When Ankur*, a 27-year-old IT professional, tried a bhang ka gola at the insistence of his roommates, he couldn’t feel anything at first. After half an hour, he felt time slow down. The music sounded more melodious; food tasted more delicious. “I had never tried an intoxicant before. I ended up chanting ‘ meri toh gaand phat gayi’ for the rest of the night,” said Ankur, who began regularly eating bhang golis before starting to smoke weed.
Power Bhola, Bhola Ka Gola, Shree Bhola Munakka, Tarang, Lehar, Sanan, Mastana, Mahakal, Mahashakti, Mahadev or Munnaka No.1 are some of the most popular brands of bhang goli—an Ayurvedic digestive containing a percentage of bhang—which is available for Rs. 2 at many neighbourhood paanwallahs. A cheap and easy high, every once in awhile, the mixture of cannabis, spices and herbs rolled into a chewy, greenish-black ball makes it to alarmed news stories as a gateway drug for kids across the country.
Though there are songs dedicated to gola, there is still a lot of confusion about whether it is legal. Internet forums are full of threads asking whether it can be rolled into a joint (no), and if it’s allowed on domestic flights (yes, if you have a certificate from doctor, according to an airport official we spoke to).
The consumption of marijuana is banned under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985. However, the usage of bhang is governed by the National Policy on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, which acknowledges that the “production and sale of Bhang is permitted by many State Governments.” Every state has its own policy on licensing and and quota for distribution, some earning lakhs by taxation on it.
Controversies around bhang gola crop up from time to time. In 2006, three kids were hospitalised in Allahabad after consuming Madhur Munakka. There have been cases in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and Madhya Pradesh. In 2013, four students at a reputed school in Port Blair were expelled for coming to class in an intoxicated state after consuming Lehari Munakka. The product was subsequently banned in Andaman and Nicobar.
Shashi Nath, who sells Bhola, says consumers come from every section of the society. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan
“The consumers of Bhola”— as it’s colloquially called — “come from every section of the society, said Shashi Kanth, who sells it at his paan shop in the narrow lanes of Delhi’s Katwaria Sarai. “It is consumed by students, labourers and housewives. People even take it for their families. Even IAS officers have come to my shop to buy it. If you have a goli an hour before your meal, it will do wonders to your your digestion.” Kanth sells around 30 packets a day. “My most regular customer is a showroom guard in Adhchini, who sometimes buys 20 packets in a go,” he said.
Moin Haq*, who plies his rickshaw in Delhi’s Paharganj area, said he prefers bhang goli because alcohol is prohibited in Islam. “It’s also much cheaper and safer than the liquor that most people here have. I haven’t felt any side-effects, apart from eating too much. It costs just two rupees, but it’s magic.” Haq sometimes takes two, as one goli isn’t enough anymore.
In Delhi, salesmen bring packets from wholesale dealers in Khari Baoli, the spice market in the old city, to paanwallahs. Brand availability varies by region, but one of the most popular packets in the capital is Shree Bhola, which is made by Saraswat Pharmaceuticals in Allahabad. Most manufacturers are single-owned Ayurvedic pharmas with names like Shukla Ayurvedic Pharmacy, Tarang Pharma, A.N. Pharmaceuticals and AKG (Anil Kumar Gupta) Fragrances.
Salesmen bring packets from wholesale dealers in Khari Baoli in Delhi's old city. Image: Zeyad Masroor Khan
Around 20 manufacturers are located in Indore, according to Anil Mehta, the owner of Mehta Ayurvedic Sansthan, which makes Sanan Munakka. “It is the main hub,” Mehta said over the phone. He told me he’s never had bhang in his life and created the formula for his goli “by talking to people, having connoisseurs taste it and reading Ayurvedic texts like Bhav Prakash Nighantu and Rastantra Sar.” Formulations for medicinal preparations involving bhang (sometimes called Vijaya) are also compiled in the Ayurvedic Formulary of India. “Bhang has been in India since ancient times. It is the favourite thing of Lord Shiva,” said Mehta—hence the name Bhola, for Bholenath.
Mehta’s “secret formula” includes dates, triphala, munakka (a kind of raisin), sugar, jaggery, a little bit of salt and pepper, and of course, bhang. He also makes digestive tablets, medicines and a dry fruit powder mixed with bhang. “These is too much competition in this business, so you need to innovate regularly to survive”, said Mehta, who has been in the business for 32 years. He’s also fought legal battles to keep his brand afloat. “There was a case filed against us by some people who want to extract some money from us through blackmail. We later won the case,” said Mehta. In a court case in Bombay High Court in 2002, a man distributing bhang tablets claimed he got a licence from Mehta Ayurvedic Sansthan.
“Bhola is everywhere,” said Babu Rao, the manager of manufacturing and distribution at Mehta Ayurvedic Sansthan. The 50-year-old explained that “It’s simple to make. You just take the ingredients, mix them with dough of flours such as bati or siyon.” The dough is cut into small balls, packed and sent to different corners of the country.
Rao explained that manufacturers can’t “overshoot the annual and monthly quota” specified by the state government. Ram Bhog Vyas, head clerk at Indore’s Excise Department told VICE the department keeps tabs on bhang production. “There are different quotas of the manufacturing units based on the required consumption, which is then distributed through 23 bhang shops in the city. The quota is generally 1,200 kg per year for a big unit or 600 kg per year for a smaller one.” According to Vyas, the total consumption of bhang in various forms in Indore last financial year was 21,623 kg. Bhang within the quota is priced at Rs. 100 per kg. If the manufacturer exceeds the quota, he’s charged Rs. 300 per kg for the excess bhang.
Bhola manufacturers say they get bhang from government-authorised shops. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Babu Rao believes any controversy around gola is due to people taking more than they should. “If a doctor prescribes you one sleeping pill and you have five, how would it work?” he said. If taken in moderation, he said, bhang goli is good for digestion, stamina and good sleep. “Sex toh bahut powerful ho jata hai isse,” he claimed.
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