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Radical Sūfīs and Cannabis Culture in South Asia

Visitors to a large Hindu festival in north India, such as the Kumbh Melā, may be struck by the sight of holy men (sādhu / saṃnyāsī / yogī / bābā) or women (sādhvī / mātā jī) perhaps sporting dreadlocks and vigorously smoking cilams (clay pipes) containing a mixture of tobacco and cannabis. In holy cities such as Banaras, sometimes tucked away down a side-street, you may find a shop selling bhāṅg, in the form of small, dark green balls made from the pounded, lower leaves of the cannabis plant, usually mixed with some milk or yogurt and spices. These balls of bhāṅg are usually consumed either raw or made into a yogurt drink, the famous bhāṅg lassī. 

On the night of Śivarātri, a festival honouring the great god Śiva that takes place during the black moon in February, many north Indians eat bhāṅg and stay up at night singing religious songs to Lord Śiva. A popular, devotional folk-song for Śiva contains the line “bhog uska bhāṅg dhatūrā”, meaning “his food is bhāṇg and dhatūrā” (the seeds of datura/thorn-apple contain atropine, which is powerfully and dangerously hallucinogenic). 

The earliest evidence for the use of cannabis by humans is from Okinoshima in Japan, dating from 8,200 BCE (Samorini 2019:68); and in China and Europe from between the 7th and 4th millennia BCE (Sherratt 1991; Merlin and Merlin 2013:201; Samorini 2018:66). It is usually assumed that the use of cannabis is also very ancient in India. However, the available evidence suggests that the widespread, non-medical use of cannabis in the sub-continent may be less than 1,000 years old. There are a few references to cannabis in the Vedas (Atharvaveda 2.4.5; 8.8.3; 11.6.15), which are the oldest texts of South Asia, the composition of which dates to between around 1600–700 BCE. In the Vedas and ancillary texts cannabis is referred to as either bhāṅgā or śaṇa. However, this plant is not listed as one of those commonly used in Vedic culture (Rao, 1997:205). 

Many centuries later, there are a few references to cannabis in Brahmanical literature and Buddhist tantras (e.g. Gray 2007:373–4)—sometimes as vijayā, another synonym for cannabis—that date from around the middle of the first millennium CE (Grierson 1894:260). In the foundational texts of Āyurveda (the medical tradition of South Asia) by Caraka (c. 0–300 CE), Suśruta (c. 0–300 CE) and Vaghbaṭa (c. 600 CE) there are no references to cannabis (Meulenbeld 1989:61n.3, 64–66). However, by the 11th/12th century cannabis begins to appear in medical texts for a variety of ailments. In the Cikitsāsārasaṃgraha (‘Compendium of the essence of medicine) by the Bengali doctor Vaṅgasena, and in the Śabdacandrikā by Cakrapāṇidatta, cannabis is referred to as jayā, vijayā, trailokyavijāya, bhaṅgā, śaṇa and indraśaṇa (Grierson 1894; Dash 1989). During the 13th and 14th centuries references to cannabis in medical texts proliferate significantly (Wujastyk 2002).  

Although by around the beginning of the second millennium CE cannabis was known to South Asian medical authorities, it seems that the popularization of cannabis for non-medical purposes in South Asia was mostly due to the large-scale immigration into north India in the 13th century of radical Sūfīs who used bhāṅg to excess (Clark 2016; Digby 1984; Karamustafa 2006; Rosenthal 1971). These bands of radical Sūfīs, who mostly spoke Persian, were known variously as Qalandar, Haydarī or Malang, amongst other designations. 

Even though there is some evidence of Qalandar-like Sūfī ascetics before the 13th century (Tortel 2009), the most significant person in the development of this movement was an Iranian, Jamal al-Din Sāvī (d. 1232), who was born in Sāvah, south of Tehran. Sāvī, who had been initiated into Sūfism, was inspired while he was studying in Damascus by Jalāl Darguzīnī, an ascetic who lived naked but for leaves covering his genitals. Darguzīnī ate only leaves and weeds, used to sit motionless for long periods of time, sometimes in graveyards, and regularly consumed bhāṅg. 

Sāvī reacted against institutional Sufism and took to the radical path of the Qalandars, sometimes living in a tree, and became known as a “walking library” owing to his exceptional knowledge of religious and legal texts. He believed that he had discovered the secret of the divine revelation in cannabis intoxication (Karamustafa 2006:40ff.). The excessive use of cannabis, which was eaten, not smoked—the social habit of smoking only began in the 17th century (Indian Tobacco, 1960)—was one of the hallmarks of the Qalandars..  

The main places where Sāvī influenced the development of the Qalandar movement, which in the next two centuries spread throughout the Muslim world, all the way from Spain, through north Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia to China, were Damascus and Dalmietta (in Egypt), where Sāvī died (Karamustafa 2006:39). Another important figure in the development of the Qalandar movement was another Iranian, Qutb al-Din Haydar (d. 1222). Other significant branches of this movement included the followers of Bābā Barak, centred in Anatolya (in Turkey), the Abdals of Rūm (who had a reputation for being able to fly through supernatural power), the Jāmīs, the Shams-i-Tabrīzīs, and the Bektaṣīs. 

Qalandar ascetics who followed Sāvī, Haydar and other radical leaders, lived entirely outside the law (be-shar); they completely renounced wealth and property and were supposed to remain entirely celibate. They wished to rely only on God (tawakkul). Initiation into most sub-sects, particularly by the followers of al-Sāvī, entailed shaving the hair from four parts of the body: the hair, beard, moustache and eyebrows (char zarb); however, the followers of al-Haydar (the Haydarī) retained long moustaches. In conventional Islam the loss of one’s hair and beard symbolized a loss of social status. 

Qalandars often travelled in large bands, of up to a few hundred, and were known for begging aggressively and anti-social behaviour. They did not go to mosques nor did they regularly pray, but would utter mystic formulae, such as “God is the Creator”. One of the practices of some Qalandars was to gaze at good-looking, unbearded boys as the manifestation of a reflection of divinity. At night they would often dance, sing and bang tambourines or drums around fires. Some would walk on the hot coals of the fire; others ate snakes; some would pierce their bodies with swords or sharp, iron rods. 

The members of the various sub-sects of Qalandars wore distinctive apparel, which varied according the sub-sect they were in; most went barefoot. Some wore woolen or felt garments or animal hides. A distinctive hat, a begging bowl, animal bones, a club, a hatchet, a spoon, a candle, and a razor were their other distinguishing accoutrements. Followers of al-Sāvī wore sackcloth, while the Haydarīs were distinguished by their conical hats, iron collars, bracelets, chains and metal rings suspended from their genitals. Some Qalandars had dreadlocks, some were heavily tattooed, while others went entirely naked, covered merely with ash. In order to control the soul (nafs), some would perform penances such as remaining in icy water in the winter or around fires in the summer. 

The Qalandars were accused by many conventional Muslims as being entirely degenerate; and there was concern over the seduction of the youth into the movement. Although Qalandars occasionally ended up as advisors to various rulers, others, such as the Mongol Hülagü Khan who conquered large parts of Asia in the 13th century, sentenced many Qalandars to death; some had their nose and ears chopped off (Karamustafa 2006:56). 

Owing to the Mongol invasions into Central Asia in the 13th century, thousands of Qalandars migrated to north India, where by the 14th century they had become a familiar sight (Digby 1984). Sub-sects of Qalandars, such as the Jalālīs and the Madārīs (founded by Badi al-Din Qutb al-Mardar, d. 1440) augmented the significant Sūfī presence in north India from the 13th to 16th centuries. 

Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Qalandar movement, besides its influence on the renunciate traditions of India (Clark 2016), is the recreational use of cannabis, which today is still a feature of the religious and social landscape of various regions of South Asia. 


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Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.

Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).