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Getting High for God, Good Health and Kicks

Getting High for God, Good Health and Kicks

The Traditional Uses of Hashish and Marijuana


There were times – the older ones among us may remember – when the term "genuine Nepalese" did not in any way refer to the ethnic background of a citizen of a small Himalayan state. Rather it indicated the origin of a type of hashish, of which Nepal is said to produce the most powerful. "Genuine Nepalese" was a trademark of quality.

In the 1960's and 70's, "pie shops" mushroomed all over Kathmandu, supplying their scruffy clientele with an assortment of cakes laced with hashish. Today, the cultivation and sale of the drug is prohibited in Nepal – officially, at least – and the country's visa rules are designed to prevent "hippies" from staying too long. Instead they're probably on Phangan Island in Thailand now, zonked out on Ecstasy.

Whereas to Westerners hashish was, and is, simply an "alternative" way of getting high, on the Indian Subcontinent it has been widely used in religious rituals and as a medicinal plant.

Hashish, or charas as it is called in India, is the resin of the hemp plant (Cannabis Sativa), which contains the psychotropic ingredient THC (Tetrahydrocannabinole). Hemp grows to a height of over two metres and can be found all over Asia and Europe. When the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century, they brought with them hemp, which later spread further north. In Europe, hemp is cultivated for its fibre, which is used to made ropes or coarse cloth.

Due to the temperate climate, the THC content in European hemp is far lower than in its Asian counterpart. Still, clandestine green houses, especially in the Netherlands, are said to produce quite "good stuff", while in California hydroponically-grown hemp, with genetically manipulated THC content, is said to be the most potent in the world.

Aside from the resin, virtually all other parts of the plant have intoxicating properties; the stems and leaves for example, which are known world-wide as marijuana, or in India, Thailand and the West Indies as ganja, and also the blossoms. All these various parts can be smoked or eaten.

The original home of hemp is supposed to be the vast region from the Causcasus and Urals to Central and East Asia. In Northern China, hemp was probably cultivated as far back as the 4th or 3rd millennium B.C. Around 2000 B.C., Chinese texts described its medicinal properties for the first time.

In India, the earliest reference to hashish can be found in the Shatapathana-Brahmana, dating from the 8th century B.C. In it, hashish is called "Vijaya" or "victory", which also happens to be the name of a Tantric goddess. Otherwise in Hindu mythology, hashish is associated with Shiva, the God of Destruction and Renewal, who – as a professional sideline so to say – is also regarded as the "God of Medicinal Herbs" (Aushadheshwara).

In the Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of healing, founded in the 1st century by the physician Charaka, hemp products are prescribed against a number of ailments – loss of appetite, cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, digestive problems, rheumatism, high blood pressure and insomnia. Reports also indicate that the smoking of ganja may also give relief to glaucoma patients. Recent tests in California, conducted with 140 AIDS patients, suggest that the smoking of the drug improves the patients' overall well-being, particularly as it considerably increases the appetite, resulting in a gain in weight. The optimal dosage was found to be 2.4 mgs, administered twice a day.

Something which Western dope-heads have yet to latch on to is bhang, a traditional Indian drink made from the leaves of the hemp plant, milk, honey, sugar, almonds, fennel, rose petals, black pepper and various other spices. In Northern India, where wrestling is a very popular sport, wrestlers take bhang to enable them to concentrate for hours on end, and to increase their appetite.

Among the general public, bhang is only consumed on Holi, India's spring festival, which is quite reminiscent of Thailand's Songkran. Bhang dispenses a very strong and long lasting high, inducing in the revellers' fits of madcap laughter. It also seems to induce flights of fancy: In 1563, Sultan Badur told the Portuguese traveller Martim Affonzo de Souza, that all he had to do to visit Portugal, Brazil and other faraway countries, was to take some bhang. In centuries gone by, Hindu widows who were about to commit sati, or self-immolation on their husband's funeral pyre, were often given bhang to numb their senses.

Occasionally, the seeds of the poisonous, and possibly fatal, Datura plant (Datura stramonium), a nightshade shrub, are added to the bhang. The seeds make the concoction even more potent – and a bit of a gamble, too, perhaps comparable to the Japanese habit of eating poisonous blow fish. Datura seeds contain the alkaloid hyascine, which in a pure quantity of 0.003 of a gram is lethal. This amount is contained in about 120 seeds. If not fatal, high doses may leave one permanently mad. Maybe it doesn't matter that much – after all, the Hindi word deevana ("mad") is etymologically related to the word "divine". Madness and godliness are close neighbours in Hindu mysticism. In olden days, datura was often used to spike an adversary's drink, or just as a "practical joke".

In Hindu iconography, bhang is depicted as flowing out of Shiva's topknot, thus being credited with a divine origin. Other depictions show the holy river Ganges flowing out of Shiva's topknot, in this way giving bhang and the Ganges an equal status. A rhyme, recited in the North Indian state of Bihar, underlines this connection:

            "Ganga and Bhanga are two sisters;

            they both live from Gangadhara*

            Ganga, please show me wisdom,

            Bhanga, show me the way to heaven."

            *[the one who lets the Ganga flow", i.e. Shiva].

While bhang is mostly used on special occasions, many of India's wandering holy men, or sadhus, smoke ganja on a daily basis – or hourly for that matter. According to legend, Shiva once smoked away an entire mountain of ganja and the sadhus (literally "the perfected ones") do their level best to do alike. Like Shiva, they also pile up their hair into a knot on the top of the head. In addition, they carry a trishul, a kind of trident, making them look like Indian versions of the Roman Sea God, Neptune.

Aside from spiritual, health or fun pursuits, the hemp plant is also associated with death. Whenever the 10th century Arabian despot "the Old Man of the Mountains" wanted some enemy done away with, he first encouraged his followers to take hashish. Lots of it. When thoroughly intoxicated, they were taken to a secret garden filled with flowers, fruit trees and beautiful girls dressed like divine houris. Afterwards they were told that they had experienced a foretaste of heaven, so when they were sent out on a mission to kill, they performed their task with fearless zeal, so anxious were they to re-enter "heaven". These fanatic killers were known as hashishin – the etymological origin of the word "assassin".

Did I just hear anybody say “Love & Peace, Maaan?” Seemingly hashish had its military uses, too!


Text by Rainer Krack; Photos by Rainer Krack & Pictures From History – © CPA Media