Seedsman Blog
Home » The Himalayan Women Who Make Cannabis Resin – Charas

The Himalayan Women Who Make Cannabis Resin – Charas

To celebrate Women in Weed week here at Seedsman, this blog will look at women’s ancient role in harvesting psychoactive cannabis resin (charas) [caras] in the Himalayas.

Where Charas Comes From

Making hashish resin using sieves of various kinds has been common practice in places like Xinjiang Province (in south-west China), Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon (see the blog ‘Hashish’) for perhaps 1,000 years. However, no one really knows how old this technology is. In Kashmir, the Himalayan mountainous region that straddles India and Pakistan, the traditional method there is similarly to sieve cannabis resin to make hashish, which they call garda, meaning ‘dust’. Confusingly, in Xinjiang and Pakistan, sieved hashish is also sometimes referred to as ‘charas‘.

However, in the adjoining Indian states of Uttaranchal (previously known as Uttarakhand) and Himachal Pradesh, and also in some regions of Nepal, there is a method of extracting cannabis resin from the buds of mature, female buds—which is well known to cannabis connoisseurs—that until the 1970s was almost unique in the world. This is the method of hand-rubbed charas, which is far more labour-intensive than making sieved hash, and, by quantity, takes much more time to produce.

A distinctive feature of charas is that a stick or ball of charas may be made from just one or a few neighbouring plants, whereas sieved hashish is produced from fields of many plants. This means that a stick of charas may have a unique flavour and taste.

Since the 1970s, entrepreneurs have introduced the Himalayan technique of making charas to other countries, including Jamaica, Mexico, and Colombia. Several years ago, when I was in Brazil, I was given an excellent piece of charas that had been made in Bolivia.

Travellers Discover High-Quality Charas

In some regions of the Himalayas, which stretch between Pakistan and almost as far as Myanmar (Burma), through Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and the mountainous states of India, cannabis covers the tumbling, verdant slopes as far as the eye can see. Acres of wild-growing cannabis can also be seen on the mountainsides of Yunnan Province of south China.

In the mid-1960s, young, adventurous travellers discovered the high-quality charas of Himachal Pradesh, particularly from the Parvati/Parbati valley. Charas is also made in other parts of Himachal Pradesh, such as in Chamba District, in the mountains of Uttaranchal (Uttarakhand), in the neighbouring districts of Garhwal and Kumaon; and in parts of Nepal. However, apart from a few exceptions, the charas made in those regions is slightly less potent as it is made at lower altitudes.

A crucial threshold for potent charas is 2,700 metres. This is because there is more ultra-violet light at higher altitudes, and ultra-violet light causes increased resin in the buds, as the resin is produced by the plant to protect them from the sun’s burning rays and to repel predators such as insects. Charas made in Kumaon, and Garhwal derives mostly from plants growing at less than 2,000 metres and so tends to be less potent. However, there are a few spots in these regions where relatively small quantities of high-altitude and high-quality charas may be found.

Making Charas

If carefully rubbed, around ten gms of high-quality charas can be made in a day. However, if more pressure is applied to the buds, more material—perhaps up to 30 gms—can be extracted, but it is of lower quality as it will contain plant matter, in the form of leaves, and water in the leaves. The presence of water in the charas will cause it to become mouldy: within a few weeks, a white fungus appears in the resin. This mould tastes unpleasant, and smoking it can cause respiratory problems. It is essential that the rubber does not have any sweat or water on the palms of the hands.

After removing larger leaves, the buds of particular plants are selected and rubbed lightly between the palms for around a minute or so; the rubber then moves on to the next bud or plant (see Hempvati 2020). The resin accumulated on the palms is periodically rubbed or scraped off the palms onto a sheet of some kind. It is then usually shaped into flat patties round disks. Charas is also sometimes pressed into balls, sticks and twisted sticks. If rubbed very carefully, a patty may be partially translucent. Being pure resin, some light can be seen passing through it. The highest quality charas is often called ‘cream’

Special Highs from the Valley

The potency and taste of charas are determined by several factors, including plant variety, soil conditions and altitude. It was mentioned earlier that charas made from plants over 2,700 metres tends to be more potent, owing to altitude. Another of the factors pertinent to parts of Himachal is that some native plant varieties contain THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin), a chemical found only, as far as I am aware, in some cannabis varieties from some regions of the Himalayas and parts of southern Africa, notably in the Durban Poison strain. This chemical inhibits appetite (Abioye et al. 2020; Cristino and Di Marzo 2016:464) and pain (Costa and Comelli 2016:479) and provides a distinctive high: clear, smooth and non-spikey. This effect is well-known by connoisseurs of high-grade charas.

The village of Malana lies high up in a side valley branching off from Parvati, situated at around 10,000 feet (around 3,000 metres). Some of the weed there grows even higher, at nearly 4,000 metres. Besides having its own, unique language and customs, Malana is perhaps the most renowned of the villages in Himachal for its superb charas (see Hempvati 2020), even though there are other regions of Himachal where equally good quality charas is still produced.

Women Who Produce Charas

Before the 1960s and the hippie revolution, charas was made locally in Himachal Pradesh and other charas producing regions in the mountains almost exclusively by local women. It is interesting to note that, contrastingly, sieved hashish, wherever in the world that it is produced, is made and has always been made almost entirely by men.

Reviewing the early history of agriculture, Graeber and Wengrow (2021:237) comment that:

“Consciously or not, it is the contributions of women that get written out of…accounts [of the history of agriculture]. Harvesting wild plants and turning them into food, medicine and complex structures like baskets or clothing is almost everywhere a female activity, and may be gendered female even when practised by men. This is not quite an anthropological universal, but it’s about as close to one as you are ever likely to get…[W]here evidence exists, it points to strong associations between women and plant-based knowledge as far back as one can trace such things”.

In October, which is the main rubbing season, after the end of the monsoon rains, women of all ages, but particularly middle-aged women, rub charas for the men in the family. The women of the family often go together to the fields to rub. Children also enjoy making charas, and during the season time it was not uncommon, from the 1970s to the 1990s, to be met on a mountain path by children with sticky palms offering charas for sale.

The women sometimes sing traditional, charas-making songs as they rub the charas together (see P M 2018). Himachali women only rarely smoke charas; they make it for the men to smoke. Some of the men would sell it on, but until the 1970s there was relatively very little business going on.

Women also collect cannabis seeds to make a kind of porridge, known as phemṛā. Crushed seeds, mixed with a small amount of rice, salt, a primitive, local grain called saryara (which is a fine, red-coloured amaranth), and a lot of water are cooked over a slow heat.

Improved Charas and Business

In the mid-1960s a few (mostly French) young travellers discovered the high-quality charas of Parvati valley. They encouraged some local people to improve the quality, through lighter rubbing: less quantity, but higher quality. At the end of the charas season, around the end of October or mid-November, some travellers would take charas to Goa and enjoy winter on the beaches there. This process began the Goa/Himachal connection. For many years, around 60% or 70% of the restaurant staff in Goa are seasonal workers from Himachal Pradesh, who descend to work in Goa from October to April. Some hotels in Himachal are jokingly referred to by locals as being “made of charas“.

The charas business developed over the years, becoming an important commercial crop, alongside apples, in parts of Himachal Pradesh, particularly in the valleys near Kullu and Manali. It is collected from plants either in small fields or rubbed from wild plants. Charas made in fields is referred to as bhagīchā [bhagīcā], while charas from the wild is called jaṅgal. Even in the 1990s, plots of weed could still be seen not far from the small, winding road running through Parvati.

However, increasing police activity in recent decades has driven charas production to increasingly remote corners of the valleys, some of them nowadays accessible only to people with the tenacity and the climbing skills of a mountain goat. In the season time, helicopters with infra-red cameras search for hidden plantations. Weed shows up as a bright orange patch on the screen. Is it not incredible to spend so much money looking for a wild vegetable?! After the prohibition of smokable (but not edible) cannabis in India in 1986, getting caught with any quantity of charas over 10 gms can lead to a lengthy spell in prison: it’s a dangerous business.

Changing Patterns of Harvest

These days, some women still rub charas. However, over the decades more and more men have become involved in rubbing charas and the charas business, replacing the women. It is now not uncommon for male, Nepali workers to be hired for the rubbing season. The mountain women who still now rub charas may be the last generation to do so, as the younger women in the area now only rarely rub plants during the season time.

References

Abioye, Amos, Oladapo Ayodele, Aleksandra Marinkovic, Risha Patidar, Adeola Akinwekomi, and Adekunle Sanyaolu (2020). ‘∆9-Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV): a commentary on potential therapeutic benefit for the management of obesity and diabetes. Journal of Cannabis Research, vol. 2, article no. 6, 31st January.

Costa, Barbara, and Francesca Comelli (2016) [2014]. ‘Pain’. In Roger G. Pertwee (ed.), Handbook of Cannabis, pp. 473–486. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cristino, Lugia, and Vincenzo Di Marzo (2016) [2014]. ‘Established and Emerging Concepts of Cannabinoid Action on Food Intake and their Potential Application to the Treatment of Anorexia and Cachexia’. In Roger G. Pertwee (ed.), Handbook of Cannabis, pp. 455–472. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graeber, David, and David Wengrow (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Dublin: Penguin Books/Random House/Allen Lane.

Hempvati (Priya Mishra) (2020) ‘Malana Village Traditional Budtendering by Gori Mausi’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7zrSRgGg-w

P M (2018). ‘PART 2 Kasol Malana song while making Malana cream Magical Parvati Valley’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKPrLfPQwVQ

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).