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The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows: Part I

In some parts of the British India like Peshawar and Sind, the opium-dens were called Chandu-Khanas
12:00 AM Feb 23, 2024 IST | M. J. Aslam
the gate of the hundred sorrows  part i
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In the present essay, we shall discuss about the prevalence of the dens of opium and cannabis in the British India which are also mentioned in the famous literary works of the time. However, the presence of cannabis users in old Kashmir will be the focus of the present discourse. 

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Etymology of opium: 

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To begin with, etymologically the opium is a Latin-Greek word ‘Oniov’ , meaning poppy, poppy juice with roots in Greek mythology in which Morpheus was god of dreams (Ovid); creator of dreams, one who shaped fantasies. Morphia or Morphine, the narcotic principle of opium, is the drug used for relieving the pain.

Opium-dens: China origin:

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The opium dens or the houses of smoke and opium were established by the Chinese immigrant traders, sailors and mobsters in different parts of Europe, America and Africa during the nineteenth century. They were called Chinamen in all countries. During the British Indian days, there were opium dens in London and in the nineteenth century, even two “opium wars” were fought between Britain and China, and Britain and France. Well, the topic of “opium wars” falls beyond the scope of the present discourse.

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London- opium-dens in Charles Dickens’ novel:

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As opium-dens were not independent of the social context in which they existed in the British Era, the distinguished novelists and short story writers of the time used them as their prime themes with characters in their fiction and prose. Charles Dickens [1812-1870], one of the celebrated English Novelists of the world, has characterised the opium users of London in his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was published in 1870. John Jasper who is uncle of main character Edwin Drood is a regular visitor of an opium den run by an Englishwoman in London and he has excessive love, lust, for a “wonderfully pretty”, Rosa Bud, an orphan girl living in a Nun House, who is also fiancée of his nephew, Edwin Drood. In a state of opium intoxication, Jasper often does “very bad” things, but, he justifies, like all modern day addicts, opium-consumption by saying, “I have been taking opium for a pain, an agony, that sometimes overcomes me. The effects of the medicine [opium] steal over me like light or a cloud and pass”.

British Indian opium-dens in Rudyard Kipling’s story: 

It needs a mention that the opium use has an ancient history. In modern history, its use and trade was prohibited in all countries. Initially the East India Company had “monopoly” on opium cultivation in India and in 1878, the British passed the Opium Act which permitted licensed Chinamen to run opium-centres in the country and Indian-users of opium were allowed to eat opium from the licensed opium houses only. Rudyard Kipling, to mention, won Nobel Prize in literature in 1907. He is famous for his novels, short stories, children and war stories.

In Rudyard Kipling’s, short story, “The Gate of Hundred Sorrows", there is a Chinaman, Fung Tching, one-eyed, less than five feet high, without middle-fingers. After murdering his wife, in a condition of intoxication, Fung Tching was on a run and then he came back from the North and converted his house, that lay at the dead-end of a narrow street of old Calcutta, into an opium-den. It was famous as the “Gate” where people came to get smoke of opium “in peace and quiet”.

In Bengal, in Kipling’s time [1865-1936], there were opium dens everywhere and many were operated by Chinamen. Fung Tching’s Gate was a “pukka, a respectable opium house” in old Calcutta[ now Kolkatta]. Fung Tching called his house as “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows”, but he never explained the reason behind it to Gabral Misquitta, who was a tenant in a room of upper story of the Gate, and who was the narrator of the story to Rudyard Kipling.

Gabral Misquitta never told Fung Tching why he had chosen such a fancied name for his opium-house. After Fung Tching’s death, his nephew tried to change the name of the opium house to “Temple of the three possessions”, but it retained the old name of “The Gate of Hundred Sorrows" among the old men of the city and in the literary world.

In some parts of the British India like Peshawar and Sind, Punjab, the opium-dens, during the British period, were called Chandu-Khanas. “Chandu” is a Sanskrit word which, according to eminent Sanskritist, Vedist and Indologist,  Sir Monier Williams, means the one who was “singer in metre,' chanter of the Vedas, Udgatri priest”. Chandu-Khana or Chandoo-Khana during the British-Indian Era was the name given to the place where “hymns” were played and sung, but Chandu or Chandoo [opium] was also prepared, sold and smoked in pipes or eaten in Chandoo-Khanas. Kipling writes that ordinary opium-dens in India were untidy, while the upkeep of the Chandoo-Khanas was better.  The term “Chandoo-Khana” is a portmanteau of Sanskrit word, Chandu, Persian word, Khana.

Persian-meanings:

In Persian, black poppy juice is “afyun”.  Afiyuni is the one who eats and is addict of opium.  In Afghanistan,  Afiyun is not much consumed but young frustrated men who have a reputation of “criminals and rascals” are given to the consumption of Hashish or Charas [cannabis] and the term “Charsi” is  invariably used for any smoker in that and the surrounding countries. Etymologically, the word “Charas”, being a Persian word, connotes a confinement, a prison, rack, pain or a tub, vat, in which juice for wine is extracted by pressing the grapes by treading on them.

Bhangh or Charas:

In Sanskrit, cannabis sativa or cannabis is called “Bhang” or “Bhanga”.  It is “an intoxicating beverage [or narcotic drug commonly called 'Bhang'] prepared from the hemp plant”. One who eats or smokes cannabis is called Bhangi. Bhangi connotes in Hindustan what exactly Charsi connotes in Afghanistan. Bhang being deeply intertwined in Brahmanism has played an important role in Shaivate rituals.

[Indian Express 12-09-2020] Under Brahmanical traditions, Bhang or marjuna is used “to focus inward “and in the Atharva Veda, cannabis is named one of the five most sacred plants on Earth and “as a ‘source of happiness’ and a ‘liberator’”.

There were hundreds of Bhang shops in Varanasi and other famous places of India. [BBC report by Charukesi Ramadurai, 13-03-2017] It is recorded that during the Amarnath Yatra, Yatris/Sadhus were also supplied charas with ration from the days of the Gulab Singh’s administration. 

M J Aslam, historian, author & freelance columnist.

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