Bullshitting about cannabis has a long and inglorious tradition. It’s a particular problem among Westerners—not just prohibitionists in the mould of Harry Anslinger or Richard Nixon but also enthusiasts with tall tales brought back from exotic lands. Take the Hippie Trail myth of the ancient hand-rubbed Himalayan charas that even after being buried or lost for years is still mysteriously super-potent. But in the case of one of the most ancient and famous instances of pot nonsense, Hassan-i Sabbah and his hashish-crazed assassins, the responsibility is shared equally by East and West. What the assassin legend likely boils down to is nothing more than sectarian Muslim rivals slagging off their Ismaili opponents as ‘trash’ or ‘dope fiends’. Too much of a good story to resist, so the myth lives on.
A new brand of canna-bullshit has developed in the last year or so with the recent influx of purveyors of landrace seeds. Their more modern fabrications involve creating a fictitious mystical aura or sense of ecological urgency around landraces. To what exent these market-savvy ‘strain hunters’ believe their own stories it’s hard to say. But I suspect there’s an element of consciously swamping the online landrace space with misinformation. Sellers benefit from having a customer base that’s confused or clueless. In this disoriented state, people are much easier to punt seeds to.
A self-described Indian group of collectors have recently put about the idea that flooding and drought on the Ganges Plain pose an existential threat to its ruderal Cannabis, which grows more or less everywhere north of the Ganges River and into the Himalaya. Whether they believe it themselves, this is a very convenient narrative as it means they can offload seeds easily collected from the ruderal stands rife in and around every north Indian town or field. What these recent batches sold for I don’t know, but prices at some landrace sites and communities range up to 200 USD for a few seeds. There can be no doubt of the importance of wild-type Cannabis populations as stores of genetic variation and adaptation. But this looks a lot like cynical money-grubbing. It’s dishonest to present what’s just north Indian ‘ditch weed’ as in any way endangered [arguably wrong, see here], as anyone who’s visited or lived in these regions knows.
The online influx of misinformation has hit ethnobotany too. A prominent new Instagram strain hunter recently claimed that the name Nanda Devi should only be used for strains from the Chamoli District of the Garhwal Himalaya. This is a minor instance among more serious misinformation put about by these groups (e.g., that Parvati Valley populations are unaffacted by introduced hybrids or that the Sheelavathi mafia hybrid is an authentic landrace), but getting to the truth behind this claim leads us deep into Himalayan cannabis culture on a journey that I figured is worth sharing here.
Several years ago, I gave the name Nanda Devi to a charas landrace that’s specific to a handful of villages on the eastern flank of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary in the Kumaon Himalaya, which neighbours Garhwal. I did this because the farmers have no name for their strain. This is typical in the Himalaya. For most villagers, any plant is just ‘bhang’ – i.e., Cannabis – and that’s about as far as naming normally goes. In so far as the Himalaya has anything akin to strain names there are terms that serve to differentiate multipurpose domesticates (for fibre, seeds, and resin) from specialised charas domesticates. In some areas of Kumaon, multipurpose strains or types are known as ‘dati’. In Parvati Valley I was told by a farmer that the name ‘bagicha’ is sometimes used, though this may have been a misunderstanding [the term means ‘garden’ in Hindi etc.; apparently it may be used by these farmers in the sense of ‘domesticate’, see comments below]. I named the charas landrace I collected simply so that collectors could identify it. Because the Goddess (Devi, Nanda Devi, Durga, Kali, Shakti) plays a major role in the Kumaoni way of life and landscape, ‘Nanda Devi’ seemed an obvious choice. The peaks of her sacred mountain are visible on the skyline throughout most of Kumaon. The ancient Nanda Devi temple in Almora town is one of the most important in the region. The shakti peeth (power place) at Dunagiri is renowned among sadhus as a centre for practices focused on the Goddess. There are innumerable village shrines throughout these mountains dedicated to Kali and Durga.
But this collector insisted that because the mountain is situated in Chamoli district then its name could only be used for strains that are from there. He went on to claim that farmers in Chamoli use the name Nanda Devi to refer to female Cannabis plants. On his own terms, his complaint didn’t make much sense: This was not a strain name, it seems, but something more like a term of endearment or reverence for female Cannabis plants. Still, he said he was from Joshimath, an important town in Chamoli, so in that respect at least his opinion carried a certain weight.
But I’ve been going to Chamoli over the years, including to famous and obscure villages, and never once encountered a farmer referring to female Cannabis plants as ‘Nanda Devi’, so I questioned him. He escalated to a new level: Because Nanda Devi is worshipped as a local deity (devata) in Chamoli then this name can only be used for strains from this area. Now this story, which still didn’t quite make sense, had developed to include the idea that devatas are a factor in Himalayan cannabis culture.
Devatas, in this context, are gods or goddesses specific to areas, villages, and homes. They’re usually more akin to what Westerners would think of as spirits or ghosts than grand Hindu deities such as Shiva. In the Himalaya, a village might even live in some fear of its devata, making sure to placate it with offerings at the right time and in the correct form so as to avoid its wrath and any consequent misfortune. A Kumaoni friend went as far as to say that farmers are in effect enslaved by their village deities, squandering desperately needed wealth and resources to keep the spirit happy. By contrast, a devata such as Golu Dev, whose name adorns motor vehicles throughout Kumaon, has a more respectable reputation, a revered general now raised to the ranks of an incarnation of Shiva.
Devata culture likewise plays a major role in the life of Parvati Valley, where if you wander through the mountains you may well chance upon mountain shrines soaked in the drying blood of a recent animal sacrifice or even see an unfortunate sheep, goat, or buffalo meet its end. Parvati is famed for its charas, of course. But I’m yet to encounter devatas there that are connected with Cannabis cultivation. The same is true in Kumaon and Nepal. There’s as little link between these local deities and cannabis as there is between whisky and Scottish Presbyterianism.
But the collector went on to name Malari, a charas village that I’m yet to visit. Now, it may be that in Malari the farmers – or a farmer – fondly refer to female plants as Nanda Devi. But that’s still a long way from a strain name. And it’s rather unlikely, given that in the Himalaya farmers assign pistillate Cannabis plants (‘females’) to the masculine gender. Regardless, the fact is that in the Himalaya there’s not a sophisticated seed market as there is in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where you can choose from several different cultigens such as Mazari or Watani. For most Himalayan farmers, Cannabis is just Cannabis, one of the various crops they grow, and at most they can choose whether to focus on charas or a range of potentially saleable products including fibre and seeds. Of course, each geographic region of the Himalaya has its strain and variations on that theme from village to village, field to field, along a valley. But there’s no necessity for farmers themselves to differentiate as the diversity in the Nepali and Indian Himalaya is essentially region-specific. These are pot landraces, the names of which, with few exceptions, are created by and for outsiders – as the strain hunter in question eventually noted himself.
For ethnobotanists, to fully understand the place of Cannabis in the Himalaya, it’s important to realise that in regions such as Kumaon the crop does not feature in major Hindu festivals such as Durga Puja, despite the crucial importance of both the Goddess and the plant. This contrasts with India’s greatest centre of Goddess worship, West Bengal, where Cannabis does have an ordained role at Durga Puja, and celebrants will partake of bhang drinks, at very least taking perfunctory sips. But in Kumaoni villages Cannabis has historically been absent from this ritual, despite Durga Puja occurring at the peak of the charas season, essentially as a harvest festival. Attending celebrations in remote villages, I’ve seen men tell other attendants to stop smoking their charas bidis because it’s inappropriate – though smoking and drinking cannabis are of course distinct issues.
Historically, Cannabis cultivation in Kumaon has, as noted in the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, been confined to ‘the lowest classes of cultivators, being considered beneath the dignity of the higher castes. So much is this the case that the phrase “May hemp be sown in thy house” is one of the commonest of abusive imprecations. […] The principal cultivators appear to be the Khasias or Tabhilas, a class of people above the Domes and below Rajputs in the social scale, who do not wear the sacred thread. If a Brahman or Rajput wishes to cultivate hemp, he engages a Khasia or Dome to work for him’. As the Victorian authors of the Commission went on to speculate, the reason for this association with low social status could conceivably be found in the earliest origins of Cannabis cultivation in the Himalaya.
Pollen evidence from upper Garhwal now points to the crop first being sown in these mountains from around 500 BCE. This was an era during which nomadic horse tribes from Central Asia were crossing the Indus River in their multitudes, some of them apparently settling in the western Himalaya. These Iranic warrior clans will have been from outside the anointed Brahminical realms of Vedic Hinduism, as was then evolving following the Persian conquest of northwest India in 513 BCE. Finds from Nepal dating to a similar era suggest that Cannabis may also have been arriving in the Himalaya from Central Asia by another route, namely the Kali Gandhaki Gorge. The prime suspects for bringing Cannabis cultivation to the Pahari Himalaya are the tribal federations that Westerners know best by the name ‘the Scythians‘. This is a term of convenience for the various nomadic and semi-nomadic Iron Age dope fiends such as Herodotus described in this very same era on the Black Sea steppe getting out of their heads by throwing cannabis on braziers in tents.
In the temples of Kumaon such as Katarmal the legacy of these Scythians may yet be apparent in the steppe clothing of the Sun gods, deities of Iranic origin, with their long hats, overcoats, and riding boots. But more than that, as the Victorians noted, the main castes involved in Cannabis cultivation in Kumaon have historically been the Khasias, or Khas, better known today as Paharis, the people of the alpine Himalaya. In Kumaon, the name ‘Khas’ is now largely seen as insulting. But according to Nepali Khas communities, who embrace their ‘Khas Arya’ identity, their ancestors were originally one such Scythian-type clan among these teeming steppe multitudes, their origins variously guessed at as being Xinjiang or Bactria, around what’s now northern Afghanistan. Onetime rulers of the ‘Khasadesha’ and ‘Khasamandala‘ of the alpine Himalaya, their fall from aristocratic grace through centuries of Brahmanisation has ended with the Khas becoming, in the words of an Indian historian, the ‘menial people’ of these mountains. Conceivably, the fields of Cannabis around their settlements followed, evolving into a sign of low, non-Brahmanical status that still, some two millennia later, no self-respecting high-caste Kumaoni would wish to be shackled with. The Khas castes themselves would then have in turn internalised this prejudice, leaving their stash at home when they go to pay homage to the Goddess.
Whether Devi herself is of truly ‘Aryan’ lineage is another story, but apparently—in a strictly Hindu sense of the word—Himalayan Cannabis is not.
NOTE: All of the above is of course highly speculative. As likely is that the Himalayan stigma against being a Cannabis farmer developed in the Persianate era, with the development of the charas economy and export to the urban centres of north India such as Lucknow. The prejudice against being a Cannabis farmer can be found in Bengal too, where the main crop is ganja, likely a more recent form of domesticate which developed during the Islamic era, spreading across South and Southeast Asia in conjuction with tobacco. Regarding tales of the ancient Khas now in circulation in Nepal etc., caution is advisable because dubious colonial-era ethno-histories have likely long informed popular and academic thinking on such issues. And with regard to differences between Durga Puja in Kumaon and West Bengal, sacramental cannabis customs in Bengal probably arose in the Persianate era, Turko-Persian cannabis culture influencing rural folk custom and radical yogic practice such as Shakta tantrism, which is where cannabis first appears in Indian asceticism, quite late in the medieval era.