Charas! What is it? Where does it come from?
Ask most Western experts and aficionados and the answer you’ll get is that it’s hand-rubbed Cannabis resin from the Indian and Nepali Himalaya. For dope fiends in the West, the consensus is that any other traditional resin—which essentially means all of it, be it Lebanese, Moroccan, or Afghan—should more properly be called hashish. According to experts Robert Clarke and Mark Merlin, this is the final truth:
‘“Hashish” is the proper Arabic term for the agglutinated Cannabis resin product originally produced in Central Asia. Chopra and Chopra (1957) described the technique used by Muslim residents of the Chinese Turkestanian Yarkand region (presently in Xinjiang province, China) to produce hashish: “The female ﬂower heads are ﬁrst dried, then broken and crushed between the hands into a powder which is passed through sieves so that it obtains the ﬁneness and consistency of sand or sawdust.” The Sanskrit word “charas” is traditionally used in Hindu India for Cannabis resin. Charas refers more accurately to resin collected by hand-rubbing the ﬂowers of living or freshly harvested plants.’
Clarke’s Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany is an essential read. But it’s not without its inconsistencies and inaccuracies. There are parts where the authors use the terms hashish and charas interchangeably, which is fine if the context is resin. But the index reasserts what’s clearly their final position: charas ‘more accurately’ means the hand-rubbed stuff from the Himalaya. Many readers will take this as the last word, and with good reason, these authors being among the highest anointed authorities on all things Cannabis. But for a book with ‘ethnobotany’ in the title, it has to be said: On ethnobotanical grounds, Clarke and Merlin have got this wrong.
Any Afghan or Pakistani readers will, I know, be nodding along to this in agreement. Whereas I suspect by this point there will be Westerners—old-timers among them, no doubt—who have already given up reading and decided that they know best and I have no idea what I’m talking about. This belief—that charas is what comes from Manali, Parvati, and so on, and all other traditional resin is ‘hash’ —is heavily ingrained in cannabis culture outside Asia, and it’s this that Clarke’s inaccurate claim seems to play to. More than anything, such mistakes reflect how few travelers have made it to the Hindu Kush and northern Afghanistan in recent decades, and indeed how unreliable the received Hippie Trail wisdom about these crucially important regions can be—not just with respect to resin, but also botany.
But let’s stick to resin. Any Afghans or Pakistanis, and anyone who has been lucky enough to spend any time in their countries, can tell you the preeminent word there for resin is ‘charas’. Not hashish. In practice, chars. A chronic resin smoker, in the Hindu Kush as in India, is hence a ‘charsi’. If you still don’t want to take my word for it, have a look at this recent popular Pathan (Afghan) song from Peshawar that celebrates the charsi life. It’s from the film Khandani Badmash, which means something like ‘Clan of Rogues’. The verse… well, enough said…
Now that’s cleared up, the question is where do the ‘rights’ to the name charas ultimately belong, north or south of the Indus, with sieved or with hand-rubbed resin? According to the Pharmacographia Indica (Dymock, Warden & Hooper 1893), a British Victorian compendium:
‘Charas is only mentioned in comparatively recent medical works. The word is said to be derived from the Sanskrit [for] a skin, but it occurs in Persian with the primary signification of a piece of leather or cloth, the four corners of which are tied up so as to form a wallet, such as beggars carry; in Hindi it signifies a leather bag for holding water, &c. The Charas collected in Central Asia is stored in leathern bags by the cultivators.’
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, Sanskrit may be part of what confused Clarke and Merlin into thinking that the name charas ultimately belongs to so-called ‘Hindu India’. The term, as with many in languages anywhere from Ireland to Assam, no doubt has relatives or roots in Sanskrit. But to think this puts the primacy on India or Hindus is an etymological fallacy on several levels. Not least, if we’re talking roots, Sanskrit has its ultimate origin somewhere to the north of the Black Sea. Crucially, Dymock is clear that use of the term charas for Cannabis resin is ‘comparatively recent’, and by that he means recent relative to ancient texts like the Atharva Veda (the last of the Vedas, dating to perhaps 1000–800 BCE based on its late Sanskrit and reference to iron). For the rise of the term charas, we’re talking much later than these canonical Hindu scriptures—some two millennia later, at very least. All evidence suggests that the association of this word with Cannabis resin most plausibly belongs to the medieval Muslim era and the dope culture and techniques of Central Asia. With that, there may perhaps be a hint from these Victorian Britishers that charas culture involved people who they refer to – with typical colonial hauteur, if so – as ‘beggars’.
‘Charas’ is what linguists know as a metonym, a ‘word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated.’ For example, ‘the Crown’ is a metonym for the British monarchy. Clearly, the name charas is most closely associated with the type of resin which is stored in leather. That’s not the hand-rubbed Himalayan stuff but the sieved or sifted form that Clarke and Merlin seem to believe is best referred to as ‘hashish’. In practice, the high water content of typical freshly-rubbed Himalayan resin means that farmers most often store it in loose drawstring bags of cotton or silk. By contrast, sieved resin is produced from dried plants and is stored, or more specifically cured, in leather. You can see this still today in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan in the Tribal Areas and Peshawar. Often a goat skin is used. Point being, it’s north of the Indus, with the dry-sieving technique, that this name charas ultimately belongs.
But, for ‘ethnobotanists’, there’s more that can be said about leather bags, so-called beggars, and this culture of sieving, storing, curing, and carrying cannabis. In modern minds, the area of Afghanistan most closely associated with resin production is the Hindu Kush. But what little historic evidence there is suggests that the centre of gravity of the sieving technique lies further north, beyond these mountains. The first European record of charas is from Jean Baptiste-Tavernier, who observed the practice of smoking resin with tobacco in circa 1630s Persia and stated that the custom was introduced from Central Asia by Uzbeks. The broadest term for the region from which this product most probably originates is Turkestan, the tract of Central Asia which runs from the eastern shore of the Caspian right through to Xinjiang, Northwest China. During the late-nineteenth century charas boom in India, which was then the world’s largest market for Cannabis drugs, the major resin producer globally was almost certainly Xinjiang, homeland of the Uighurs, Muslim Turkestanis who cultivated Cannabis around oasis towns such as Yengisar and Yarkand. Annually, hundreds of tons of this leather-bound resin coursed into India through the passes of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush. But the finest charas of the era was associated with Bukhara (under which guise the better grades from Yengisar were often palmed off by merchants) in what is now Uzbekistan. This takes us closer to the likely historic epicentre of charas culture, to a region which has a multitude of names that in turn have as many interpretations, but for present purposes is perhaps best referred to as Khorasan. This hashish heartland—from northeastern Persia through northern Afghanistan as far as Bukhara and Samarkand—was the source of a sacramental cannabis culture that emerged from the obscurity of thirteenth-century Central Asia to take the medieval Muslim world by storm. This was the drug-fuelled counterculture of the qalandars, Islam’s original dope fiends.
The qalandars were anarchic wandering Muslim ascetics widely believed by their contemporaries—Arab and Persian, prohibitionists and enthusiasts alike—to be responsible for a sudden, unprecedented drug influx from the east, in what it’s now clear was one of history’s great waves of cannabis popularization. They live on in South Asia, though in far smaller and less influential numbers. Even prior to the thirteenth century, their practice of chronic sacramental intoxication had begun to spread westward and southward through an expanding network of khanqahs, or ‘houses of awareness’, religious retreats that had begun in Khorasan and offered lodging not only to mendicants (beggar–ascetics) but to any traveller in need of food and rest. These populist cultural centres functioned as alternatives to mosques and as nodes of a high-minded, increasingly high Islamic counterculture.
The pivotal years of this dope explosion were 1219–1221, when Gengis Khan undertook his merciless conquest of Khorasan (Khwarezmia), and the inhabitants of ‘Silk Road’ cities such as Balkh, Nishapur, Bokhara, and Samarkand were marched out onto the plains and slaughtered in their thousands. The bloodshed was so brutal and unprecedented that news of it travelled as far west as Britain. The Great Khan, like his grandson Hulagu, nurtured a special hatred for qalandars. A diaspora of stoned mystics fled south across the Indus to the Delhi Sultanate and west into Syria and Anatolia. The Damascus cleric Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328) wrote, “About the time of the appearance of the Tatars [Mongols], hashish went forth, and with it went forth the sword of the Tatars.” For Ibn Taymiyyah, whose more paranoid tendencies anticipate the politico-religious grievance culture that blights contemporary faith and the world in general these days, hashish was a calculated Mongol conspiracy sent to weaken and corrupt Dar al-Islam.
Qalandars were devoted to the ideal of tawwakul, by which they meant a life of wandering lived for God and God alone. They cultivated outrageous appearances that were intended to offend ‘bourgeois’ Muslim society, which they viewed as godless and materialistic. Muslim extremists of a very different kind from Isis or Al-Qaeda, they rejected shari’a law and institutional Sufism, shaved their heads, beards, moustaches, and sometimes eyebrows, and wore sacks, rags, black or white wool cloaks, loincloths, or often nothing at all. Characteristic gear included shaggy caps, buffalo horns, strings of molar teeth or pierced ankle bones, clubs, bells, long pipes, tambourines, and drums. Their weighty necklaces, earrings, and bracelets were those of slaves and signified their total subordination to Allah. From Khorasan, they brought their ecstatic cannabis culture to the Middle East, India, North Africa, the Balkans, and even southern Spain. Descending on the villages, towns, and cities of often deeply conservative societies in bands sometimes of a hundred or more, they sang, leapt like bears and monkeys, held drug-fuelled rituals of music and dance, whirled and twitched to the beat of drums, and inspired a historic surge of cannabis use across the Muslim world, the legacy of which lasts to this day. Better known in the West as fakirs or dervishes, their various sects appear to have been crucial to the history of resin. A standard piece of qalandar garb was the charas-dān, a leather pouch that hung at their waist from a belt. Often two pouches were carried, one holding flint or suchlike, the other their cannabis. In Baghdad, then a major centre of Islamic mysticism, cannabis thus became known as ‘daughter of the bag’, a play on an epithet for wine, ‘daughter of the cask’. ‘Charas’ may well share its origin with the term ‘kif’, which most likely originates from the Persian for bag (کیف), both names plausibly born from a meaning akin to the English ‘stash’. All of which tie to legends of the qalandars’ ‘discovery’, sometime around the thirteenth century, of something that Arabs knew by the name ‘hashish’.
The qalandar best known to western counterculture is Qutb al-Din Haydar. In popular works on pot he’s called Sheikh Haydar and features only as a vague figure in an equally vague legend of somehow discovering the intoxicating power of Cannabis. Usually an illustration shows a bearded man with turban and robes—a typical medieval Muslim. More accurate would be a bald, naked figure with no eyebrows, long thick moustache, beard singed off, heavy rings in both ears, iron collar, iron bracelets, and an iron rod run through his penis. Among Haydari qalandar adepts this signified sexual absistinence and transcendence of lust. (There’s a limit, clearly, to how far these groups can be seen as Muslim Merry Pranksters or the sheikh as a proto-Ken Kesey). In his spiritual potency, it’s said Haydar fashioned iron implements in his bare hands, the metal melting like wax as he shaped it round his neck or wrist. His khanqah lay in Khorasan, in the hills outside Nishapur, eastern Iran, not far from what’s now the border of Afghanistan. In 1211, according to the legend related by the Egyptian Arab historian Al-Maqrizi, Haydar broke a period of extended retreat and in deep depression wandered into the nearby mountains. There, his attention was caught by a shrub that, despite the still desert air, seemed to shimmer and glint, moved by its own inner force. We’re told he then partook of the plant, walked back to his khanqah beaming with delight and, when confronted by his inquisitive followers, shared this newfound secret.
There’s much in this legend that seems off—not least the idea that anyone living midway between Transoxiana and the Black Sea would, at this late date in history, be unaware of Cannabis or its effects. The qalandars are thought to have acquired their habit of chronic sacramental cannabis use from an earlier Khorasani group of quietistic Muslim radicals known as the Malamatis. Haydar himself is said to have been a Turkestani from aristocratic roots (quite probably descended from dope-fiend nomad nobility). No less problematic is the lack of detail about preparation. The legend implies Haydar simply ate the raw plant; but, in the absence of heat to decarboxylate THCA to THC, raw cannabis has little or no effect. Despite the appearance of accuracy in the precise date of 1211, this is an implausible tale. Importantly, it’s paralleled by others: Jamal al-Din Savi, founder of the Qalandars, is said to have made this same discovery in the same era. Then there’s Baba Ku of Balkh—in all likelihood a qalandar, though from Afghanistan eastward more often the favoured term is malang—who’s credited with bringing the same revelation to the Afghans. Lonely Planet doubtfully describes Baba Ku as ‘pre-Muslim’, but at least two shrines to him are tended by local malangs around Balkh. This historically important ‘Silk Road’ city lies north of the Hindu Kush in a region once known as Afghan Turkestan. This is the heartland of Afghan charas culture, the origin of its most widely admired strain, known to Afghans as Balkhi, Mazari, or Mazar-i-Sharif, and until a crackdown following the massive harvest of 2007, was the major centre for cultivation and production of its most refined resin. Crucially, these legends of discovering the potency of Cannabis gravitate toward the same tract of Central Asia from which most likely originated the practice of drying and sieving Cannabis, and curing and carrying resin in leather bags.
The garbled stories that have come to us through Arab scholars such as Al-Maqrizi appear to have one source of their confusion in the ambiguous meaning of the Arabic word ‘hashish’. Like the term ‘bhang’, hashish can refer to the Cannabis plant itself and to its preparations. To Arabs, hashish first meant ‘herb’, ‘weed’ or ‘plant stuff’ and, like bhang, could refer to coarse herbal cannabis, as well as confections and draughts thereof. Only over time did this word hashish tend toward the more limited meaning now ascribed to it by Westerners. Charas, by contrast, is seemingly only ever used to refer to resin. In this respect, it would trump hashish in a hypothetical match over ‘naming rights’ (Lebanese or Moroccan charas, anyone?). As for the qalandars’ alleged discovery, there are good reasons to conclude that these anarchic wanderers did not so much discover the potency of Cannabis as popularise a Khorasani technique for making cannabis more potent. As early as 850 CE, physicians in Baghdad—then the capital of the Caliphate in Islam’s Golden Age—used Chinese silk fabric, traded via sea or Central Asia, to sieve mixtures of herbal medicines. It’s likely knowledge of this filtering process had first travelled west with silk to Baghdad from Central Asia, and indeed that many of Baghdad’s physicians were Khorasani themselves, as was Avicenna (c. 980–1050 CE). Several sources from the pre-tobacco era Middle East and Anatolia indicate the new presence of sieved cannabis resin following the qalandar diaspora and Mongol conquest. By refining and concentrating coarse material through a gauze of taught fabric, ideally silk, several hundred grams of herb could be reduced to a portable quantity that was easily stored in a charas, a leather pouch, and carried far and wide, accelerating the process of popularisation. Portability and potency together were likely the initial impetus behind the spread of the sieving technique. As recently as the 1920s, it was noted by the American traveller Lowell Thomas that these leather charas pouches or wallets were the preferred means by which not just producers but Afghan consumers stored their stash.
Balkh’s charsis still tell how Baba Ku vanished when the Mongols sacked their city in 1220—a destruction from which it never recovered. Haydar is said to have perished a year later, presumably at the seige of Nishapur. For India as for the Middle East, it may be that the thirteenth-century qalandar diaspora introduced charas to the people en mass during the Delhi Sultanate. If not, then it certainly arrived during the further infusions of Turko–Persian cannabis culture that came with the Mughals, whose founding emperor, Babur (1483–1530), was an eloquent advocate of the pleasures of bhang. Reports from travellers suggest that it was only later, in the early seventeenth century, that Khorasan introduced to the world another innovation, the practice of smoking charas with tobacco, which apparently began with Uzbeks and Tajiks, and became a notable habit of Mughal and Afghan aristocrats. Charas was by then being imported into Mughal India from or through Kashmir and Kabul. I suspect it’s only subsequent to tobacco that charas began to be exported south from Central Asia in large quantities, commercially. No doubt travelers and traders such as Uighur and Pathan merchants played their part in bringing the sieving technique itself to Kashmir and Chitral—though the Hindu Kush remained primarily an intermediary in the trans-Himalayan charas trade until the early twentieth century and only secondarily an exporter, and that largely for the ‘black market’ of the northwest, now Pakistan.
Nineteenth-century sources suggest that the name charas was applied to hand-rubbed Himalayan resin in imitation of the Central Asian sieved form. There’s a word that, as far as I know, is used to refer to Cannabis resin only in the Indian Himalaya and Nepal, namely ‘attar’. Ultimately, like the metonym charas, the word ‘attar’ entered Indian languages from Persian, though it can describe any aromatic resin, essence, or oil, such as those used in Ayurveda. Again, the name indicates the centrality of Persianate culture to these cannabis traditions as we now know them and likely the role the Mughal-era charas trade played in shaping them, export from the mountains to the great plains cities such as Lucknow and Delhi booming in conjunction with the tobacco habit. ‘Attarchi’ and ‘attari’ are used by old-timers in the Uttarakhand Himalaya and Nepal for chronic smokers – in other words, ‘charsis’.
Hand-rubbed charas remains, as Clarke and Merlin state, the predominant form of resin found in the Indian and Nepali Himalaya. But the Kashmir Valley has a tradition of producing sieved resin that predates western Hippie Trail influences, as perhaps does the Garhwal Himalaya. The sieving technique is increasingly common in Himachal and Nepal. The only regions of the Himalaya west of Kathmandu where it appears yet to have penetrated are Kumaon and Far-Western Nepal. Outside of its Himalayan frontier, India’s hot and humid climate precludes the production of charas by dry-sieving, albeit there is always the exception that proves the rule. My assumption, however, is that the charas produced in regions such as Gwalior and Bihar was typically hand-rubbed.
For those with a keen interest in authenticity, it’s worth noting that a specific term for sieved resin is garda, meaning ‘dust’. To be deemed ready for smoking by any Afghan or Pakistani connoisseur, garda charas must be prepared. Tobacco-smokers usually achieve this by placing a piece of garda in their palm, adding a few drops of water, and working the resin with their thumb until it darkens and takes on a softer consistency. This is then made into a thin disk on the end of a match, lit for a second or two, and dropped into a bed of tobacco. Taken pure in an Afghan chillum, the resin is first cooked on a spike and when lit in the bowl must produce a tall flame several times before smoking commences. This pre-heating process is believed to improve potency and flavour.
In recent years, some of the finest sieved charas has been produced in Nepal. An expert Nepali producer I met in 2008 claimed to have learned the art in Morocco. His Moroccan teachers had themselves learned from Westerners, whose skills had in turn come from Afghans. Charas gets around, clearly, no less than its producers and consumers.
Historical records indicate the name charas derives from the leather bags Central Asian hashish was traded in, though much suggests its ultimate origin could be the stash pouches of radical dervishes and other consumers of cannabis. Tales of qalandar saints discovering the potency of Cannabis in the early thirteenth century very likely relate the popularisation of the dry-sieving technique for filtering and refining resin glands, its diffusion westward to mass popularity set in motion by the Mongol Conquest and most visibly championed by the qalandar diaspora of Khorasan. Where the metonym charas was coined is likely impossible to pin down, but the name ties to the product, and the product appears to have been popularized with the explosion out of Central Asia of its uniquely syncretistic forms of radical Persianate Islam, after which we see the first allusions to sieved resin in the Middle East.
UPDATE: Behold, an Afghan charas Olympian!