In this article we briefly survey the various traditional kinds of preparations of cannabis that may be found in South Asia; more modern preparations in the form of tinctures and oils are not considered.
The term gāñjā, which in South Asia first appears in the 16th century (Meulenbeld 1989:66), refers to the buds and flowers of the female cannabis plant. Gāñjā is usually smoked in a clay pipe (cilam/chillum) mixed with tobacco; it is also smoked in emptied-out cigarettes. Smoking a mixture of plants is prescribed in some Āyurvedic treatments, but recreational smoking of tobacco was only introduced into India by the Portuguese around 1600 CE (Indian Tobacco 1960:1). Innovators then mixed cannabis with tobacco.
The cultivation and sale of cannabis without a government license was initially prohibited in the United Provinces in India in 1910 (Hasan 1975:237); in Nepal all licenses were rescinded in July 1973 (Fisher 1975:253). Eventually, by 1986 even simple possession of smokeable cannabis had become illegal in both countries. However, even though gāñjā is currently illegal in most of the states of India (except Orissa), bhāṅg is still technically legal. Prior to criminalization, cannabis was not disapproved of in India to the same degree that alcohol was (Hasan 1975:238).
Bhāṅg (Hindi), which is still available from government shops in holy places in north India, is usually made from the pounded, lower leaves of the female (and sometimes male) cannabis plant; preparations occasionally also include the smaller, upper leaves of the more resinous buds (gāñjā), which are more usually smoked. To make bhāṅg the leaves are harvested, dried and then pounded either in a large mortar and pestle or on a stone tablet using a large rolling pin. Water, spices and either milk or yogurt are gradually added to the mashed leaves. After a long period of pounding, which may last an hour or more, the mashed mixture is made into small, dark green balls. A ball may be eaten raw or mixed into a drink with additional water or yogurt (bhāṅg lassī).
Bhāṅg is also sometimes added to ice cream (hari kulfī: “green ice cream”) or made into a cooling drink (ṭhaṇḍāī) comprising sugar, almonds and other ingredients. In some parts of India, notably in Bengal before cannabis was partly criminalized, bhāṅg/siddhi used to be commonly mixed with sugar, butter, flour and milk and made into intoxicating sweets (mājūn), as observed in the 1830s by the Irish pioneer of the medicinal use of cannabis, Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (Dutt and King 1972). Bhāṅg is also sometimes an ingredient of lozenges contained in small sachets sold as “pick-me-ups” at pān (betel nut) stalls in India. These products are occasionally concocted with small quantities of other drugs (Mills 2013:55), such as opium, alcohol or even datura (dhatūrā), which contains the dangerous deliriant, scopolamine.
The great Hindu deity Śiva is particularly associated with intoxication from cannabis and datura (Majupuria and Majupuria 1982:234–241). Bhāṅg is consumed by many Neplaese and north Indians during the festival of Śivrātri (“the night of Śiva”), which takes place during the black moon of February, during Holi and at other regional festivals, such as Durgā Pūjā in Bengal (Clarke and Merlin 2013:229–230). In 1983 I was staying on the island of Omkareshwar in the midst of the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh in central India. In the evening of Śivrātri the king of the island distributed balls of bhāṅg to all local residents and visitors.
Some sādhus/yogīs (holy men) consume bhāṅg regularly. The spiritual use of cannabis is considered by some to be a form of tapas (“austerities”), facilitating greater control of one’s mind and natural inclinations. In one of the few, small surveys of usage, conducted in the 1960s, Tripathi (2004:129) records 13.2% of sādhus using bhāṅg. The Saṃnyāsīs (a sect of sādhus) bury their dead with bhāṅg (Clark 2006:37). Alter (1997:155) notes the use of bhāṅg by wrestlers in north India. In places where bhāṅg is easily available, local workers such as rickshaw drivers, cleaners or cāy-vālās (tea-makers) may eat a ball of bhāṇg every morning for breakfast. Until it was forbidden in 2001 (which was challenged: Tribune News Service, 2001), the Nihangs, a sect of Punjabi Sikh soldiers, used to receive bhāṅg (śahīdī deg: “martyr’s cauldron”/sukh nidhān: “the abode of happiness”), as part of their “ration,” which they consume during important religious festivals.
The effect of eating cannabis as bhāṅg is slightly different to smoking it, as it takes forty-five minutes to an hour for bhāṅg to take effect, after which the high usually continues for three or four hours. The effects from smoking begin after a few minutes and generally subside after an hour or two. As the lower leaves of the cannabis plant contain proportionally more CBDs (as found in products in Holland and Barrett, for example), and less THCs (the chemicals that provide the “high”), the effect of bhāṅg is usually slightly more of a “body hit” than when high quality resin is smoked or eaten. The adventurer who eats more than one ball of bhāṅg may find himself or herself “pinned to the floor,” until a deep sleep ensues.
Relatively large quantities of cannabis leaves are used to make bhāṅg, as the lower leaves of the plant contain little psychoactive resin (in the form of THCs) in them; most of the resin is contained in the small leaves surrounding the seeds of the female buds. The main function of the resin produced by the plant is to protect the seeds of the female plant from ultraviolet light. As levels of ultraviolet light increase with altitude, the most potent varieties of cannabis grow at high altitudes. As a general rule, only plants growing above 2,700 metres provide high-quality resin. The upper limit for the growth of the cannabis plant is around 3,700 metres; but plants growing at that altitude are rare. There are, for example, a few fields above the village of Malana in Himachal Pradesh in the Indian Himalayas where a few plants grow at around 3,700 metres.
A speciality of cannabis production in the Indian and Nepalese Himalayas is caras, which is resin that has been obtained from the buds of the mature female plants, usually in October, just before the plant flowers, which is when the buds are the most rich in resin. The person collecting the caras should have clean hands. It is often collected by children and women of the village. The buds are lightly rubbed between the palms of the hands, to which the resin adheres. After ten or twenty minutes—techniques vary slightly—of careful rubbing, the accumulated resin on the palms is scraped or rubbed off onto a sheet of paper or plastic. At the end of the rubbing period the resin is moulded into sticks, balls or coils. As caras is typically rubbed from just a few plants, each stick or ball of caras may taste slightly different and have a subtly different effect, depending on the plants rubbed. A careful caras rubber may produce ten grammes of material during an average day.
A greater quantity of inferior caras can be produced through more vigorous rubbing. However, if the buds are rubbed too hard, small leaves become combined with the resin. Rubbing the buds harder results in the accumulation of more caras, but then the leaf content is proportionally higher and the resin content is proportionally lower; and more crucially the water content of the leaves in the caras may cause white fungus to spread throughout the caras. This fungus in the caras makes it taste bitter; it is bad for the lungs and induces more coughing. The highest grade caras is composed of pure resin, with no plant material in it; it is partially transparent and light can be seen through the resin. High-grade caras is sometimes referred to as “cream,” though very little cream that is produced these days is pure enough to be transparent.
The mountain slopes of the Parvati valley in the Manali region and three other nearby areas of Himachal Pradesh provide some of the highest grade cannabis in the world. In the mid-1960s some—mostly French—hippies who were in the Parvati valley improved the caras rubbing techniques of local people. They then brought some high quality caras down to the beaches of Goa. The entrepreneurial spirit of these and other travellers began what has become a regular linkage between mountainous parts of Himachal Pradesh and Goa.
Caras is also made in Uttaranchal (the Himalayan state adjacent to Himachal Pradesh) and in some mountainous regions of Nepal. During the 1980s—before police raids at the end of the decade—commercial quantities of strong, sticky, fragrant caras were also made in the Indian state of Kerala. Before an even greater clampdown on production in Himachal Pradesh by the Indian authorities in recent years, and a consequent change in farming practices, a distinction used to be made between caras produced in a cultivated field and caras made from wild plants, the latter having, in general, a superior reputation for taste and potency. In the last thirty years or so, the technique of making caras has also found its way, albeit to a limited degree, to other cannabis-producing countries, such as Jamaica and even Bolivia.
Years ago I came across a report claiming that some of the high-altitude cannabis plants of Himachal Pradesh and also some strains of the exceptionally psychoactive South African weed known as Durban Poison contain not only THCs but also an above-average content of THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin). If this is correct, it could possibly explain why some high-altitude caras provides such a distinctive, long-lasting, clear and smooth high. However, although current phytochemical analysis (ElSohly and Gul 2016:4) indicates twenty kinds of THCs—eighteen Δ9-trans-tetrahydrocannabinols (including THCV) and two Δ8-trans-tetrahydrocannabinols, which include also THCA and THCB—the role of THCV in terms of effects has yet to be scientifically verified, as far as I am aware.
The legal tide is now turning again in India. In 2018 the state government of Uttaranchal started again issuing licenses for cannabis production for industrial and medical purposes. The governments of the states of Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal are currently set to follow suit.
The cannabis plant and cannabis products have many names in various societies and cultures (Benetown 1972; Rosenthal 1971); in Sanskrit it is known as śaṇa, indrāśaṇa, jayā, vijayā, tribhavanavijayā and bhaṅgā, amongst other designations. Dash (1989) lists around forty synonyms. The English term “cannabis” most probably derives from the Greek word kánnabis, which in turn is a loan word from the Scythians/Sakā (Witzel 1999:65), who were wild, horse-riding, cannabis-using nomads who roamed and occupied areas from southern Russia, through Afghanistan and north India to China, between around 800 BCE to 300 CE (Bennett 2017; Genito 2006). The term kánnabis mutated into the Germanic and Old English term hænep, then to henep and then to “hemp”. The term “marijuana” most probably derives from Chinese, via Chinese itinerant workers who emigrated to Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries (Piper 2005:8). The term “hashish” has, historically, been applied to both weed and blocks of resin; however, “hashish” in current global parlance refers to blocks of resin. Hashish is made predominantly in Muslim countries, and is not made in the same way as caras.
To make hashish (see Cherniak 1979), firstly mature female plants are cut near the base. The plants are sometimes left to dry in the sun but are usually transported carefully indoors and left hanging upside-down in the darkness for a couple of weeks. Once the plants are fully dry, they are then just lightly shaken over a sheet of some kind. The dry resin in the form of greyish dust that falls is then collected from the first shake. This is the most potent hashish, usually kept for smoking exclusively by the manufacturers. (The term “pollen” sometimes used for un-pressed hashish is a misnomer; pollen accrues to the male and not the female plants.) The female plants are then rubbed over progressively coarser meshes. The first mesh used these days is sometimes a parachute, the cloth of which has very fine apertures. The coarser the mesh, the more that plant matter passes through the sieve, and the lower the grade of hashish.
Several decades ago in Morocco, the hashish produced in the Ketama region of the Rif mountains was graded by a system that calibrated the hashish from “00” to “01”…to “09”. “00” was the highest grade and “09” the lowest, the latter resulting from plants being rubbed over a coarse mesh; though some farmers only employ one or two kinds of mesh or sieve. The resinous powder collected is then pressed into blocks. In the pressing process, in some regions, such as Afghanistan, water is added in the pressing process. Blocks of hashish are often subject to heating when being pressed; this turns the grey/yellow/green/red powder into black blocks. Un-pressed hashish retains its original colour. In the last few years, farmers in Morocco have been innovating with seeds from different countries and producing very high-quality “single estate” hashish.
Hashish produced from plants at lower altitudes is still being produced in regions of India with a significant Muslim population, notably in Kashmir—where it is made from plants typically at altitudes between 1,800 and 2,400 metres and referred to as gard (”dust”)—and in Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh.
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