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 tale boils down to is nothing more than sectarian Muslim rivals slagging off their Ismaeli opponents as ‘stoners’ and ‘dope fiends’. Too much of a good story for Marco Polo and more recent writers to resist, so the myth of the assassins 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 group of Indian 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 USD200 for a few seeds. There can be no doubt of the importance of ruderal landrace 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, 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 trivial instance among more serious misinformation put about by these groups, such as that Parvati Valley populations are unaffacted by introduced hybrids or that the Sheelavathi mafia hybrid is a pure 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’, 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 cultigens (for fibre, seeds, and resin) from specialised charas cultigens. In some areas of Kumaon, multipurpose strains or types are known as ‘dati’. In Parvati Valley the name ‘bhagircha’ is sometimes used and I was told means ‘plant for rubbing’. I named the charas landrace I collected simply so that collectors could identify it. Because the Goddess (Devi, Nanda Devi, Durga, Kali) 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 goddess (devata) in Chamoli then this name can only be used for strains from this area. Now his story, which still didn’t quite make sense, had developed to include the idea that devatas are a factor in Himalayan cannabis culture.
Devatas 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, often a village will to an extent live in 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 this region, has a more respectable reputation, a revered general now raised to the ranks of an incarnation of Shiva.
Devata culture 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 production 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 unlikely, given that in the Himalaya farmers assign biologically female plants 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 landraces, the names of which are, with few exceptions, created by and for outsiders.
For ethnobotanists, to fully understand the place of cannabis in the Himalaya, it’s important to realise that in regions such as Kumaon cannabis does not feature in major Hindu festivals such as Durga Puja, despite the significance of both the Goddess and cannabis in the region. 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 there has historically been no role for cannabis at this ritual, despite it occurring at the peak of the charas season, essentially as a harvest festival. Attending these celebrations in remote villages, I’ve seen men tell other attendants to stop smoking their charas bidis because it’s inappropriate. Cannabis cultivation in Kumaon has, as noted in the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, historically 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 note, the reason for this association with low social status can most likely 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, some of them settling in the western Himalaya. These warrior clans will have been non-Aryan in their self-identification and so from outside the anointed Brahminical realms of Vedic Hinduism. 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 dope culture to Kumaon 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 of the type that Herodotus described in this very same era on the steppe lands north of the Black Sea 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 is still apparent in the steppe clothing of the Sun gods, 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, the name of 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 alpine Himalaya, the Khasias’ fall from aristocratic grace through centuries of Brahminisation has ended with their becoming, in the words of an Indian historian, the ‘menial people’ of these mountains, the fields of cannabis around their settlements evolving into a sign of low, non-Aryan status that still, some two millennia later, no self-respecting high-caste Kumaoni would wish to be shackled with. And the Khas castes themselves have in turn internalised this prejudice, leaving their smoke at home when they go to pay homage to the Goddess.
Whether Devi herself is of truly Aryan lineage is another story, but apparently Himalayan cannabis is not.