I tried to quicken my pace, lest my flimsy flip-flops-clad feet be burned by the scorching sand. As I walked further into the Thar — an inhospitable subtropical desert in northwestern India — on a scorching summer afternoon, I could hear just one thing: my own heart. Thumping loudly in my ear. There was no wind blowing, no leaves rustling, no birds chirping, not even the scurrying of insects around. It was the most deafening and uncomfortable silence I’d ever heard in my 23 years of existence.
I had woken up that morning in Jaisalmer, a town on the fringes of the Thar, in a haveli (a traditional Rajasthani manor house) which had been turned into a guesthouse. As I lounged during brunch in an open-air cafe overlooking the market, a shop that looked like any other shop caught my eye – except the words “government authorised bhang shop” were painted in red outside this one’s entrance.
Bhang is a cannabis-based product that is sold legally in certain parts of India. Intrigued, I headed to the shop stationed just outside the historic Jaisalmer Fort. I found myself in front of Chander Prakash Vyas, the 30-something third-generation owner of the shop that sells bhang mixed in milkshakes, fruit juices, cookies and brownies.
Chander Prakash Vyas, popularly known as Dr Bhang, is a 30-something third-generation owner of a shop that sells bhang mixed in milkshakes, fruit juices, cookies and brownies
“We have been running this shop for over 49 years,” Vyas told me as I settled in. “Traditional Ayurvedic knowledge that has been passed down generations in our family keeps our business running.”
In India, cannabis use dates back to ancient times. The ancient Indian alternative medicine system of Ayurveda prescribes cannabis as what is known today as a “superfood,” with different parts of the plant believed to be beneficial for various ailments. From cooling properties and curing heart diseases, to helping with joint problems, easing chemotherapy side-effects and even fighting anxiety and depression to a certain extent – Ayurveda seems to have known for millennia what modern science is slowly waking up to today.
Cannabis laws in India have gone through a series of changes over the years. But for now, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985 criminalises possession or use of charas (or hash) which is made from the plant’s resin, and ganja (or weed) which is the flowering bud of the plant.
Bhang has been left in a grey area since it is prepared with the leaves and seeds of the plant not banned under the NDPS Act. Regardless of what the law may say, bhang has deep connections with the widely revered Hindu god Shiva, which helps government-regulated shops like Vyas’s thrive across the Hindu-dominated states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. As common as it is to spot government authorised bhang shops in these regions, the plant is sourced from the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where – ironically – it is illegal to grow cannabis for recreational use. To sustain this business, one must work around a lot of legal grey areas and technicalities.
Inside Vyas’s shop, a massive photo of him and the late chef, Anthony Bourdain, hung on the wall. “I’ve had many famous visitors over the years,” he remarked as he saw me eyeing that unmissable image.
Dr Bhang at work in his generations-old shop
As someone who has always been very interested in the cannabis plant and can answer questions on the history and science behind it, Vyas was once jokingly called “Dr Bhang” by a group of tourists. And the internet caught on fast. “It has stuck ever since,” he gleamed, evidently proud of his doctorate.
Dr Bhang’s shop may now be listed on every “top places to visit in Jaisalmer” article but for him, tourists have never been the primary clientele. “We majorly rely on the locals to keep our business afloat,” he said. “Especially the Brahmins (who are at the top of the caste hierarchy) who don’t smoke or drink but consume bhang for spiritual and healing purposes.” This is mainly why, despite the pandemic hurting a lot of businesses here, especially those that relied on tourists, Dr Bhang was able to survive without taking a big hit. His business booms the most on the Hindu festivals in which Lord Shiva is the protagonist: Holi and Mahashivratri.
Soon, we sat down to work. Dr Bhang went over the menu with me, showing me the four levels of bhang he had on offer: mild, strong, super strong, and super-duper strong that, in his words, guaranteed “24 hour full power, no toilet, no shower.” This very ominous yet lucrative level of high drew me in, and I decided to place my order of two cookies.
These innocent-looking cannabis-laced cookies sent the writer flying high in the middle of a desert
While most of these shops traditionally just sell bhang paste to be consumed in local households, the rise of tourism in places like Pushkar, Varanasi and Jaisalmer has had people experimenting with their menu to attract tourists. It was Dr Bhang’s uncle who decided to experiment with mixing bhang into various foods. He now offers a massive spread that includes chocolate balls, cookies, milkshakes, fruit juices and lassis (a blended yogurt drink), all mixed with bhang, priced around Rs 150 ($2) a pop.
As excited as he was to show me his delicacies and indulge in my questions about the history of cannabis use, there was caution in his enthusiasm. “The problem arises when tourists who have no experience with cannabis come in and directly want to try out our super-duper strongest stuff. I have seen people get extremely paranoid or become a nuisance to those around them. The worst is when they mix alcohol and bhang.”
The Makhaniya Lassi is the most famous item on the menu. The curd-based drink comes with a generous topping of dry fruits.
As I prepared to leave with the packet of cookies in my hand, he bid me goodbye with his personal “emergency landing” technique. “If the high ever overpowers you into paranoia, just squeeze a lemon into warm water. It will instantly wear off.”
A few hours later, and some 50 kilometres out of Jaisalmer, I found myself craving for Dr Bhang’s emergency landing. My partner and I had decided to bike into the middle of the desert to trip on the cookies and see where the day takes us. Just as my high was kicking in, paranoia came along with it. The vast nothingness of the desert, where there was little else apart from sand and cacti, sent me down a spiral and I was convinced I’d get lost here forever. The heat didn’t help and the bhang’s cooling properties did not seem to be working that day either.
But just as I was about to have a meltdown, a 10-year-old appeared in front of us with his camel and guided us to a nearby oasis. We ended up cooling off under a massive tree that sheltered the hamlet well, saw the fantastic sun setting on the horizon, ran up and rolled down the dunes, wolfed down some samosas, and had a transcendental experience that these words cannot do justice to.
The writer had a bhang-enabled transcendental experience in the dunes of Rajasthan. Photo: Mera Nazaria/Unsplash
“Our knowledge has been passed down over generations,” I remembered Dr Bhang’s words as the sun went down as did my high. “We have the kind of experience that not many people have with this plant. People see shops like mine becoming famous on social media and think this is a viable business opportunity but the responsibility of it often evades them.”
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If you’re struggling with addiction, you can visit the official website of SAMHSA’s National Helpline for treatment information.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the interviewees. VICE neither endorses nor encourages consumption of narcotics/psychotropic substances.