More Bhang for Your Buck. High Times in Varanasi

bhang-lassi-6

Photo: Tom Maisey

I’d been curious about the use of mind altering agents in Indian culture for a while. Hippies had India firmly on their trail so I was guessing this was linked to the availability of substances that were illegal at home. Cannabis is technically illegal in India, but often deeply spiritual states of mind are achieved through it’s use. Rastafarian style.

Then, researching my upcoming trip to Varanasi I stubbed up on a drink that is very popular in the sacred city. It’s called Bhang.

According to Wikipedia “Bhang has been used in India since Vedic times, and is an integral part of North Indian culture. Sadhus and Sufis use bhang to boost meditation and to achieve transcendental states. Bhang or cannabis is also used amongst Sufis as an aid to spiritual ecstasy“.

“Anywhere on the ghats, one can find large number of men engaged in the process of preparing bhang. Using mortar and pestle, the buds and leaves of cannabis are ground into a paste. To this mixture, milk, gheeand spices are added. The bhang base is now ready to be made into a heavy drink, thandai, an alternative to alcohol; this is often referred to casually, if inaccurately[citation needed], as a “bhang thandai” and “bhang lassi“. Bhang is also mixed with ghee and sugar to make a purple halva, and into peppery, chewy little balls called ‘golee’ (which in this context means candy or pill in Hindi)”.

According to http://blog.aaobihar.com

“Associated with Lord Shiva, bhang has now become synonymous with holi. To the extent that bhang drinks have now become an official Holi drink.

Culled from the leaves and buds of cannabis – the very intoxicating bhang helps to escalate the spirit of holi – a festival which does not recognise any restrictions. Lip smacking thandai, pakoras and vadas, all having bhang as a very essential ingredient, are savoured by all on the day.

Bhang Preparations in Banaras

bhang
The tradition of consuming bhang on holi is particularly rampant in North India where holi itself is celebrated with a gusto unseen anywhere else. But, the hub of bhang is Varanasi or Banaras, the land of Shiva worship, where bhang is prepared on its famous ghats.
Anywhere on the ghats one can find large number of men engaged in the process of preparing bhang. Using mortar and a pestle, the buds and leaves of Cannabis are squashed and ground into a green paste. To this mixture milk, ghee, and spices are added. The bhang base is now ready to be made into a nutritious, refreshing drink – Thandai, a healthy alternative to alcohol. Bhang is also mixed with ghee and sugar to make a tasty green halva, and into peppery, chewy little balls called ‘golees’. 

A Brief History of Bhang

Indian-Sadhu,-varanasi-2349

Bhang was first used as an intoxicant in India around 1000 BC and soon became an integral part of Hindu culture. In the ancient text Artharvaveda, Bhang is described as a beneficial herb that “releases anxiety”. Bhang preparations were sacred to Gods, particularly Shiva. One of Shiva’s epithets was “Lord of Bhang” as he is said to have discovered the transcendental properties of the mixture.In imitation of Shiva, many sadhus use Bhang to boost meditation and achieve transcendental states. Besides, Bhang or cannabis is also believed to be popular amongst Sufis as an aid to spiritual ecstasy since a long time.

Hot Buttered BhangRecipe

Ingredients
half a cube (1/8 pound) of butter or ghee
1/3 – 1/2 oz. Of Marijuana Leaves
8 ounces of Vodka
1-2 pinches Cardamom seed
honey

Method

In a pan, melt the butter or ghee. Break up the marijuana leaves into the pan. Once the butter and leaves are hot and sizzling, add in 8 ounces of vodka. Be careful that the hot butter doesn’t make the mixture splatter. Pour the Vodka in swiftly to avoid problems. Continue boiling the mixture for roughly 30 more seconds, stirring simultaneously. Add a pinch or two or powdered cardamom seed while boiling.

Once mixture has been boiled to desired amount, strain the fluids and mash the contents through a strainer. You should use a tool like a spoon to try and squeeze all the juices out. Throw away the mush, or reboil to try and bet more juices out. Pour the liquid into two 4 ounce wine glasses.

This Recipe serves two people. This is an extremely efficient method for extracting the THC. Add honey to taste and enjoy as a hot chocolate-esque Drink!

The effects of the recipe will be felt within 15 withings. Prepare to have a good time!

 

 

Must Do’s In Delhi? Tell me about the food!

Nearly 10 million people wake up in Delhi every morning. They go about their daily lives familiar in their surroundings. We’ll be stepping onto Indian soil for the very first time in Delhi, knowing nothing. Like newborns with the benefit of clear vision. I’m excited, but nervous. A friend of mine, who visited Calcutta for the first time, said that the trip from the airport to his hotel was so overwhelming that he was reduced to tears. Is this the effect Delhi will have on us?

We need a loose plan of what to do for the short 2 day visit. According to Lonely Planet, below are 20 great things to do in India’s capital. We aren’t good at sight seeing. We like to get in amongst it. Meeting people, chatting, sharing and making friends. There’s no better way to do this, in our experience, than over food and an ice cold drink.

So let’s open this up. If you’ve got any suggestions we are completely open. Bars, restaurants, street vendors, locations. We arrive at 6am and are going to be hit the city running. Cramming in as many experiences as we can.

1. Try Dilli-ki-Chaat – Delhi’s tangy local street food, such as chaat papdi (fried wafers loaded with potatoes, chickpeas, yoghurt and chilli) or golgappas (fried hollow dough filled with chickpeas and spicy potatoes), in Old Delhi

Picture2

2. Visit the great sandstone carcass of the Red Fort, and imagine the last days of the Mughal empire and the British era.

3.  Humayun’s Tomb combines Persian style with local craftsmanship, and is surrounded by the fiercely symmetrical Mughal gardens: take a stroll here at dusk.

4. Hear qawwalis (devotional music) sung at dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya; religious songs resounding at around sunset at one of Islam’s holiest tombs.

5. A trip through the doors of the Imperial hotel is like a voyage back into the days of the Raj, with polished hallways hung with chandeliers and works of art. Drink a G&T in its 1911 bar.

6. Lose yourself to shopping, in the temples to Indian craft that are Delhi’s government emporiums on Janpath, close to Connaught Place.

7. Get lost and confused in the narrow bazaars of Old Delhi, and feel like you’ve wandered somewhere medieval.

8. Ride on the Delhi metro: so cheap, so clean, so democratic, unlike the other world upstairs.

9. Get a suit made in Khan Market – take one to copy and get made-to-measure at a fraction of the cost of Savile Row.

10. Visit the former home of Indira Gandhi, Indira Gandhi Smriti, where she was shot dead by one of her bodyguards in 1984, and learn about India’s most powerful dynasty.

11. Wander around Lodhi Gardens on a Sunday afternoon, the perfect place for people watching.

12. Discover the district of Hauz Khas, with its crumbling Mughal tombs and tempting art, antique and fashion boutiques.

13. Chow down on scrumptious masala dosas at the Janpath branch of Saravana Bhavan, and finish your meal with a deliciously gritty south Indian coffee.

dosa-Paneer-Butter-Masala-Dosa

14. Use the map from William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns for a different way to explore the city.

15. Eat a great Gujarati thali at pristine Rajdhani, opposite Rivoli cinema, just off Connaught Place.

traditional-gujarati-thali

16. Shop middle-class Delhiite-style at laid-back Khan Market, browsing its bookshops and hanging out for a chat at Café Turtle, fuelled by coffee and gooey cake.

17. Take a trip out to peaceful Qutb Minar, with its towering minaret resembling an ornate factory chimney.

18. Wind up at the Jama Masjid, climb the mosque’s minaret, then enjoy a classic non-veg meal at nearby culinary institutions Karim’s or Al-Jawahar, famous for their roasted meat kebabs.

gilafi

Cameras. Sony all the way.

Sony-Logo.jpg

There’s no hiding the fact that I love taking pictures. Of people primarily. So I’m especially excited to be getting the opportunity to photograph in one of the most diverse and interesting places on the planet.

The Sony’s are beautiful cameras. Small and light, with exceptional low light performance and unbelievable image quality. The compact RX100 even has 4K video!

I’ll be taking the following gear;

Sony a7rII camera body
Sony RX100 Mk4 compact camera
Sony 70-200 f4 lens
Sony 55mm f1.8 lens
Sony 35mm f1.4 lens
Viogtlander 15mm f4.5

The DJI Phantom Professional drone is unlikely to come on the trip because of Indian laws. Great pity, as there are some absolutely unbelievable images to be captured from above.

I’ll be taking pictures from start to finish, and, internet willing, will upload to here everyday. In a country that isn’t short of pictures of iconic palaces, I’ll be trying to avoid adding to that catalogue. Rather, I’ll try to put how India is touching me into my pictures.

Opulence amongst poverty. Guilty pleasures

It’s our first trip to India, so we aren’t taking any chances with where we’re staying. The hotels are our insurance policy. Safe havens from the unknown. Sanctuaries from the visceral poverty we are expecting to see. But part of an Indian reality all the same. Once we  learn the ropes and become aquatinted the realities of being in modern India, we can downscale.

Delhi. The Imperial Hotel.

We are starting as we’d like to carry on, if we could afford to! Anyway, given that it’s our first time to India we are starting the trip with some unbridled luxury.

We have no idea what to expect when we arrive, so have booked a trip around the best parts of Old Delhi to break ourselves in gently. If it’s all too overwhelming we can escape back to a sanctuary of peace, cleanliness and luxury.

Once we’ve toughened ourselves up a bit we are staying in more authentic locations that won’t be so glamorous!

Varanasi. Shiva Ganges View.

This is our venue for the first couple of nights in Varanasi. Right on the banks of the holy River Ganges. Right in the heart of where it’s all happening. We’ve hired a local to show us around the best parts, trying to avoid the really touristy areas.

shiva-ganges-viewshiva-ganges-view-1


Varanasi. Nadaser Palace

In case the Shiva Ganges View is a little too authentic, another bolt hole of luxury.


Aman Homestay. Agra.

Time to hang out with a local family in Agra. Looking forward to meeting the family and getting some cooking tips! While we are in Agra the Taj Mahal visit is the obvious main attraction. But getting to know a few local people and fellow travellers will be interesting too.


Jaipur. Samode Haveli.

Jaipur is called the Pink City. Lots to do and see.


Samode. Samode Palace Hotel.

What can I say. It looks amazing. This is one of the most beautiful hotels in Rajasthan. It’s owned by the same people who own the Haveli, but this is up in the hills, so quieter and cooler. Only 43 rooms.


Shahpura. Shahpura Bagh Homestay

Our penultimate last stop is to hang out with a local Maharaja. He owns this home stay as well as the local village. Old colonial style. I hope that the village isn’t.


Udaipur. Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel

Our first couple of nights in Udaipur are here. On the banks of the lake, near the town.


Udaipur. Lake Palace

Not too much to say about this hotel. It is breathtaking. One of the best hotels in the world. A once in a lifetime experience. It’s where our trip comes to an end. And what a place to end it!

India’s Siren Call Has Finally Lured Me.

DSC09392-Edit

For nearly 50 years India has been subtly and gently beckoning me. Her intoxicating allure has been slowly increasing and drawing me towards her. The method of delivery fuelling this increasing fascination has been…food.

India’s chief recruiter to the delights of her cuisine has been, one Madhur Jaffrey. Her textbook of addiction, called, innocently enough, Indian Cookery. Machiavelli’s little book also had an innocent title, but both, I know, have been used to alter mens lives forever.

12745463_1134868593224035_1326865671818634519_n

I’ve had this innocuous looking collection of recipes since I was about 20. As with any addiction, I was lured in slowly. Innocent looking Indian home style cooking started the fascination. A simple potato and boiled egg curry to start. Moving to the stronger and more addictive combinations . Soon I was hooked. I’ve been an increasingly regular user over the years. To the point that I have been infused with the gastronomy of India to the point of zero resistance. So I had no choice but to finally visit the country that had so persuasively and totally won me over.

So, I am finally travelling to experience India’s bewildering profusion of humanity, geography, culture, sights, smells, sensations and  tastes.

I’m travelling with an open mind, but given that I’m a westerner, relatively cosseted through a lifetime of easy living, I wonder if that’s enough. I’ve never been starving, poor, or homeless. As random and capricious as the location of your birth is, I was fortunate enough to be delivered into a first world county. I’ve had the advantage of plentiful food, good health and well paid employment, in peaceful and politically stable countries. I was born in the UK, and for the last 16 years, living the dream in Perth, Western Australia.

My life is probably as inconceivable for the teeming masses of impoverished Indian citizens as their lives are to me. I’m hoping that my trip will allow me a some insight and understanding into their everyday reality. Will I have any shared cultural references that will help me understand their lives? Or will my ethnocentricity leave me completely oblivious to an understanding of their existence?

I’ve seen countless travel and cooking shows, as well as movies set in India. It looks utterly amazing. Packed to the rickety rafters with people. Culture and history stupendously rich, but impossible to monetise to the benefit of the mass of it’s population.

It also looks filthy, desperately poor, run down and chaotic. The demands of over a billion souls overwhelming the ability of politicians and bureaucrats to manage the everyday requirements of  essential necessities that we take for granted. Housing, electricity, food, education, sanitation and health.

The trip has been masterfully arranged by my brilliant wife, Sara. She has spent the last year researching every possible option. From where to go, where to stay, what to do, where to eat and who to take us around. Without her drive, the trip would have remained a pipe dream of an intoxicated addict (me), stupefied by the delights and complexities of India food.

Our Itinerary.

March 13th. Arrive in Delhi. 2 nights in the The Imperial Hotel.

Dinner in the Spice Route restaurant.

Tour off the beaten track in old Delhi.

March 15th. Arrive in Varanasi. 2 nights in the Shiva Ganges View. 2 nights in Nadaser Palace.

Guided by a local for 2 days.

Night Ganges river boat tour

March 19th. Arrive in Agra. 2 nights staying in the Aman Homestay.

Taj Mahal, dawn and dusk

March 21st. Arrive in Jaipur. Staying at the Samode Haveli.

Cooking Class

March 24th. Arrive Samode. Samode Palace Hotel.

March 25th. Arrive Shahpura. Staying at the Shahpura Bagh Homestay.

Hang out with the Maharaja in the village that he ownes.

March 27th. Arrive Udaipur. Staying 2 nights at the Jagat Niwas Palace Hotel. 2 nights in the Taj Lake Palace Hotel.