Ganja: a long and troubled history from sanskrit to breaking bad
What does ‘ganja’ mean?
Although everyone associates it with Jamaica and Bob Marley, the term has a centuries-old history with roots on the other side of the world.
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More precisely, in India.
Let’s find out why.
Origin of the term ‘ganja
The Hindi word ‘ganja’ is inherited from the ancient Sanskrit language, which is believed to be the language of origin of the term and refers specifically to flower buds.
Furthermore, in Hindi, ‘Charas’ indicates the resin, and ‘Bhang’ refers to the leaves and seeds of the plant and a milky tea prepared from it. The evolution of ganja is an example of ancient wisdom that has surrounded the world for thousands of years, just like the plant that has been shared among peoples and cultures to improve life.
The Sanskrit term made its debut in the vocabulary in the late 19th century thanks to Indian workers in Jamaica.
In particular, Indian swamis had a profound relationship with ganja, using it in Indian folk medicine as an aphrodisiac and painkiller.
But that’s not all.
You must know that cannabis culture has different tropes, terminology, and references worldwide. In every language and every region, there are from a handful to dozens of names that people use for the plant. Either way, ‘ganja’ is one of the most well-known and ubiquitous terms when meeting other users. No matter where you are, people associate it with Jamaica, Reggae and the Rastafarian religion (which we will discuss in a moment).
But, as we said, although it was the Jamaicans who established the cultural and philosophical meaning of the term ganja in its present form, the word itself originates from India.
Ganja from East to West
Like the other Caribbean islands, Jamaica was colonized by European nations from the 1500s onwards.
The indigenous people who had lived there since around 600 AD—the Tainos—were enslaved, starved and exploited by the Spanish colonizers. Over fifty years, almost the entire population was wiped out.
After the Spanish came the English, whose military conquered the island in 1655, and the English colonizers exploited Jamaican resources. For example, they used the island for sugar cane production, enriching themselves with the labour of West Africans enslaved for the harvest. As a result, many escaped and lived within the island, creating free black communities, evading capture and resisting the colonizers.
These people became known as Maroons.
After Britain abolished the human trafficking industry, emancipated people in Jamaica no longer wanted to work for the British sugar cane operations, so the empire began to seek a new source of labour for the plantations.
While the end of the transatlantic slave trade led to the dismantling of much of the human trafficking infrastructure that the British Empire had embraced for so long, it did not stop the human traffickers from leaving the empire or changing their practices slightly.
That’s right. You read that right.
In 1845, Britain began trafficking indentured servants from India to work on sugar cane plantations. Remember that between 1845 and 1917, Britain brought almost 40,000 people from India to the Jamaican plantations!
The struggle against colonial exploitation continued under a new set of definitions, but with these workers came cannabis and knowledge of its many preparations, including ganja.
And the gift that Hindi speakers brought to the island would change Jamaica forever.
Ganja and Rastafarianism
The interweaving of Indian and Jamaican cultures that followed brought the word ‘ganja’ to Jamaica.
By the early 20th century, smoking ganja had become a common practice among young black Jamaicans working in the fields. The black and pan-African power message of Rastafarianism found fertile ground among this disenfranchised population.
When many of these workers were displaced and moved to poor urban areas, the message of the spiritual use of ganja, Pan-Africanism and black liberation was reinforced.
The Jamaican elite felt threatened by this movement, and in 1948, ganja was made illegal. Thus, by the mid-20th century, ganja had become an integral part of the anti-establishment movement that is Rastafarianism.
What is the significance of ganja today? Modern references.
Through reggae music, cultural figures such as Bob Marley popularized Rastafarianism and ganja, and the recognition of both increased rapidly in Western culture.
Even today, we still associate the word ganja with Jamaican culture.
Even if we pay little attention to the word’s origin, the term ganja appears almost everywhere in Western cannabis, from specialist shops to seed banks, from music to movies.
And as we have seen, indeed, the ubiquitous word has a vibrant history.
As its notoriety has grown, the term has made several appearances in art and culture outside of music. One of the first uses of ‘ganja’ in cinema is the 1980 British film Babylon, a story of young black men in London during the global rise of Reggae. This film represented the final step towards the spread of ganja.
Since then, the popularity of the term has skyrocketed, with references in countless films, including:
- Lock & Stock—Mad Men Gone Wild;
- 8 Mile;
- Children of Men;
- Let’s Get It Over With;
- Bad Boys;
- Adventure land;
- or many others.
The term has also been used in many television series, including in the 1990s Tales from the Crypt and The Sopranos, as well as in Scrubs and Breaking Bad.
This article was intended to give a general overview of the history of the term ‘ganja’.
Today its usage is mixed with a myriad of other terms used interchangeably for cannabis, but ‘ganja’ remains one of the most iconic, with a global history spanning thousands of years.
Although many slang terms for the herb have been embraced with love by consumers around the world, only ‘ganja’ has a legacy so long that it inspires people to prioritize unity and hope in the face of oppression.