his mountain abode to meditate. Sati reincarnated as Parvati and resolved to marry Shiva; in order to break his meditative stance she takes the help of Kamdeva – God of Love. Kamadeva shot an arrow of desire at Shiva, that arrow was said to be laced with bhang. It is also believed that this happened on the day of the Holi and that is why people celebrate the occasion by consuming bhang and getting high.
Lord Shiva and Lady Parvati are said to have married on the day of Mahashivratri which falls a fortnight before Holi, and in Varanasi, the city of Shiva, thandai with bhang is consumed that day as well. But it is on Rangbhari Ekadashi that Shiva brings Parvati to his earthly abode Banaras and gives permission to its residents to start playing Holi from this day onwards, and thandai with bhang is drunk to celebrate his return to the grihastha (householder or family life) from being a bairagi (ascetic).
What all goes in thandai?
Thandai is a mix of nuts and fragrant spices – poppy seeds, watermelon seeds, peppercorns, fennel, cardamon along with rose petals and almonds. After this dry mixture is soaked, grinned and strained, saffron and milk is added to the final product. And to make it even more colourful, thandai is laced with a paste of cannabis leaves and buds – the bhang.
Each ingredient has its distinct flavour and property which makes the drink delicious and flavourful – fennel seeds with their antioxidants, anti-flatulence and cooling property; peppercorns have medicinal property with their minerals like manganese, zinc, calcium, iron and vitamin A that helps the body especially in this changing season; watermelon seeds as a source of iron and protein; rose petals aid in digestion; almonds are rich in Vitamin E as well as good source of healthy fats and anti-oxidants. Poppy seeds contain iron, phosphorous, thiamine, riboflavin and many other B vitamins; they are also rich in fibre and the presence of linoleum acid helps prevent heart attacks and other heart disorders. Milk is a good source of calcium and protein, and the cold milk acts as an antacid as well.
Apart from bhang, datura (commonly known as thorn apples) flowers which are said to be favourite of Lord Shiva is also added at some places to this mixture.
We consume thandai and bhang in other forms as well
Apart from the classic thandai in the drink form, these days thandai is also consumed as ice cream and kulfi. Thandai cheesecakes and chocolates are becoming common too in modern households. In Varanasi, many other flavours of thandai is available by adding other fruits, flowers or spices and nuts. It is also believed that the milk based form of thandai is a recent phenomenon, in the early days thandai was made using different flower extracts.
To make it even more interesting, you can enjoy a glass of thandai with vodka or rum added to it – after all, it is bura mat mano holi hai!!
Similarly bhang is used in many other food items during Holi – bhang ki mithai (bhang filled sweets) or bhang pakoras (bhang laced fritters) are other ways to consume this intoxicating herb. Bhang based pedas (sweetmeat) and brownies are also new additions in the Holi menu. In the Uttarakhand region, bhang chutney is commonly available. Bhang is legally available in government approved shops across the county.
The Festival of Colours is all about abandonment, a spirit of carefreeness and this quintessential festive drink of thandai laced with bhang embodies the spirit of Holi in a way nothing else does. So cheers to this special drink this Holi!!