How Indians Intoxicated Themselves in the 19th Century: The Case of Gorakhpur

How Indians Intoxicated Themselves in the 19th Century: The Case of Gorakhpur

A fascinating report by a colonial British bureaucrat published in 1890 reveals the substances that Indians used to intoxicate themselves in north western India.


THE BRITISH ACQUIRED AND SUSTAINED THEIR INDIAN EMPIRE using  multi-pronged tactics apart from war. Topmost among these was a thorough and microscopic study of everything they observed and heard here. From the variations of the green colour of the plantain leaves growing throughout India to the curvature of the water-pot from which say, a Bania drank. Nothing escaped their attention. Needless, they meticulously documented these studies in a prolific fashion. 

An interesting area of these studies included the intoxicants that we consumed in the 19th century. Our archives revealed an intriguing report titled The Stimulants of the Classes published in 1890 in Calcutta. Written in typical bureaucratese, it gives us a rather captivating portrait of this ubiquitous slice of daily life of our society. Typically, the report classifies the intoxicants on the basis of “castes” and “classes” of the Indian society.  As a historical record, it is quite valuable.

Beginning with this, we offer some excerpts from that report, slightly edited for clarity and formatting. 

Happy Reading!

The Stimulants of the Classes

OF THE MANY INTERESTING POINTS connected with the excise administration of India, the one that appears to have most escaped notice is the question of the favourite form of stimulant of each caste and tribe. The relative advantages of the different systems, and the increase and decrease of revenue and consumption have been themes of discussions for years. 

But the questions, “what people drink?" and “what people smoke ? ” and so on, are really deserve prior consideration. It is no doubt, a very simple plan to govern on first principles and say: “It is a bad thing for natives to consume stimulants of any kind. There shall, therefore, be prohibition.” 

On the other hand, it is very easy to refer to ancient history—how Akbar had his wine parties and argue that things ought to be the same now. But the impottance of an accurate knowledge of the nature and amount of stimulants at present consumed by each class has not always been understood.

About the year 1874, Mr. Clarmont Daniell, Collector of Kanpur, made the liquor-sellers all over the district record the caste of every man that came into their shops for a drink. The report of the North Western Provinces for the year 1873-74, contains the following mention of the experiment —“For the last two years, Mr. Daniell has been collecting information of the number of purchases of spirit made by different castes, the retail vendors in the city and cantonments, as well as in the district, recording the number of daily sales and specifying the caste of the purchasers.” The numbers are reported [below].

DURING THE LAST YEAR (1879), enquiries of this nature have been made in the district of Gorakhpur. The use of stimulants of some kind is found necessary by nearly every one in that district, owing to the malarious and depressing climate… But, such it is, the result is as follows.

The stimulants used are tobacco, preparations of hemp, preparations of poppy and alcohol. Tobacco is consumed in three forms, smoking tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff. The last two forms of consumption are common to all classes; the former is considered a digestive, and the name of the latter is Brain-clearer, which explains itself. Tobacco is not smoked by the Brahmans of the place, and they look with some contempt on the westernised Brahmans who have no holy horror of the chillum.

Opium is eaten and drunk and smoked, and there is no prohibition of it in any class. The cultivators of the poppy keep the scrapings of their pots to use as medicine, and bring it to use for every kind of sickness. But the chief consumption of opium is in large towns, at Raja’s courts, or among town-bred men living in the country. 

The drinking of opium dissolved in water is not very common, and is mainly practised for coolness’ sake in the hot weather. Opium is smoked as either kafe, or madak, or chundu, and is eaten by habitual opium eaters, simply for the sake of the intoxication. 

In the city of Gorakhpur, with a population of about 60,000 people, a recent census of opium eaters and smokers gave a total of 998 Mussulmans and 190 Hindus. 

The detail of the Musalmans is as follows. 

The Hindus show an equal variety of occupations and castes.

EVEN IN THE REST of the Gorakhpur district, the Musalmans consume more opium than the Hindus. In four of the sub-treasuries, where opium is sold, in a short period, 221 Mussalman buyers were recorded, and only 207 Hindus. Considering that they are only one in 10, the number of Musalmans ought not to be so large. But a very large portion of the purchasers arc chaprasis, clerks, and servants of officials of the place. 

Further, each Musalman consumes more than each Hindu. Among these, the chief purchasers are zamindars, who come sometimes themselves to buy, but generally send their servants. The cultivating and labouring classes cannot afford opium except for medicine, but depend for occasional intoxication on drugs and liquor.

Of the several forms which the preparations of hemp take, charas is almost unknown in Gorakhpur district and ganja (marijuana) is eaten only at Holi time. The latter is eaten by all, being a sweetmeat flavoured with bhang. Charas is not smoked by the Brahmans, who avoid the chillum. For the same reason, they never use ganja. This is obtained from Bengal, and sold for a quarter of its weight in silver. It is supposed to afford the most gradual and least harmful means of intoxication, and is in consequence, largely partaken of by all classes. 

The hemp plant grows wild over the greater part of the district, and those who cannot afford to buy ganja, pluck and dry the hemp plant, or buy bhang very cheaply in the drug shops. 

Bhang is more generally eaten mixed with food, than smoked, and its intoxication is more rapid and harmful. Brahmans who dare not drink, and cannot smoke or afford opium, fall back upon this, as the only stimulant left to them. In many cases they indulge inordinately. 

There is a well attached to the thirteen liquor shops. There is a queer tribe of astrologers whose main settlement is at one of the large towns of the district, called Bharerias or Jotikhis. There are 78 of them in the list,  about one for every family of them. The rest of this class is made up of some ancient inhabitants called Tharus, who are gradually being driven into the farthest corners of northern Gorakhpur. Some settlers from the hills who are known generally as “ pahariyas,” without distinction of caste, and who are mainly cultivators, but in some cases have taken service with zamindars. 

To be continued

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