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Pass the Bhang: The Origins of Ganja

Written by: Tiara Chutkhan


Many of us smoke it, enjoy it, use it for a variety of reasons— but do you know it’s history? Where those first seeds travelled from before they found their way into the rich West Indian soil. While many people associate ‘ganja’ with Rastafarianism, a religion with origins in Ethiopia and roots in Jamaica, it was indentured Indians who initially brought the cannabis indica seedlings to the Caribbean.

The Hindi word is believed to stem from the ancient Sanskrit language, meaning “hemp” or “hemp resin.” After slavery was abolished, the British began importing indentured labourers from India to continue the plantation work that built their empires. Along with these people and their unknown culture came Cannabis plants and it’s preparations.‘Ganja’ refers particularly to the buds of the flowers. In Hindi, ‘Charas' refers to the plant resin and ‘Bhang’ refers to the leaves of seeds of the plants, as well as a milky tea prepared from them.

Ganja was a common remedy in India since ancient times. Native doctors viewed it as one of the most beneficial drugs to heal wounds, fight malaria, cure leprosy and help mental illnesses. Indian medical works dating back to 1300 A.D. list some of the healing effects of cannabis such as sharpened wits, boosted energy, and stimulated mental power.

According to Hindu mythology, ganja is said to be a holy plant, given to man for “the welfare of mankind.”

Ganja was used for worship in the Hindu religion, being an aid to certain prayers and ceremonies. It was viewed as a gift from the God Indra to heighten the human consciousness. In several regions, people smoked ganja or used it as an offering during rites honouring Shiva and the Goddess Kali. The most widely used method of smoking is a hand rolled spliff, but ceremonial occasions called for a water pipe. The ‘chillum’ originated in Indian and consisted of bamboo and a small tin can. From the mouthpiece the user draws smoke through the water, inhales deep into the lungs, and exhales through the nose or mouth.

During the period of indenture, drinking at plantation rum shops became a very common pastime for men and some women. People drank for survival and to ease the strain and stress that came with cruel plantation conditions. Ganja was originally their method of self medication until colonial officials engineered the shift to rum. Indians grew and sold marijuana, making profits that could boost their scant wages. British planters controlled the rum industry and didn’t approve of another opportunity for capital they weren’t part of.

The government implemented pricey license fees for growing and selling ganja— fees no Indian could afford.

A ganja ordinance was appointed on January 1, 1916. The ordinance prohibited the cultivation of ganja and regulated the sale and production of the plant. Up until 1928, it was sold by license for consumption in Trinidad and Guyana to plantation employed Indian labourers.

The photo series shown was my way of representing this little known history. Dressed in traditional Indian jewelry and emerald green, I wanted to portray that period in time with a modern twist. To remember the men and women of indenture who planted and smoked ganja, aware and knowledgeable of it’s holy and beneficial properties. Smoking has evolved, and while a classic spliff still holds its place, we can also utilize things like pipes, bongs and vapes.

Smoking ganja tends to be frowned upon in Indo-Caribbean families but many of us still do it regardless of our parents opinions.

The lack of knowledge and stigmas around the plant play a big role in why some see it as a negative— despite legalization and many statistics proving it’s positive abilities.

Ganja allows me to tune into my senses and creativity. It's easy to see why our earlier generations used it as a way to heal their mind, body and soul. While the history of ganja is enough to fill pages on end, the experience is equally part of this history lesson. Next time you pass the dutchie, look at it as an opportunity to meditate, dive into our roots and connect with our ancestors.

A price can't be put on an experience so unique, nor can it be taken away from us. It's ours to own for a lifetime.

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