From Roses and Indigo to Opium: The Enigma of Ghazipur

Editor’s Note: In this post, Dr Kawal Deep Kour shows the how the waning markets for rose attar and indigo positioned Ghazeepore, India, to take advantage of the emerging market for opium, and how attitudes towards production changed during the 19th century in response to the changing landscape of labor and colonialism.


Nestled within the orthogenetic city of Benaras, India, Ghazeepore (of the 19th century) was much like an entrepot or emporia without the spirit and brilliance of the former. Ghazeepore, developed independently though its attachment as a hinterland of Benaras, was valuable to the long-term growth under the British raj. But it was the accumulation of interconnected stories, as the social histories of roses, indigo and opium reveal, that facilitated the evolution of Ghazeepore as an influential city by the early 19th century.

By the mid-19th century, the presence and development of riverine and road routes had an enormous impact on the evolution of Ghazeepore as an important entrepotfor the reception and distribution of foreign and local merchandise. Although the significance of the riverine route was eclipsed by the construction of the East Indian Railway, Ghazeepore remained a great collection and distribution centre for the country north of the river Ganga.  It enabled most of the trade within this district, including Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Basti and Nepal. Ghazeepore considerably benefited from this development and a new chapter in the history of Ghazeepore began; its valuable ‘atta-gool’ (otto of roses) were  traded and it became the preferred site for the establishment of a British cantonment.

Towards the 19th century Ghazeepore became a part of the political project of the colonial regime. The city attained global celebrity for its fragrant attar of rose. Gradually, however, huge imports of attar from Persia and Adrianople (Turkey) replaced the attar of Ghazeepore, where production was greatly reduced. Many distilleries were closed and the world-renowned perfumery of Ghazeepore slowly faded into oblivion. Indigo production, which had already caught the fascination of the colonial government, now emerged as an attractive investment option.  Since 1789 the dispute between the indigo planters and peasants, especially at the plantation of Messrs Gilchrist and Charters of Ghazeepore, only served to exacerbate the tensions between the colonial and the ruled. What began as a commercial dispute over revenue payments for lands leased from the local rulers for the cultivation of indigo, soon snowballed into a major controversy over coercive and manipulative tendencies applied by the planters. For no matter how hard the colonial government tried to portray that the indigo plantations and factories were improving the incomes and thus the lives of the farmers,  their exploitative tendencies created disrepute and distrust. Increasing resistance from the cultivators of indigo resulted in a partial migration of the indigo industry to the European colonies until the invention of the synthetic dye led to a total collapse of the natural dye market. The majority of the indigo factories were subsequently either sold or closed.

The disappearance of indigo, by the mid-19th century onwards, also occurred in part due to opium. Indigo cultivation was the first instance of corporatisation of Indian agriculture. Huge British capital investments in this cash crop blazed a trail for future investments in a precious commodity that was valued more than gold and silver: opium. For Ghazeepore, the intertwined interests of colonial capital, science, and opium would ensure its renaissance as the City of Black and Gold.

Ghazeepore became the seat of opium culture in India. Fields of red and white poppies adorned the banks of the river Ganga- ‘a field more fateful than many a battlefield,’ as a British military officer chose to describe it and rightly so. The opium factory at Ghazeepore was set up in 1820. The factory enabled an exclusive colonial monopoly of the production and trade of opium.  The opium city at Ghazeepore became a metaphor for the union of capital and science completed by dextrous hands – sieving, carding, and rolling opium – and served to perpetuate the two-fold motive of cachet and control. Given the volatility of the commercial operations surrounding opium, it unravelled the city fabric which spawned as a bastion of aspirations and nightmares.

The ‘Sudder’ opium factory at Ghazipur-

On the banks of the Ganges, forty miles below Benaras, as the crow flies, stands the Ghazipur Factory, an opium mint, as it were, whence issue the precious cakes that are to replenish the coffers of the Indian Government

Rudyard Kipling, In an opium factory

English poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) had been invited by the Opium Superintendent at Ghazipur opium factory to a tour of the facilities. Kipling’s account, In an Opium Factory, is strewn with interesting glimpses into the life inside the opium factory and the anatomy of opium manufacturing with all its intricacies. The architecture of the opium factory followed from the specific requirements for the processing of raw paste of opium into opium balls of a certain weight and size.  The opium factory was a purpose-built place of production and architectural flair was certainly not a priority. The Ghazipur opium factory came to embody early Victorian modernity and efficiency minus the grandeur. The factory was initially located within the enclosure of a charitable dispensary and later moved to a building within the jail compound. The present site was selected in the year 1820 when larger premises were necessitated by the increased out-turn and the consequent expansion of operations. It manufactured provision opium meant for export to China and the abkari, excise opium, and Bengal opium for sale to the local retail licensed vendors and medicinal opium.

Official correspondences from the mid-19th century indicate that ‘Bengal opium’ was competing with Malwa opium in addition to Smyrna opium (opium from Turkey) for supremacy. The colonial quest for producing the best quality of provision opium led to innovations and experiments and the result was the establishment of the Sudder opium factories at Patna and Ghazipur.

The history of the Ghazipur opium factory is a narrative of the materialization of the opium monopoly in the 19th century. It became an embodiment of the intersecting stories and intoxicating connotations of colonial commerce, science, and a thriving narcotic culture that existed in India, centuries before the British ventured into the land. The opium monopoly brought riches to the imperial colonist while it caused a heartache to those for whom opium eating and smoking was a way of life. The system of auction and rationing of opium for use had generated great anxiety and torment among the opium traders of the native states; the Malwa region particularly, and the hundred and thousands of opium users who lamented interference in local customs and traditions centring around opium. What they also resented was the ‘Opium Service’; the establishment of the Sudder opium factories at Ghazipur and Patna, and their subsequent innovations, experiments and expansion, which gave rise to an opium bureaucracy.

The position of the opium agent and that of the factory superintendent, along with other official appointments in the Opium Service, were coveted and came with alluring perks and incentives. It appears that the post of the opium agent was a sought-after appointment with an extensive charge and a high salary. In March 1875, John Henry Rivett Carnac (1839-1923) took charge of the Benaras opium agency, with its headquarters at Ghazipur. In his autobiography, Memories of Life in India, at Home, and Abroad John Henry Rivett Carnac describes the incentives and perks which came along with his post. This explains the political lobbying and wrangling for appointments within the Opium service. This was particularly evident when the opium agents and the British officers vociferously protested to allow the employment of natives in the higher positions in opium department and decision of the Government to introduce open competition for appointments to the Opium Service. They were to follow the manuals of the Opium Department regarding the administration of the opium factory and deviance from the rules was not tolerated.

Upon the prohibition of opium trade and the evolution of international narcotics regulation and control, the manufacture of alkaloids of opium such as anarcotine, morphia etc., increased and was shipped to London – as documented in the official correspondences of the late 19th and early 20th century. Post-independence, a host of changes – social, economic, and political – brought changes to the Ghazipur opium factory (GOF) and the Government Opium and Alkaloid Works (GOAW). The All-India Opium Conference of 1949 followed by the All-India Narcotics Conference of 1956 determined the ‘philosophy of manufactures’ at the GOAW. Stringent national legislation derived from international treaties and conventions drastically modified the terms and conditions of the production and manufacture of opium. As the opium mint at Ghazipur completed two hundred years of existence in the year 2020, the factory is facing its own set of challenges; aging infrastructure, decreased output, lackadaisical quality control, pollution issues, and stiff competition from countries such as Turkey and Tasmania. This has led to interventions by the Government of India to revamp the biggest opium factory in Asia. Its continued importance is immense; it supplies the vital ingredients for analgesics, but the opium factory has since witnessed a ‘sea of change.’

In a bid to boost supplies and regain its place in the international market, in 2008 the Government contemplated private sector participation in opium processing. Pharmaceutical companies such as Ranbaxy, Dr Reddy’s Lab and Cipla were believed to have expressed their interest. To increase the pace of supplies of crude opium, foreign players were (for the first time) permitted to enter the opium processing sector. This saw bidders from across Spain, Hungary, and the UK, in alliance with Indian pharmaceuticals. In 2018, the Government issued a licence to Rusan Pharma, and thus began the first step towards privatisation of poppy cultivation and extraction of narcotic raw material.

It will be interesting to observe and understand  how the Government Opium and Alkaloid Works (GOAW) at Ghazipur intends to level up. Will the legacy of Ghazipur opium factory survive competition from private players or will it gradually fade into oblivion? As the surviving example of connection between the manufacturing of opium and the architecture of imperial trade, a very important story needs to be heard from the ‘voices from the factory floor’  – their experiences, their feelings, their lives in the factory and beyond, aspirations and expectations, conflicts, turmoil, individual and collective actions, and its implications on the operations of the Ghazipur opium factory in the past, present and future. These individual stories will make a formidable narrative and are yet to be uncovered.


Feature image photocredit: Corina Ardeleanu

Kawal Kour
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Kawal Deep Kour is a Prevention Specialist, currently heading the South Asian Drugs and Addictions Research Council, India. She completed her doctorate from Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, India and her thesis, History of Intoxication: Opium in Assam, 1800-1959 was published by Routledge in 2019.

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