Hemp - history
OriginsHemp originated in Central Asia where it was cultivated as a fibre and food crop. Three secondary centres of diversity evolved as cultivation spread eastwards towards East Asia, India and Europe. Cultural differences within these areas helped shape three specific groups of cultivars.
Characteristics were developed according to the intended use for the plants. Indian varieties were developed with high levels of the psychoactive drug tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC. European plants were selected for their seed yield which was used as a food and for oil. Chinese types characteristically contained high levels of stem fibre and low levels of THC.
|It was noted on the reverse of this 18th century illustration that hemp was grown all over India for intoxification, but never for cordage.|
Today hemp is cultivated in warm-to-temperate regions all over the world. In South Asia, it has become naturalised in the cooler regions of the north. It is cultivated in South Asia as a source of a fibre, seed and to produce narcotics.
HistoryIn India hemp was mainly used as a stimulant and a medicine. Indian medical texts such as the Susrutha Samhita mention the use of bhang, which is the dried leaves and flowering shoots, to treat colds and phlegm. Traditional Ayurvedic medicine esteemed the qualities of bhang to quicken the mind, cool fevers, induce rest and cure dysentery.
The Indians gave the name bhang (or bhanga) to hemp, although there is a question as to whether the bhang of the ancient Sanskrit texts is in fact hemp. An alternative view suggests that hemp may not have reached India until the Muslim conquests around 1100 AD. Bhang played an important role in Indian religion in ancient times and was considered sacred to Shiva. Valued for its capacity to suppress the appetite and stimulate thought-processes, it was significant in the worship of Shiva who was the brooding Supreme Yogi or Ascetic. Bhang was drunk as a sacrament to Shiva and used in rituals by his devotees. The dried flowering tops of female plants, known as ganja, was also smoked by devotees to help them meditate.
Hemp was added to incense and burnt in temples in India and other parts of Asia. In Hindi mythology the term Siddhu, meaning perfect, was applied to monks that used banga to concentrate their minds so they could find their way to the true God.
In India the Aryans used hemp as part of their religious rituals and there is a close link between these uses and the medicinal properties. According to the Vedas written about 1100 BC the god Shiva brought hemp from the Himalayas for the pleasure of mankind. The gods stirred the oceans from Mount Mandara (thought to be Everest) and a drop of celestial nectar fell on the earth. This created the first hemp plant and was named 'sacred grass' or 'food of the gods'.
Traditionally in India the resin from hemp was for the use of Brahmin priests and holy men only. There are stories in the literature that the holy men who walked on hot embers or beds of nails had taken hemp to decrease the pain.
Hemp was also known to ward off evil spirits. It was a magical plant. These magical properties formed the basis for many of the tales of the Arabian nights and it is thought that story telling such as this may have led to the use of hemp as a narcotic drug in Europe.