What’s Up With India’s Obsession With Shilajit, the “Indian Viagra”?

Love and Sex

What’s Up With India’s Obsession With Shilajit, the “Indian Viagra”?

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

“Kesar… Kesar,” sounded a shrill voice in our ears. A sturdy man with a thick crop of hair on his head and over his lip, thrust a tiny box of saffron under our noses.

My husband and I were on a high despite our ugly oversized rental boots and the spacesuits that pass for ski-suits in this part of the country. We had just spent an hour on the fresh-snow-covered slopes of Gulaba, a tourist hotspot approximately 20 km from the Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh. The “Kesar… Kesar” had not caught us by surprise. As regular travellers to the Himalayas, we were prepared for the imminent shift in the man’s pitch. “Kesar” was just an alibi for what was to come next.

“Shilajit,” the man asked, in a low baritone. This time, his eyes sought out my husband’s. I was glad.

Shilajit is meant exclusively for the species that produces spermatozoa. Made from rock-tar found in the mountains, this wonder substance is believed to contain antitoxins, reduce inflammation, and most importantly, boost testosterone levels in men. Shilajit, generic sunrise point, and a yak ride are what memorable vacations in the mountains of North India are made of. If you haven’t been hounded by a Shilajit salesman on your travels in the high altitudes, chances are, aapne kuch dekha hi nahi.

Shilajit is basically a potion that promises a new lease of life for the shrivelled male libido. As if there is not already abundant male sexual desire running amok in our country, it’s one of the many potions and aphrodisiacs for men that stare at us from graffiti on walls, from notices inserted in newspapers, and from cards slipped under car door handles.

Shilajit is basically a potion that promises a new lease of life for the shrivelled male libido.

Antidotes for the anxious male libido are so plentiful that before a seeker can even say the “P” word… as in “performance”, a generous spread of cures is presented to him. Tabloids carry advertisements for “manhood enhancers”, while lizard juices and oils lure the male libido from inside tents administered by wizened males with long, err… beards. (“Mardaani takat” is a darkish liquid in an inch-long bottle.)

And then we have Shilajit vendors, who spring upon unsuspecting male tourists in the remotest of locations. Their marketing strategy is built on the premise that a vacation in the mountains calls for sterling performance in a hotel bed, which, again they assume, city-bred males are incapable of.

Our tryst with the elixir for stamina, vigour and vitality began years ago on our first trek to Binsar. My husband and I were younger, but the trek was arduous. The only thing that helped keep our spirits up was the promise of an uninterrupted view of the mighty Nanda Devi Peak. We had trekked through Deodar forests, with nothing but the sound of our footsteps on dry leaves for music. There was not another soul in sight. We had left behind the clatter of tourists at the start of the trek.

After a climb of three hours, we stood face to face with the snow-capped peak of Nanda Devi. Trying to untangle the mixed feelings of accomplishment and humility, we stood hand in hand. The silence echoed around us.

My husband’s self-esteem seemed to go downhill on the trek back, as the Shilajit dealer followed, still extolling the virtues of the potion he was selling.

“Shilajit?”

Startled, we spun around. There he stood. A man of medium build with a cloth bag slung over his shoulder. His outstretched hand held a small box.

Curious, I moved towards it. 

“Kesar,” he said in a shrill pitch, as I peered into the box of saffron. My husband too stepped forward. The man locked eyes with him. 

“Shilajit?” 

We looked away, but the man persisted. “Man power,” he said, in an accent usually reserved for foreigners. “How did you come up here,” my husband asked. “Walked up. Like you,” the man said, flashing a row of missing teeth.

A stony silence hung around us.

“Shilajit?” he said again.

“Don’t want,” my husband waved him off, clearly angry that the man had stolen our thunder. We had huffed and puffed our way up the mountain, and this man had just sauntered behind us.

“Shilajit,” he repeated. “For peak performance.”

My husband’s self-esteem seemed to go downhill on the trek back, as the Shilajit dealer followed, still extolling the virtues of the potion he was selling. “Sirji,” he pleaded. “Have it just once, and you will never be the same.” We paused a few seconds to take a breather. “You will never be short of breath,” the man said from behind us. “C’mon,” my husband urged me, suddenly breaking into a jog as if to prove a point. I smiled through my pursed lips.

The idea that a man must be at his peak performance is overtly woven into our social tapestry — a case in point is the overhyped suhaag raat scene from movies. I have watched so many of them that I know the scenes like the back of my hand. The bride sits with her knees touching her chin on a blanket of petals with the ghoonghat covering her face; The groom is pushed into the room by giggling girls; he sits on the edge of the bed and reaches for the glass of almond milk placed strategically on the bedside table. The lights go off. A few months later, she’s pregnant and the man twirls his moustache.

The idea that a man must be at his peak performance is overtly woven into our social tapestry — a case in point is the overhyped suhaag raat scene from movies.

These scenes always leave me curious — for one, did the man drink almond milk every night or was it only for the “first night”? Need I say how disappointed and confused I was on my wedding night? Disappointed that there was no glass of milk beside the bed, and confused because in its place sat a big brown coconut with a vermillion mark on it. (Evidently, it was the Sindhi lucky charm for male performance). Shilajit is just the tip.

Last March, on a balmy afternoon, husband and I took a walk along the path leading to the illustrious Khushwant Singh’s house in the quaint hill town of Kasauli. Lodged at the edge of a cliff, was the old bungalow, surrounded by a dense forest. The gate was ajar and no one was around. We entered.

A walk down a muddy trail led us to the front porch that clearly had not seen any activity in a while. A gardener caught our attention. We tried to seek some information about the late author and his life in the hills, but our curiosity was met with indifference. We made our way back to the gate. As we stepped out onto the road, a man appeared from nowhere. His cloth bag alerted us…

“Shilajit,” he said to my husband.

We let out a collective sigh. Years had passed, we’d greyed, our hill vacations had gone from mighty to mellow. But Shilajit had been a constant companion on all our getaways. This time, we greeted the salesman with the warmth of an old friend, before heading out on our way. After all, consistency is a virtue – far more valuable than “peak performance”.

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