Cannabis Consumption in India: A History

Editor’s Note: In her latest post for Points Kawal Deep Kour resurrects a past editorial feature: ‘Cannabis: Global Histories‘. She contributes to this rich history by outlining the multitudinous roles and affordances of cannabis within Indian cultures.


Much before the Irish physician Sir William Brooke O Shaughnessy (1808-1889) introduced cannabis into Western medicine sometime around the mid-nineteenth century, Ganja (hemp) had already been part of India’s living culture as medicine and an intoxicating agent – even before 1000 B.C. The use of hemp in India was also mentioned by Jewish physician Garcia de Orta in 1563 and subsequently by the Dutch administrator in India, Hendrik van Rheede ( 1636-1691) who in his treatise, Hortus Malabaricus (the garden of Malabar) described that ganja smoking was popular on the Malabar coast. Ganja is an intoxicating drug, derived from the leaves of the Cannabis Indica plant. The philosophy of cannabis consumption in India entails the sacred lore of having emerged in the form of a pot of nectar while the gods and the demons were churning the ocean with the help of mountain Mandara and Vasuki, the serpent king. It was named Vijaya and was believed to bestow victory upon its votaries. It is said that the Gods then wished that it be sent to live with humans on Earth and aid in their merriment and enjoyment of the pleasures of life. 

The widespread ritual use of hemp, the connoisseurship and the set of expectations that have thus evolved around it has endowed it (bhang) with a social dimension. Bhang, the drink made of cannabis leaves, milk, sugar, and spices, has been part of ‘India’s living since time immemorial. It originates in the legends of the Shiva, designated as the ‘Lord of Bhang’ who planted the cannabis fields in the district of Kullu in Himachal Pradesh. Not without reason that hemp use has touched almost every major spiritual tradition on earth at some point in history. The worship of the hemp plant in India thus emanates from this sacred lore, though it is intriguing that the worship rituals are shrouded in secrecy. The worship of the hemp plant was practised among the Kols of Kuamon region, and the Kunbis of western India. It was abundantly cultivated across the country from Kashmir to Kullu (Himachal Pradesh),  across Gujarat, the Southern Maratha Country Agency, Central India, Bengal, Assam, Orissa and down to the Madras Presidency (erstwhile) though the best variety of hemp, called the baluchar came from the Ganja Mahals of  colonial Bengal. After the Ganja Mahals, the erstwhile tributary states of Orissa contained the most extensive cultivation of hemp.  Homestead cultivation was prevalent though often clandestine. This led to the imbibing of hemp in the rituals and more importantly, in festivals – social, religious, and secular. 

The reference to it abounds in the folk songs of India, where ganja is celebrated as the drink of the warriors who intoxicate themselves before marching on to the battlefield. A.G.Grierson[1] refers to the legend of Lorik, a valiant general and the hero of numerous folk-tales in Bihar, who prepared his daily drink of ganja in a huge hollow stone which is revered to this day. In the epic poem, Alha-khand, popularly recited in the Bundelkhand region of India, it describes in detail the preparation of ganja by pounding leaves in a mortar and pestle as part of the wedding ceremony of Alha and which was offered to each warrior present in the ceremony. It celebrates the gallant deeds of brothers Alha and Udal, retainers of Paramardi-deva (Parmal) of Mahoba (n1163-1202) against Prithviraj Chauhan (1149-1192) of Delhi. Even among the Rajputs, the use of ganja and bhang was popular.

 A reason for the popularity of bhang in parts of north India was probably the scorching summer months. As a coolant, bhang was the perfect ‘summer drink.’ It was also relatively easy to prepare. The leaves of the hemp plant were pound along with spices and gur (molasses) and to swallow the paste.  This paste was known as fakki or fanki in Punjab, Berar, and Bombay, and seems to be used by the common people. Reference is made to a custom that prevailed in south-eastern districts of erstwhile Punjab. Hemp decoctions were prepared and supplied gratuitously for the use of visitors and passer-by. However, the most popular mode of consumption was the smoking of hemp along with tobacco in the chillum or the ubiquitous hukka. That smoking of hemp was an integral part of religious experience is evident from its use during the religious festivals.

The Ganja smoking experience

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the use of hemp in India was the ritualistic nature of smoking, which was essentially the same all over the country. A particularly interesting reference is made in the Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (1894) of the preparation of hemp leaves for smoking and the social nature of the ceremony of smoking, which had been integrated with tobacco as a favourite evening pastime. The smoking of hemp had thus taken root with the innovative mode of smoking  a leaf cigarette containing a mixture of tobacco and hemp leaves in areas of Madras Presidency. A green branch of the Euphorbia nerifolia (Indian spurge tree) was readily fashioned into a pipe by the natives residing in the Satpura hills. There appears to have been a custom at religious gatherings in north India for religious mendicants to dangle a huge chillum containing a serving or more of the drug to a tree so that any willing visitors may partake of it.

Of interest also is the increasing assimilation of hemp decoctions and its various preparations in the religion of the people. In Bengal, on the last day of the celebrations of the religious festival of Durga Puja (The worship of the mother Goddess Durga who killed the demon, Mahishasura, is symbolised as the victory of good over evil). After the idols were immersed in water, it was customary to welcome guests with a cup of bhang and sweet delicacies. The integration of bhang in the religious experience of the people is evident from its use during the festival of Holi. There are recorded instances of secular festivals like the Trinath mela which is claimed to be observed by both the Hindus and the Mohammedans, where the use of hemp was considered essential. On festive occasions, the Brahmins would sell sherbet prepared with bhang at the temples and the religious mendicants would gather and smoke ganja.

Shops for the sale of preparation of hemp was found in every town. Charas (the cannabis concentrate made from the resin of the cannabis plant. It is the resinous substance found on the leaves, young twigs, bark of the stem and eve on the young fruits)was claimed to be given to dope babies and children as a substitute for opium. Several hemp preparations that were popular included the majoon, during feasts was common among the well-to-do consumers, particularly during the winter months. It was generally known to possess aphrodisiac qualities. Similar preparations include yakuti (in general use in the Deccan region), shrikhand and gulkand (erstwhile Bombaby),), ghota (erstwhile United Provinces) and purnathi (Madras) were largely used.  It was a common scene at the household of the majority of the ‘hindoostani babus,’ where the durwan (the gate-keepers) would be grinding cannabis leaves with a stone mortar and a long wooden pestle.

Hemp also figures in the history of Indian medicine. In the fourteenth century Indian medical lexicon, Rajanighantu by Narahari Pandit, described it under  synonyms Vijaya, ujaya and jaya– names which mean the promoter of success, vrijpatta– the strong leaved, chapola– the cause of a reeling gait, unanda or the laughter, huraini– the exciter of sexual desire. Its effects on man are described as excitant, astringent, it dispels phlegm, expels flatulence, induces costiveness, sharpens the memory, stimulates appetite etc. Sixteenth century medical texts, the Sarangdhara Samhita and the Bhavaprakasha The Rajavallabha, another medical lexicon, alludes to the use of hemp in gonorrhoea.

What could have made its easy assimilation in the life of the people? The catalyst could be what American biologist, William A Emboden mentions, ‘the prior acceptance of the tranquilizing root of Rauwolfia serpentina [2]and the sedative root of Withania somnifera[3] by the people.’[4] There, thus existed an easy pathway for cannabis and its various preparations  to find its way in the life of the people and to augment too, the narcotic ectasis.


[1] Grierson, A.G, ‘The Hemp plant in Sanskrit and Hindu literature’ in Richard Carnac Temple (ed.) The Indian Antiquary, Vol. XXIII, Bombay: Education Society’s Press, 1864, pp. 259-262.

[2] Indian snake root

[3] Ashwagandha.

[4] Furst, T Peter. (ed.) Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual use of Hallucinogens, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972, 224.

Feature Image: Photo of bhang drinkers from the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission report 1893

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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