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Opium, Empire, and India (Part I)

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is from new contributing editor Kawal Deep Kour, who received her PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology. Contact the author at Stay tuned for Part II!


In India, opium is variously referred to as kanee/kappa(the juice of opium being reduced to a dry state, the opium paste was then spread on narrow slips of cloth and later rolled into small bales);  amalpaani or kusumbhi/kusumbha(the opium is cut into small pieces, a little water added to it and mixed to a thick consistency. The mass is then put the mass into a thick woollen cloth, allowed to cool and then strained through. The decoction is drunk without any addition of sugar or anything to destroy the bitter taste. The proportion is usually one part of opium to 20 parts of water. It is a drink prepared from an infusion of poppy heads in water. The great Indian classics of Ayurveda (the traditional system of medicine incorporated in the Atharveda, the last of Vedas [regarded as the source of all knowledge in the Hindu system of philosophy]) like Caraka Samhita, Susruta Samhita and Ashtanga Hrdaya are silent on the use of opium. In the Indian classical texts, opium finds its first mention in the Sarangdhara Samhita, which is primarily a book on pharmacy and popular amongst the physicians of Rajasthan, supposed to be written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century AD, as aphiphena and nagaphena. A fifteenth century text contains reference to the extensive use of opium and its various preparations by the Hindu physicians are recorded. It appears from the available classical Indian medical literature that opium was first used as an aphrodisiac, then as anti-diarrhoeal and thereafter as an analgesic and sleep-inducer.

It was used in wide and various ways by the people, depending on their means and tastes. The essential product was mixed with tobacco or spices and either drunk or smoked. The common mode of consuming opium in India was in the form of pills. In some parts of the country and chiefly on social and ceremonial occasions, a decoction of opium was served. In Punjab and a few other tracts in upper India, an infusion of the capsule of the poppy, called the posth was drunk in the villages. In Patiala of Punjab, a compound called the ‘Barsh’ or the ‘Judwa’ (of which opium formed an important part) was administered by the native medical practitioner-the Hakim, though this practice is reported to be uncommon. In Rajputana, the popular mode of consumption was a drink made of opium called ‘Gholua’ and a refined form of the decoction called the ‘Beni’ in Kathaiwar. This common and well established custom was replaced by smoking preparations of opium in India is known as chandu and madak around 1700 AD and was a Chinese novelty. Though initially confined to the larger towns and military cantonments, it soon percolated down to the lowest rungs of the society. The habit of smoking ‘madak’ though already in vogue in eastern parts of India, was looked down upon in some other societies.


Nevertheless, every province had its share of percentage of regular users as well as a large number of people who used opium only on special occasions. In India, it was a favourite with the native practitioners- the Hakims, Vaids, Bej, Ojha etc., who used it to treat a variety of afflictions of the body and mind. It was used to treat headaches, fevers and chills (including malaria), stomach aches, diarrhea, dysentery and asthma, tuberculosis (“bloody coughing”), fatigue and anxiety. Opium was also used for symptoms of venereal diseases and gynaecological afflictions and for pain caused by injuries such as sprains, dislocations and broken bones. Because of its analgesic and other medicinal properties, ingested opium clearly provided relief from the pain associated with these conditions and ameliorated many other symptoms as well. It was also prescribed for many bovine ailments which also explains its popularity among a people for whom agricultural pursuits constituted the main source of livelihood. For many people, opium smoking took the edge off the routine physical discomforts of life. Women also ate and smoked opium with their male counterparts.

In the tea gardens and rice growing tracts of the east where malaria and kala-azar had reached epidemic proportions, and where the cultivator had to spend several hours exposed to the wet and the chill, it was used to cure fevers and chills. Opium was occasionally issued on the advice of a medical officer in special circumstances, particularly for troops employed in fighting and road making amongst the snowy ranges of Sikkim. The use of opium as a stimulant in physical emergencies seems to prevail more in the north of India, particularly in Punjab to ward off the severity of the winter months. The Sikh soldiers were known to be among the heaviest consumers of opium. Administering of opium to infants was an ordinary part of the domestic life of the country.  The practice of giving ‘balagoli’ to infants was given up to the age of 2 and a half years and even 3 years of age was common.

How intertwined was opium to the lives of the people of most part of India can be gauged from the potentially wide range of social and religious activities of which it formed a significant aspect. Whether it was celebrations as marriages, birth of a child, as a gesture of greeting friends and relatives or a seal of reconciliation between warring states or adversaries and even at funerals, consumption of opium was seen as a marker of social status, custom and a ritual. Tobacco smoking and betel-chewing cultures of the eastern part and of bhang in most part of the country had assisted opium’s favourable acceptance in the way of life of various cultures in the country. It certainly was a favourite indulgence, which was cherished by the users, as is evidenced by the distinctive mode of preparation which imparted to it a distinctive characteristic. Whether to the wide and varied users of opium, it was a favourite pastime or an aphrodisiac or panacea is yet to be ascertained with certainty. However, it was the proliferation among the lower strata, the ‘downward diffusion’ as Yangwen (2003:1-39) makes us believe, as was the case with tea and opium in China, that made it a visible social problem. The imageries of ‘opium intoxicated, effeminate and opium sot’ began to dominate the imperial accounts and the missionary literature including vernacular writings from the end of the nineteenth century. This was attended by a host of economic, social, administrative and legal ramifications for the provinces where it was consumed by the majority as culture and custom. The variant patterns of usage enabled in exploring the ‘indigenous use of psychoactives alongside mirroring the society’s level of political complexity. The identification of India as a land of ‘great opium eaters’ spawned up the propaganda of the ‘civilising mission’ ushering in a new era of material exploitation and political domination. The identification was to have a significant impact on the development of regulation of opium and its use.


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