Seedsman Blog

Cannabis Max: India before Prohibition

Overland to India: Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan

Leaving Europe and travelling overland to India in 1977, it was apparent that although smoking hash was quite common in Turkey, it was also dangerous there. In a café, for example, a joint was usually never passed directly to someone, but after a few puffs left on a table for someone to pick up a minute later; this was to ensure that no one was implicated as a ‘supplier’, which was an imprisonable offence.

Some people could be found smoking hash joints on the streets of Tehran in Iran; but the police were always hovering around and the atmosphere was decidedly paranoid.

The border between Iran and Afghanistan was indeed a scene of strange paradoxes. On the way into Afghanistan from Iran, uniformed Afghani police boarded our ‘hippie’ bus and immediately pulled out large slabs of sticky black hash, which they proceeded to sell to the passengers.

Top quality hashish was abundant in Afghanistan in those days. Mazari Sharif, around 300 kilometres north-west of Kabul, near the border with Uzbekistan, was renowned for its ‘Number 1’ hash. You could see a dozen or more men squatting on the roof of a bus in Kabul smoking hash in large hookah pipes.

Returning to Iran from Afghanistan

On the way back into Iran from Afghanistan, people were smoking cilams (chilams) right outside the mud hut that was the customs post at the Afghani border. You then got called inside and asked if you had any hash on you!

When you subsequently arrived a few minutes later at the customs check-post at the Iranian border, there were large, glass display cabinets filled with shoes, belts, backpacks and other containers, in which hash had been discovered. All travellers were called over one by one by a customs officer. The immaculately-dressed officer, with a shiny peaked cap, would then suddenly put his hand up your shirt, onto your heart; then, looking you straight in the eye, he would sternly say, “hashish!” If he detected any increase in heartbeat, you would be hauled off to a room to be strip-searched.

Entering Pakistan

Between Afghanistan and Pakistan, near the Khyber Pass, there is a ‘no-man’s land’ surrounding a small town, Landi Kotal, which is in neither Pakistan or Afghanistan. You depart from Afghanistan and then enter the no man’s land before proceeding to the official Pakistani border, ten miles further down the road. Landi Kotal was completely lawless, under the control of warlords.

Gangs of teenage boys were sitting in lines in front of piles of numerous currencies in different denominations. Behind them, ranged in lines along the street were dozens of string beds piled high with hand-grenades, AK 47s and kilo packets of heroin and hash. People were buying guns and testing them for fun with live ammunition in the side-streets. Chitral, in the Swat Valley, around 200 kilometres to the north of Landi Kotal, was renowned for top quality hash.

Cannabis use in India

In India all forms of cannabis were more or less legal until 1985. Technically, possession of large quantities and unlicensed business was illegal, but the maximum fine was 300 Rupees (about $12 in those days) and prosecutions were very rare. Nevertheless, it was still inappropriate to smoke publicly in some places.

In many small towns in the north, a man would push round a small trolley at various times of day, usually in the early evening, ringing a bell. On the trolley would be displayed small heaps of gāñjā, caras (charas)and opium. In most places in the north there were government shops selling cannabis. These shops had price lists and huge scales. You could buy as many kilos as you wanted. The usual purchase would be of a tolā (11.64 grammes) of weed, wrapped in a small paper packet.

There were also official, government-licensed shops that specialised in bhāṅg, where you could also buy gāñjā. The gāñjā was usually local but some shops had varieties from other states. Particularly potent was gāñjā from Mizoram (a state in north-east India), found more widely in Bengal, Orissa and other northern states, and from Kerala (a state in the south-west), from where the weed used to find its way as far north as shops in Orissa.

Cannabis in Kerala

In Kerala the main area for weed cultivation was in a hilly region in the centre of the state around the villages Idduki and Double Cutting. Once, walking along a dirt road there, I chanced upon a local man who promptly pulled back a canvas covering a large pit by the roadside, revealing 800 kilo packets of weed, just lying there, unguarded by the roadside.

In Kerala, from the late 1970s, they also used to make a lot of excellent caras (charas). Some enterprising travellers (mostly Italian) set up small factories in the region to make hash oil. Large explosions from heat and combusting chemicals were quite common. The hash oil business got so big that containers of it were being shipped to the USA. In the mid-1980s a young woman was busted and she spilt the beans on the oil business. The story appeared in Outlook magazine. Officials in Delhi, entirely unaware of the cannabis business in Kerala, read the story, freaked out, and immediately sent from Delhi forty jeeps full of cops to eradicate the weed. That was the beginning of the end for international cannabis business in Kerala.

Holy places and bābās

In holy towns, such as Ujjain, it would be common to see at sunset dozens of men squatting in long lines, passing numerous cilams of weed. The traditional village smoking mix for a cilam in India usually comprises gāñjā, the dried tobacco (through roasting) from an emptied cigarette, and the small quantity of tobacco found in a bīḍī (a cheap, local cigarette). Cilams are normally lit with a hot, glowing coal, accompanied by a mantra to Śiva: “Boum Śiva”, “Alekh Boum”, or similar exclamations.

For curious travellers attracted to the deep end of cannabis culture, the sure road to experience would be to spend time with sādhus (bābās) who liked to smoke. Non-stop cilams would be the order of the day – on trains, at bus stations, anywhere. Before prohibition you could publicly smoke with uniformed police officers. Cannabis is still legal in the state of Orissa.

A ‘party trick’ for some bābās (sādhus) is the uṛtī cilam. The cilam is first filled with small pieces of walnut shell. Caras is placed on top. A piece of aluminium foil, pieced with holes, is then placed over the cilam. When it is lit, the walnut shells produce a cloud of sparks, like a firework display.

Manufacturing caras (charas)

Even though Indian village gāñjā was fine, though usually quite weak, the ‘holy grail’ for smoking travellers was Himalayan caras (see my blog ‘Cannabis Varieties’). Until around thirty years ago, caras was made almost exclusively in the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas. It is made by gently rubbing mature, female cannabis buds between the palms of the hand. Unlike hashish, each ball or stick of caras is somewhat unique, being derived from only one or from several neighbouring plants. Connoisseurs will select particularly resinous or fragrant plants to rub.

The Parvati valley, near Manali in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, is an area renowned for high quality caras. Until the mid-1960s caras was made there on a very small scale, mostly rubbed by women or children for smoking by the men of the household. In the mid-1960s, enterprising travellers helped the women refine the rubbing technique, essentially using less pressure when rubbing, to produce caras with a higher resin content and lower leaf content.

Some dedicated foreigners would organize teams of local caras rubbers in the Himalayas, in Parvati and other nearby valleys. There would be inspections of rubbers’ hands to check for dirt or sweat. The result was caras that was so clean that it was pure, reddish-brown resin. It was semi-opaque; you could see light through a small block of the caras resin.

The caras scene in India

At the end of the harvest season, in October, a lot of caras used to find its way to Goa, where hippies had started to pass the winter. By the mid-1970s, enthusiasts were bringing down many kilos of caras to Goa. The smoking scenes on some beaches in north Goa and other places where travellers congregated—such as in Banaras, Pushkar and Rishikesh, and in the Himalayas in Manali, Kathmandu and other resorts—were epic, with countless cilams being continuously loaded and reloaded all day and sometimes most of the night as well. It was cannabis max. The most serious consequence was a continuous cough.

Cilams

Cilam manufacture was also refined in Goa. In village India the cilam is a small pipe made from orange/brown clay (though in interior Orissa the cilams were typically about a foot long and took a tolā of weed per filling). Dedicated cilam smokers in Goa experimented with different kinds of clay (from Turkey and Spain, for example). Some added powdered rock to the clay mixture to strengthen the cilam. You could drop the best cilams on a concrete floor and they would not break. The barrels were as smooth as the barrel of a gun.

Prohibition

At a UN convention in Vienna in 1966, India was permitted twenty years outlaw opium and cannabis (see my blog ‘How cannabis became illegal’). The Indian delegation had argued that, for example, a Gujarati wedding usually requires half a kilo of opium. It would take time to change local customs. Nineteen years later, in 1985, penalties possessing and selling cannabis duly began increasing dramatically every few months. By 1986 you could be gaoled for ten years for possessing 100 grammes. These penalties were a bonanza for the police. Every foreigner was the potential target for a bribe. A junior policeman would offer up to a year’s salary for a transfer to Goa. With luck, he would recoup the money in a few weeks.

After prohibition, cannabis smoking still continued abundantly, but the tide had turned.

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Matthew Clark

Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).