Much like a hugely gentler version of the Purge, Holi is the one day of the year in which cannabis becomes socially acceptable in India. A popular staple of the festival is bhang, a ground and cooked mash of cannabis leaves and flowers. This is usually stirred into thandai, milk with a concentrated mixture of crushed cashews and almonds, peppercorn and cardamom, and different seeds, like melon, poppy and fennel.
Holi in northern India brings people of all backgrounds together to drink from the same cup and throw coloured powder (and, occasionally, bodily fluids) at each other. Even your teetotaling temple priest yearns for some afternoon delight. On the day before the revelry began this year, at the end of last week, VICE visited "Theka Bhang", one of the few government-licensed bhang shops in the country. Located in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, just outside the Delhi state line, Theka Bhang has been open seven days a week for about 30 years.
Ankit Jaiswal, a younger member of the family that owns the shop, told us that on a usual day he gets about 20 to 30 customers, mostly ayurvedic doctors or people using bhang for medicinal purposes. At five to ten rupees a goli (bhang mixed with ghee and sugar to form a little ball), it is cheaper than anything else "beneficial for people who overthink", says Jaiswal. Obviously, the shop is not the family’s main source of income.
Holi is much busier, with over 100 walk-ins, as well as large orders from multinational corporations holding big events for their staff. The shop also supplies to politicians: Jaiswal said they had just sent a batch to the Uttar Pradesh state house and Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential residence. "Everyone celebrates," said Jaiswal. "It’s not Holi without laughter and joking."
But is everyone celebrating?
A 65-year-old retired civil servant, Shreekrishna Dhadse, had come by to pick up a baggie for his family party while we were talking to Jaiswal. He said the women of his family drink it, too, as well as some of the kids – to an extent. "All the old people and grown-ups [drink it]," he said. "Kids might taste a little. But generally their parents don't allow it."
"I come once a year," Dhadse told us. "We start cooking two or three days earlier, with special dishes like gujiya, papdi, shakar pare, besan ke laddo, namkeen puri…" (Basically, a bunch of sweets and fried things.)
We asked him what makes bhang so enjoyable. "Whatever mood you’re in, that’s the mood you’ll continue in," he replied. "If you’re laughing, you’ll keep laughing. If you’re crying, maybe you remembered something sad, you'll keep crying. You don’t know what you’re doing. The thing with wine and alcohol is that you’re still conscious. Not with bhang. And it lasts for 24 hours. And you feel like eating a lot of sweets."
Dhadse believes the festival has become more restrained compared to when he was a child. "People try to save water, so they use dry colour [powder]," he said. "They don’t fling mud so much. And they don’t force people to play – now, it’s more like playing with people you know."
For Gautam Aggarwal, a retired journalist – who also spent two years as a wandering mendicant – coming to this particular bhang shop is key to a tension-free Holi. "This is the only surviving government-licensed shop in the area," he said. "You're very sure the bhang is clean." And with family and friends getting high together, "you don’t want bad trips".
Though the celebratory part of Holi hadn’t officially started, several people had already started celebrating when we visited the shop. Ramdas Pookot, a senior general manager in a transport and logistics company, had just thrown a Holi pre-party for his 300 employees. "I'm a leader and I have to give inspiration to my followers," he said. "As a leader, my followers should not follow behind me, because god has given eyes in the front. The followers should move in front, and the leader follow behind."
After dispensing some more management wisdom, Pookot moved on with his small bag of bhang. "I'm taking it for my son," he said. “"He’s a Shiva bhakta and he wants to make thandai. We’ll drink together, we’re just like friends."
In the gully outside the shop, rickshaw pullers and college students mingled with priests and tailors while children threw water balloons at approaching customers from a nearby balcony. Before returning to deal with the throng of men at his counter, Jaiswal told us he thought marijuana would eventually be legalised in India, and be more widely available than at his shop.
"But there are so many other basic issues here," he said, "like khap panchayats [regressive local authorities], LGBT rights – basic natural rights."
Weed could wait. And there's always Holi.