As winter retreats and spring comes blossoming with the scent of mango inflorescences, a flurry of festivity starts with Basant Panchami first and then Shivratri and Holi. With all these spring festivals steeped in the colours and flavours of the season, it is not surprising that the food during these festivals is also laced with flowers.
It is the festival of Shivratri, the day Shiva got married to Parvati, that brings a unique drink in season, especially in Varanasi, where Shiva is considered to have retreated forever. Street shops and spice markets in Old Varanasi are stocked with all the herbs and seeds that Shiva is said to love; while the flower shops bring his favourite flowers. Since Shiva prefers being drunk on bhang (cannabis), fresh leaves of bhang adorn the flower shops, along with aak (calotropis) flowers and the spiny fruits of datura (Datura stramonium) — all known for their hallucinogenic properties if prepared a certain way.
The way it’s done
The bhang ki thandai, a lesser potent hallucinogenic drink, is made with bhang on Shivratri. With hints of gulab and gulkhaira (rose and hollyhock) flowers, it is found in many thandai shops that pop up just for the day in the old parts of Varanasi.
One of my most memorable thandais was on the first Shivratri after my wedding at my husband’s uncle’s house. Located in the heart of Varanasi, they have a Shiva temple in the central courtyard. It was a community feast of thandai and falahar (grain-free satvik meal) that day. I got to speak with the maker and see how they painstakingly grind all the ingredients before straining the essence through a muslin cloth. The resulting beverage is rich and aromatic, heady with hints of bhang and tulsi.
In fact, in the old lanes of Varanasi, the puja samagri (ingredients for the ritual worship) sold in folded newspaper pouches, has all the ingredients of thandai, along with a small bottle of honey. Everyone going to Kashi Vishwanath gets this puja samagri along with flowers to give as an offering. In the homes where mahabhishekam of Shiva is performed, these ingredients are used to smear the shivalingam, before becoming the base for the panchamritam.
Season of goodness
This is how the season of Banarasi thandai begins. While some make it with bhang and datura along with nutritious seeds and nuts; most people make it without bhang or datura and enjoy the drink for its cooling and nourishing properties all through spring and summer. In fact, in summer, you might also find fruits in your glass.
Thandai is a well-balanced summer formula that is believed to treat ailments related to excessive body heat. In fact, most of its ingredients are nutritious. It has a base of nuts and seeds that act as a nerve tonic. The herbs, spices and flowers used are all reportedly cooling and hydrating.
Old-school thandai makers will never compromise on the process — they will grind everything fine on the silbatta (the flat stone mortar and pestle) and sieve this paste through a muslin, while diluting the mixture with either milk, water or juices of seasonal fruits.
It’s all about the base
The base is made with almonds, mixed melon seeds called chaar magaz, and poppy seeds. Cashew is often added to make the thandai smooth. Generous amounts of fennel, some green cardamom and a hint of black and white pepper are used to spice up the drink.
In Ayurveda, pepper is considered to make everything potent, so this warm spice, when used in the mix, is believed to increase its potency as a cooling and nourishing drink.
Seeds of kahu (Lactuca sativa), purslane (Portulaca oleracea), kasni (Cichorium intybus) and lotus are also added in some versions. Sometimes sandalwood powder or kaseru (Scirpus grossus) is added as well.
The flowers used in thandai can range from rose, marigold to hollyhock and jasmine. Marigold or jasmine thandai is made on special occasions like Holi or for auspicious family functions as well.
A version with fruit is made to surprise guests. Chopped pieces of mango or melons are added, or chunks of oranges along with some orange juice is added to make the drink more refreshing as a welcome drink. But you will rarely find thandai being served in tall glasses; it is best enjoyed in small portions.