Charas or Hashish? The Straight Dope on Old-School Cannabis Resin

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 dope culture outside Asia, and it’s this that the inaccuracy in Clarke’s recent work seems to play to. More than anything, such mistakes reflect how few outsiders have made it to the Hindu Kush and northern Afghanistan in recent decades, and indeed how unreliable the received Hippie Trail wisdom about the Cannabis from these crucially important regions can be—not just with respect to resin, but also botany.

But let’s stick with 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. The regional pronunciation is closer to ‘chaars’. 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’s etymology, as with many in any Indo-European language, be it English or Assamese, likely does stem back to 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 likely originates north of the Black Sea. Crucially, Dymock et al. are clear that use of the term charas for Cannabis resin is ‘comparatively recent’, and by that they mean recent relative to works like the Atharva Veda (the last of the Vedas, dating to perhaps 1000800 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 its association with Cannabis resin in fact belongs to the medieval Muslim era and the dope culture and techniques of Central Asia. With that, there’s an ambiguous suggestion from these Victorian Britishers that charas culture may have involved people who they allude to, with typical colonial hauteur, simply as ‘beggars’.

The term 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 hand-rubbed Himalayan dope but the sieved or sifted form that Clarke and Merlin seem to believe is best referred to as ‘hashish’. In fact, 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, whereas 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. 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 broadest term for the region from which charas 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 Karakoram and Hindu Kush. But the finest charas of the era was associated with Bukhara (under which guise the better resins 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 from around the thirteenth century CE emerged from the obscurity of 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 an 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. From the thirteenth century, their practice of chronic sacramental intoxication 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.

Qalandars were devoted to the ideal of tawwakul, 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 shariah law and conventional 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, clubs of pierced ankle bones, 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 dope-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, a leather pouch that hung from their waist; 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’). With all this go several legends of the qalandars’ ‘discovery’, sometime around the thirteenth century, of something the Arabs knew by the name ‘hashish’.

The qalandar best known to western cannabis culture is Qutb al-Din Haydar. In popular works, 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 Nisharpur, 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 foothills, where 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 a ninth-century Khorasani group of 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 other legends: Jamal al-Din Savi, founder of the Qalandars, is said to have made this same discovery in the same era. Then there’s the legendary Baba Ku of Balkh—in all likelihood a qalandar-type ascetic along the lines of the figures known regionally as 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 malang 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 a discovery of 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 ‘plant stuff’ or ‘herbage’ 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, has only ever refered to resin. In this respect, it trumps hashish when it comes to naming rights over it (Lebanese or Moroccan charas, anyone?). As for the qalandars’ alleged discovery, there are good reasons to conclude that these wanderers did not so much discover the potency of Cannabis as popularise a Khorasani technique for making cannabis more potent. 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. And as recently as the 1920s, it was noted by the American traveller Lowell Thomas that these leather pouches or wallets were the preferred means for not just producers but Afghan consumers to store their stash.

For India, the qalandar drug counterculture appears most likely to have been the first route through which the name charas arrived across the Indus, during the Delhi Sultanate, followed by a further infusion of Turko–Persian cannabis culture that came with the Mughals, whose founding emperor, Babur (1483–1530), was an eloquent advocate of its pleasures. Reports from travellers suggest that it was only later, around 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 became a notable habit of Mughal and Afghan aristocrats. I suspect it’s only subsequent to tobacco that charas began to be exported south to India in large quantities, commercially. No doubt Uighur merchants also played their part in bringing the sieving technique itself to Kashmir and Chitral, as did Pathans—though the Hindu Kush remained principally 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’. Nineteenth-century sources strongly suggest that the name charas was applied to hand-rubbed resin in imitation of the Central Asia sieved form.

There’s a word that as far as I know is used to refer to Cannabis resin only in India and Nepal, namely ‘attar’. Clarke and Merlin wrongly imply it’s local to the Kumaon Himalaya, but it’s just a Hindi term (there’s no ‘group’ of so-called ‘Kumaons’ known as ‘the attarchis’; like charsi, this would just means stoner, if it’s even used.) Ultimately, like charas, the word ‘attar’ entered Indic languages from Persian, though it can describe any aromatic resin, essence, or oil, such as those used in Ayurveda.

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 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.

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.

8 responses to “Charas or Hashish? The Straight Dope on Old-School Cannabis Resin

  1. This is such a fantastic article! Thank you for taking the time to post it! You have expanded my knowledge and for that I am grateful!

  2. Pingback: Afterthoughts about ‘Charas or Hashish?’ | The Real Seed Company Blog·

  3. Pingback: 10 Quick Questions with The Real Seed Company | The Real Seed Company Blog·

  4. Pingback: Landraces: Myth-Busting Wild Cannabis and Traditional Strains | The Real Seed Company Blog·

  5. Great article although, if I may, there is no such thing as “sieved charas”, since “charas/Chaars” designate a specific state of the resin, meaning that one which has been cooked (it’s also simply the name of the plant in N. Afghanistan areas). Before cooking, the sieved resin is called “garda”.
    Origin of the name is interesting, beside being that of leather pouch wherein it’s stored & cured, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also in reference of the material itself (more than what it is made into?) as charas looks and feels like leather.
    Keep it up! 🙂

    • Hi Mriko, great to hear from you, thanks for commenting. I’m going to have to disagree with you on this though.

      It’s evident throughout historical sources and from experience that charas refers to any form of Cannabis resin, be it hand-rubbed or sieved, and regardless of whether the sieved resin has been processed into a paste. It’s true that processed charas can be differentiated from unprocessed charas by calling one ‘charas’ and the other ‘garda’, respectively. But garda is also known throughout the sources and in my own experience as ‘garda charas’ and ‘charas’. Charas refers to any form of Cannabis resin but the term originates with the sieved form. To insist that it only refers to processed resin would be like insisting that bhang only refers to processed bhang paste and not to the bhang plant or other cannabis preparations.

      Regarding the name ‘charas’ – it specifically refers to the pouch of leather rather than the leather itself. The same name applies to leather pouches used on water wheels etc. It doesn’t designate leather per se.

      To the best of my knowledge, the word charas alone would only be used to refer to a plant in a very loose way, in the sense that a field of grapes might be referred to as wine. To call a plant charas afaik you need to specify ‘charas plant’ as in afaik “butah’hā-yi chars” (بوته های چرس). Alone, charas itself afaik doesn’t denote the plant, which is known by the Persian name ‘bhang’ or ‘bang’. Bhang is also a general name for cannabis products, including resin. As with most cannabis terminology, there’s a great deal of overlap and insisting on precision is often to forfeit accuracy.

    • Just to add to my previous reply:

      Yes, a distinction is made in that ‘garda’ (literally, ‘dust’) refers only to ‘raw’, unprocessed resin. It’s a specific term, in that you can’t call the processed product garda.

      But the point is, charas is a more general category: garda is a form of charas, and so too the hand-rubbed resin from the Indian and Nepali Himalaya is a form of charas.

      When I was most recently in Pakistan, I would ask for garda, because it’s harder to adulterate so a better way to get a pure product. Most smokers given the choice do this and then ‘process’ the garda themselves by adding a few drops of water to a piece, blending it with their thumb in their palm, shaping it into a disk on a match and lighting it. At the shop of a well-known dealer in Chitral I asked for charas. He handed me a few wrapped pieces, and I then remembered to ask him if he had any garda. He said, “that is garda”. I looked closely at the pieces and realised it was indeed garda, in this case golden Tirah garda that had started to fuse and melt into itself, becoming much darker.

      Garda is a form of charas as is also clear in historical descriptions of charas production in 19th century Turkestan and South Asia, such as this from Flückiger’s Pharamacographia of 1879: “charas, which is brought from Yarkand, is a brown earthy-looking substance, forming compact yet friable, irregular masses…” Friable means easily crumbled. There are plenty of other examples, but just as one, Punjab Products, 1868: “There is a kind of charas called garda which is much in use…”

Leave a Reply to The Real Seed Company Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s