Thandai: the summer drink that celebrates the spirit of Holi

The festival of Holi is all about letting go and celebrating. Vibrant colours are flung into the air, white kurtas become canvases for splashes of coloured water and fistfuls of bright-hued powder, and everyone from little children and parents to grandparents join in the fun. If there’s one drink that embodies this carefree spirit of Holi, it is the much-loved thandai. 

Made with an indulgent mix of nuts and fragrant spices like almonds, poppy seeds, fennel, pepper and cardamom with milk and sugar, and of course, often laced with bhang, for that signature kick, thandai is the flavour of the season whenever you think of Holi.

Where did thandai come from? 

While it is Holi that thandai is associated with, the drink is originally said to be had during Mahashivratri–the day that Shiva got married to Parvati, which falls just a few weeks before the festival of colours. Legend has it that bhang—a paste made with soaked cannabis leaves, is consumed on Holi to celebrate Lord Shiva’s return to a family life (grihastya) from his life as an ascetic (vairagya). According to writer and culinary expert Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, the drink may also be popular due to its cooling effects. “Often the foods we consume during festivals have ayurvedic benefits and help inoculate against things like changing seasons,” she says. Holi falls at a time when most parts of the country are transitioning from winter to summer. Thandai, as the name suggests, is meant to bring respite from the summer heat. All of its elements are geared towards preparing the body for these changes. “The saunf acts as a coolant against slowly rising temperatures, while the black pepper warms the body for the last bit of winter,” says chef and TV show host Ranveer

What’s the connection between thandai and bhang?

Colourful hands holding a cup of thandai. Photo: amlanmathur

While every ingredient has its own role to play, the star of the show is undoubtedly bhang. In the month of March, with Mahashivratri and Holi occurring in close succession, shops and markets across Varanasi, the holy city where Shiva is said to have retreated to forever, carry all of Shiva’s favourite seeds, herbs and flowers—from fresh cannabis leaves to aak flowers and fruits like datura, all of which can be intoxicating depending on how they are prepared. The ‘special thandai’, that is sold in shops across central India is laced with a paste of soaked cannabis leaves. While non-bhang varieties are available, it is this version of thandai that is most popular with people.

It is believed that Shiva consumed bhang to deepen his inner focus and use his divine powers to better the world. Cannabis also finds a place in the Hindu text Atharva Veda, where it is named one of the five most sacred plants on earth and referred to as a ‘liberator’. “If you go to eastern UP, you will realise that Holi has always meant a little bit of madness,” says Brar. “The whole idea of bura na mano holi hai, is all about being uninhibited. Bhang would probably be the catalyst to that uninhibited spirit.” In fact, in the crowded lanes of old Varanasi, puja essentials sold to pilgrims visiting the Kashi Vishwanath temple contain all the ingredients for thandai, including bhang. 

Today, thandai takes many forms even without the bhang–from thandai-flavoured kulfis to cheesecakes, chocolates and macarons. Even in UP and Benaras, street shops experiment with the traditional drink, building on the foundation of nuts and spices with fruits like the season’s special mangoes and flavours like rose and saffron. But for most, the traditional thandai holds a special place, chef Ranveer Brar included. “The new versions are all good beverages, but as a Holi drink, I prefer the classic thandai.”

Famous thandai shops in India

When in Varanasi, Badal Thandai and Baba Thandai on Godowlia Road are renowned for their special bhang thandai. In Mumbai, Anando Foods, a dairy parlour in Chowpatty serves a classic thandai on Holi, while Pure Milk Center in Ghatkopar has it on the menu all year-round. And if you’re in Delhi, you can find thandai at any of the Hira Sweets outlets or head to Gopal di Kulfiin Karol Bagh for the classic cooler. 

Better still, try making it at home with this recipe.

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