The history of cannabis in India

Cannabis is the most consumed drug in the world as it is easily available and because of the psychoactive effects it provides. This drug which has been widely spread across myriad cultures and countries is very emblematic in India and is more than a way for recreation. This article will show you the history of cannabis in India and how it impacted other cultures.

For the average pothead weed is just a way for fun, but as for the connoisseur they do know the history it has in cultures. India is the country where cannabis is omnipresent in its cultures; not because the people like to get high but because it is used in different religious rituals.

India and the Smoking Sadhus


Sadhus are holy men who have renounced to the conventional world, their possessions and families for the search of enlightenment. They live mostly in forests, caves and templates, live a life of celibacy and practice ascetic yoga. Sadhus can easily be distinguished by the ashes they spread on their body, their coiled hair and the very little amount of clothing they have.

They live mainly on donations from the population in exchange of their blessings and prayers. Though these men live a life of deprivation they are known to be frequent smokers of cannabis using long pipes known as chillum. It was believed that the Hindu god Shiva favored cannabis, hence to honor him the Sadhus smoke weeds during religious festivals like Maha Shivaratri. The holy men fore mostly used the effects of cannabis for deep meditation to get a better connection with the universe. The history of cannabis in India show us how the holy herb has a significant importance in the religious rites.

History of cannabis in India – The use of it by the general population

Cannabis grow wildly in India, partly thanks to its tropical climate and its hilly lands. It has been claimed that the plant is being used in the great peninsula for about 4000 years. It is interesting to note that there are five sacred plants in the Hindu culture; Tulasi, Sandalwood, Jasmine, Neem and the fifth one is Cannabis. In Nepal other than being used for religious festivals, cannabis is used during mourning, gathering and also as a way to reduce stress and anxiety in order to have better concentration.

Weed is also used in the Indian traditional medicine of Vedic known as Ayurvedic to treat health disorders like digestive problems, rheumatism, diarrhea, phlegm and gout. Indian farmers used it to reduce the pain of manual work, fight insomnia and increase their appetite. Cannabis was mixed with sweets for children so that they became more relaxed while the women where working in the field. It has been noted that it was even used to treat domestic animal with health disorders. Generally in old Indian tradition cannabis is used to treat illnesses caused by evil spirits.

Bhang paste -History of cannabis in India
Bhang paste

We generally think that cannabis is smoked, but the popular way it is consumed in India is in beverages. Though it is only recently that we are having cannabis edibles with the advent of it legalization in many parts of the world, it was already being consumed as foods or beverages there.

One of the famous Indian cannabis beverage which has been consumed for decades is called bhang. The cannabis buds and leaves are dried, ground, sautéed with ghee and soaked until a paste is obtained, it is then mixed with milk, yogurt or other beverages. The beverage is used for both spiritual and medicinal purposes and is usually prepared especially for the Hindu festival Holi.

The history of cannabis in India
A painting of Lord Shiva drinking Bhang

There is an Indian legend saying that after an angry discussion with his family, Shiva roamed in the fields. Weakened by the hot sun and depleted by the family clash he fell asleep under a mysterious plant. When he woke up he was so curious that he decided to consume some of the plant’s leaves. He felt so invigorated that he decided to make it his favorite food, and this is why the god Shiva is known as the Lord of Bhang.

Cannabis in India and its Influence in different cultures.

The history of cannabis in India is so significant that it had some major impact on other different cultures. With the migration of Indians to other countries, the diaspora has brought with them their cultures, rituals and food traditions like bhang recipes.

Many would think that Yoga and meditation were the only main things in India that have largely influenced the western countries. But you will be astonished to learn that is it the Indians who have introduced cannabis in Jamaica – a country which is strongly associated with weeds. It was brought in the 1850s and 1860s by indentured servants from India, during the time the British were ruling both Jamaica and India. You will note that many cannabis terms used in Jamaica, like ganja originated from Indian terms.

The history of cannabis in India
Bob Marley’s granddaughter Donisha Prendergast, with a Sadhu in India

These Indian people make Jamaica their home and with miscegenation a new form of Jamaican culture was born. You will note the strong similitude between Rastafarian and Sadhus, other than their physical appearance they share almost the same creeds. Cannabis is considered as a sacred herb which when consumed for meditation open the door to the cosmic consciousness. Moreover, both Rastafarian and Indian Sadhus do not give importance to the materialistic world and believe that the utmost achievement of man is enlightenment.

Cannabis Legislation in India

It has been estimated that around 7.2 millions Indians have consumed cannabis in 2019 and cannabis was legal in India until the 1980s. At that time it was sold in shops run by government and traded by the British East India Company. The War on Drugs campaign that President Nixon led in the US has put pressure on the government led by Rajiv Gandhi to pass Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act in 1985 and made hemp illegal. And as it were only cannabis substances termed as hemp which were illegal, it created a loophole for bhang to still be freely consumed during religious festivals.


The history of cannabis in India shows again (as in the Rastafari culture) that the use of weeds were initially for virtuous purpose like for spiritual rites and meditation purpose. Knowing this part of history will surely help to break the prejudice that cannabis is used only by stoners and that it can be used other than for recreational purpose.

I hope that you find this article interest, we will be more than happy to hear your views about it!