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Opium Connoisseurs: The Rajas and the Padshahs of India

Updated: Jul 24

By the sixteenth century, in India, opium was more than a mere herbal medicine or a valuable item of maritime trade. From its earliest introduction around the tenth century AD, to its wide and swift diffusion by the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries, the assimilation and the subsequent ‘Indianisation’ of opium proved to be a major cultural watershed, particularly in Bengal, Behar, North-Western Frontier provinces, Central India, and certain parts of Rajputana. Here, opium attained the status of connoisseurship, like that in China, where the thakurs of Rajputana, the rajas of Punjab, the kathis of Kathaiawar and the Mughals padshahs, perfected and refined opium eating into an art and craft.

To the Rajputs, amal (opium), was an absolute necessity. The divinity ascribed to the madhava re piyala (the intoxicating cup of opium) acquired an esoteric cult status when the Rajput chiefs and soldiers would march into the battlefield dowsed with the fumes of opium in their heads and would rush into the thick of the combat insensible to danger, which made its way into the folklore of the period. This, in many ways, mirrors the image of the chivalrous Greek warriors, as depicted in Greek folkore, who dosed poppy juice in their wine on the eve of a battle. The power of opium over them was ‘substantive’ and ‘symbolic’ and ‘integrative,’ as much as over the Rajputs of India. Manohar ka amal levasi (offering of opium) custom was a valued ritual and social artifact. It had usurped the munwar pyala (the cup of greeting) where phul-ka arrak (essence of flowers) was served to welcome the guest. Most Rajput kings and chiefs participated in this ritual symbolizing solidarity and affection by amal kar lena (eat opium together) at regular intervals. It was customary among the Rajputs at the betrothal ceremony called, Amal ka Beobar, that the bridegroom should eat, or drink opium offered by the bride’s party. Group intoxication intensified fraternal feelings as agreements and pledge made during the madhava re pyala ceremony was held to be holy and hence inviolable. A pledge once given by the Rajput and ratified by ‘eating opium together’ and ‘an exchange of turbans’ was regarded as inviolable under all circumstances. Any display of aggression or violence towards a fellow amal drinker was unlikely.

While opium was sacramental to the Rajputs despite its associated ills, to the Mughal rulers, its use was secular; it denoted kaifa (intoxication) and quwwat (vigour). The use of opium in the court of the Mughal Padshahs certainly began in combination with sharaab (wine or spirits), ganja/bhang (hemp), tari (fermented palm juice) and ma’jun (electuary), but it soon was to establish itself as a primary intoxicant. Babur, Humayun and Jahangir delighted in the revelries of opium consumption in the company of their amirs (nobles). This was despite a prohibition in the Qanun-e- Islam on the use of intoxicants. Yet, generation by generation, the Mughal rulers and its nobility have indulged in opium as a recreational drug. Opium was an integral aspect of the traditional Central Asian culture, particularly among the Timurids and despite Babur and Humayun’s preference for wine, various exotic preparations of opium were always a preferred intoxicant in the Mughal court and on their military campaigns. We read in the Baburnama of Babur’s prolonged drinking sessions and his fondness for the ‘violently intoxicating’ ma’jum/majun-I (a jam like preserved restorative made from opium and hashish and mixed with aloes and other herbs to which was added ambergris, musk etc.)

During Akbar’s time, we also find mentions of a beverage known as Char-bughra which was a mixture of wine, hemp, opium, and poppy capsules. Akbar is said to have resorted to the use of opium to relieve himself from a painful intestinal problem. Despite strict Islamic injunctions against the use of stimulants and intoxicants, the court ladies also indulged in feasting and merry- making during ceremonial observances. Soma Mukherjee in her monograph informs us about the popularity of opium, hashish, and a variety of wines in the Mughal harem. The ‘opiate fantasies’ of the Sultans of Deccan, Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah is well documented in the famous Siesta painting. [i] Opium and its various preparations were much used by the ladies in the zenana of Salar Jung and his brother Nawab Munir-ul-Mulk Bahadur.

‘The sword and the bottle were equally destructive to the barons of the Khalsa,’ and to this might be added excessive opium use by the Rajas. Almost every royal family of Punjab had a story to tell in terms of intemperance and death. Called the ‘lion of Punjab’, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was no stranger to the indulgence and excessive drinking. His favourite drink was a compound distilled from corn-brandy, mixed with the juice of meat, opium, musk, and various herbs. Most of his courtiers, with the exception of the Muhammadan fakirs, were ready to please him by joining in his drinking bouts and indeed were habitually as drunken as himself. Englishman John Martin, who was physician at the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh informs us that he had assisted the native physicians-the hakims, Aziz-ud-din and Nur-ud-din in treating Raja Heera Singh, son to the minister Dhyan Singh, who was a favourite of Ranjit Singh and Gulab Singh for dropsy. Martin informs us about the royal magazines, under the care of Hakim Nur-ud-din, where he prepared different opiates and various metallic oxides (kooshtege) to please the Maharaja, for which he was held in high esteem. He recounts an incident where the Maharaja had consumed morphine that he had prepared in such high dose that would have killed him had the anti-dote not been administered to him in time. The Maharaja, he says, loved to experiment. The small doses of opium (every afternoon, one pill of three grams) which Ranjit Singh took daily and the strong spirits he used to drink at different hours of the day transported him into a kind of excitement which manifested itself in the highest degree in the evening after the enjoyment of larger portions of the spirit. Everyone loved and feared him at the same time.

Opium eating, and drinking was both a social and a solitary activity and the remarkable metamorphosis that it underwent in the court of the rajas and the padshahs enhanced both the taste and experience with opium. Undoubtedly, opium use with all its attendant rituals and ceremonies denoted opulence and luxury and an opportunity for bonding over a cup of opium or a whiff of opium smoke. Men of medicine in the darbar continued to research and develop opiates as opium eating, drinking, and smoking had been tolerably assimilated with the fundamental belief system of the society. Decoction of poppies, syrup of poppies, tincture of opium, wine of opium, compound powder of opium, confection of opium, opium lozenges, etc., were prepared and prescribed by the royal medical practitioners to treat various afflictions, of the body and mind. Contrast it with the common folk, the penny-wise peasant- he grew poppies in his homestead and savoured his daily dose of mild stimulation. To him it entailed recreational and pharmacological properties; the aesthetics neither interested nor enthused him.


[i] Haidar, Navikar N and Sardar, M, Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700, Opulence and Fantasy. p.118

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