Many believe that the word Ganja comes from the Rastafarians in Jamaica, but the word is actually Hindi (spoken in India) – inherited from the sacred Sanskrit language. The word has since gone on a journey around the world, travelling from India to Jamaica, before making way to mainland North America and Europe over roughly 100 years.
Travelling East to West
Britain colonised the island of Jamaica in 1655, after battling the Spanish for ownership. The British began to make the most of the island’s natural resources, exporting sugar to the world with the help of slave labour. 1838 saw the British emancipate all enslaved people of their empire, after human trafficking was banned in 1807. Most of those emancipated in Jamaica chose to not work for the British, forcing the Brits to search for a new source of labour for plantations.
Britain thus began to traffick enslaved people from India to work on these plantations in 1845. Between 1845 and 1917, Britain brought up to 40 000 enslaved people from India to Jamaica. Many of these already had knowledge of the cannabis plant – and others even brought the plant with them. Their knowledge included the preparation of Ganja, which refers specifically to the buds of the plant. In Hindi, ‘Charas’ is the resin and ‘Bhang’ is the leaves and seeds of the plant. What the Hindi-speakers brought to the Jamaican islands would change Jamaica forever.
Jamaica gives Ganja to the World
As time passed, Jamaican culture began to change drastically. The arrival of Christian missionaries and the African origin of the majority of the island population created an interesting cultural fusion when mixed with each other. Composed of mostly the poorer population, the movement transformed into what we now know as Rastafari (or Rastafarianism) from the year 1930. This movement was encapsulated by the rituals, religious use and respect for the conscious expanding and restorative powers of Ganja. Introduced to the island by the enslaved Indians, they referred to it by it’s Hindi name.
It was not entirely thanks to the Rastafari religion that the word Ganja became common across the world. Rather, it was the influence that the plant had one individual in particular. Although he was born into Roman Catholicism and raised as a member of the church, Robert ‘Bob’ Nesta Marley, was interested in and eventually became a member of the Rastafari.
The importance and respect of Ganja in the Rastafari religion quickly became an important part for Marley too. Despite being arrested in 1986 for cannabis possession, Marley continued to consume cannabis to align with his spiritual and religious beliefs. Marley was only one of the many Reggae musicians to use the word Ganja, but was arguably the most popular. It was his use of the word and his passion that has helped the word remain relevant today.
Ganja in the Media
We also have the many forms of media that we have access to today to thank for the continued survival of the word. One of the earliest appearances of the world in popular media was in the UK produced movie in 1980 called ‘Babylon’ – a story about the trials of Black youth in London during the international rise of Reggae.
This was the final step in Ganja becoming mainstream and being used by many all around the world. Over the years, references to Ganja have increased and can be seen in several major films such as Adventureland, 8 Mile, Bad Boys, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to name a few.
Now the word can be found in numerous movies and popular TV series. Once the word made it into the Western world, it hasn’t stopped and remains prominent to this day. Today it is seen as another term for the cannabis plant, but has a history that is all it’s own.