I think everyone who drinks bhang or smokes ganja claims himself or herself to be a bhang doctor or ganja doctor. They all say that bhang and ganja have medicinal properties and that they’ve been used as medicine for thousands of years. Ayurveda, they say, confirms this (which is true). I’m not sure if any of them ever read anything related to bhang and ganja at all whether in some Veda or some medical journal but this does not prevent them from making pronouncements about the wonder drugs.

I did the same when I was addicted to bhang and ganja. They were cures for almost every ailment, I would say, and they had no side effects. I think I did this to justify my addiction. Many others do it for the same reason.

A lot of the people I know who are regular bhang drinkers also believe that if you drink a bit of bhang before sex you last really long and can give much pleasure to your partner. I can’t remember if that’s been the case with me. I rarely knew when I’d smoked ganja and when I’d drunk bhang. And I mostly was too far gone in any case.

One woman friend told me recently that she smokes a joint every day to feel relaxed after a day’s hard work. I asked if she, too, believed in its medicinal properties, and she replied that she did. “There are thousands of articles and videos on YouTube about this,” she said.

I’m not sure about thousands, but a search on the internet throws up hundreds of sites selling cannabis-infused oil and tablets for relaxation and sleep. Almost every ayurvedic doctor on the net or the physical world will tell you that the shastras and Puranas contain detailed information about the health benefits and the limitless curative properties of cannabis. But I wonder if it is really so. Because if this were indeed the case, why does Hanuman in the Ramayana fly across oceans and half a continent for the extremely rare Sanjeevani herb which, again, he could not identify and therefore uprooted an entire mountain?

Or could it be that the Sanjeevani herb was actually a special variety of bhang plant that grew in the Himalayas?

Well, in Odisha at least, it is a common belief that bhang is a wonder drug. Many and not just those who consume it also consider bhang-ganja to be a gift of the gods. And a gift fit for the gods. Perhaps that is why the government bhang shops in Odisha don’t have a notice outside telling people that consumption of bhang is injurious to health, or that it can cause psychological problems. On each bottle of alcohol and every packet of cigarettes, there are written warnings, often with graphic images of disease and death, about the dangers of consuming these products. But you don’t find any such warning on the bhang packets they sell.

To my mind, this is both good and sensible.

In every town and village of Odisha, you will find a Kabiraj. The dictionary defines Kabiraj as “an occupational title in the eastern Indian subcontinent”. A dictionary I consulted further explained that “in the olden days, people traditionally practising Ayurveda were generally called kabi or kobi in eastern India”.

The Kabirajes of Odisha are great believers in the health benefits of bhang and have a very strong following. They claim to cure everything from cold and cough to cancer and many people go to them for medical advice among them, a fair number of the high and mighty.

One of the oldest political leaders of the state has gone on television on several occasions to proclaim that there is nothing wrong in drinking bhang; in fact, it does him a whole lot of good. It helps him clear his bowels, for instance. Take a glass of lassi with some bhang, bel, ripe banana and cottage cheese at night, he says, and the shit comes out smooth and easy in the morning as a long, thick, beautiful turd. Reporters laugh at his funny interviews and people call him Bhang Aja Bhang Grandfather.

There are many ayurvedic clinics in Odisha that recommend bhang and ganja as medicine. I decided to call a few and visit them, if necessary, to interview them for the book. The first ayurvedic doctor I called refused to tell me for which treatment he used cannabis. He said I should do my own research, read all the shastras, to find out whether bhang and ganja had medicinal properties or not. He had no doubt that they did, but he wouldn’t agree to give me an interview on camera or even on the phone.

Visits to other such establishments yielded varying results: At a clinic in the centre of Bhubaneswar, I was told that cannabis does indeed have medicinal properties, but I should go do a Google search for details.

One clinic had ten or 15 images of various gods outside the entrance. Inside, a lady was doing a puja, ringing a little prayer bell. I waited for her to finish, then asked her if there was a doctor to whom I could speak about ayurvedic medicines. She replied that they no longer gave medicines, they only gave a relaxing ayurvedic massage and I must try one. When I asked if she knew anything about bhang and ganja being used as medicine, she said I should pray to any god of my choice for at least a few minutes every day and that would help me feel relaxed and have a good night’s sleep.

Another lady ayurvedic doctor had no hesitation in recommending bhang for sound sleep. She took a little bhang herself for the purpose, she said. Just a little, every evening. The shastras said many good things about bhang, I should study them. But bhang was not to be used directly as medicine; it had to be purified to take out all its harmful effects. Bhang was an important ingredient in traditional medicine, she said, and traditional medicine had cured millions of people of all kinds of ailments.

On calling another Ayurvedic clinic, I got an older, gravelly-voiced woman on the phone. Her father had been a vaidya, she told me, and after he died, she had continued his noble work. Her family had been dispensing Ayurvedic medicine for over 70 years. I asked her about bhang. “It has many good qualities,” she said without hesitation. “Bhang is used to make Nidrodaya Rasa for good sleep and also to purify the blood. We don’t use it, but it is used by many good people and many Ayurvedic medicine books mention its usage and contain formulas to make medicines with it.” Could I meet her for more information, I asked, to which she replied, “There are many books on the subject, you must read them. They are all available in the market or online.”

Another vaidya I called told me that his clinic had a long history. “It was started in 1872 by my great grandfather’s father, we have continued his legacy. Many shastras mention the medicinal properties of bhang and ganja. The herb is purified and the neurotoxins are taken out before it is used in medicines. But you see, a lot of people use it directly and get addicted to it, they use it as a drug, not as medicine. That is wrong.” He promised to send me a list of all the diseases that could be cured by cannabis, and share details about making various medicines. I waited for days, but nothing came from him.

The widespread belief in the curative properties of cannabis notwithstanding, in 2019, the Odisha government rejected proposals from pharmaceutical industries to allow the cultivation of cannabis, saying it might cause harm to the people. Ganja cultivation continues to be an illegal activity in the state.

On May 10, 2023, following a petition filed by a religious body, the Odia Language, Literature & Culture Department directed all district collectors and superintendents of police to ‘take necessary steps’ to prohibit the use of ganja in Shiva temples. “Restriction will be imposed on the use of Ganja in all the Shaivite temples of the state,” an official statement said.

I wonder if Lord Shiva approved

Excerpted with permission from Bhang Journeys: Stories, Histories, Trips and Travels, Akshaya Bahibala, Speaking Tiger Books.