A story about Cannabis and Bangladesh

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Sai Hossain

· 2/21/2021

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Today is International Mother Language Day.
It began in Bangladesh, where millions of my people fought and died to protect our language "Bangla" aka "Bengali." Bangladesh literally translates to "the land of Bangla". But why would people risk their lives for "a mere language"?
Well, there are two stories to share. One, a story about people. And another, a story about a plant we call Cannabis.

Bangla, a language for the poets

Life at the village where I was born
Let's start by rewinding to Ancient India 1000 BCE. At the time, the Hindu Priests in Bengal primarily practiced Sanskrit while the locals spoke a variety of Magadhi Prakrita. Bengal, by the way, is the region overlapping the state of West Bengal in India and modern Bangladesh (used to be East Bengal).
Over two thousand years, it organically evolved and shaped itself into Bengali by 1000–1200 CE. When the Islamic empire brought with it Arabic and Persian words, Bengali integrate it.
Then there was the Bengali Renaissance in the 18th century. This was a period of intellectual awakening where poets, artists, novelists, philosophers, & scientists made substantial global contributions. Many of them went on to be the leaders of the India Independence movement (from the British). Ironically, that same movement ended up expelling the Muslim-half of the region out of India to form East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (modern-day Pakistan).
So, after all this, in 1948, West Pakistan declared Urdu as the national language even though almost no one spoke Urdu in the Bengal region. So, of course, people protested, and then on February 21st 1952 they open fired on protests, which sparked the Bengali Language Movement.
That day became "Language Movement Day" which in 1999 UNESCO recognized as "International Mother Language Day".
By the way, the movement to protect the language led to a wild series events involving the Beatles & Ravi Shankar which ended in the independence and birth of Bangladesh in 1971 – but that's a story for another day.
So over millennia, the Bengali people crafted a language. One that had deep wisdom from the Vedas. One that integrated the cultures that it came in contact with. One that incubated ideas that led to the independence of two countries.
Language is something we create with intent. A language holds ideas, beliefs, and wisdom. One could argue that the language of a civilization is their most significant accomplishment.
So that's why it's important to celebrate International Mother Language Day, because we have to protect our greatest creations, one that outlasts us and any physical things we build and one that every single being gets to influence.
So.... how does this relate to Cannabis?

The origins of Cannabis

Hunting for water lilies in submerged rice patties
Now, I want to share with you a hidden story about how cannabis was an integral part of the history of Bangladesh, India, and the language of Bangla – a story that I'm not sure anyone has clearly told before.
My journey started two years ago when my wife and I were wondering what the original name for this plant was.
Was it Marijuana? Nope, that came from the Mexican Spanish word "marihuana." It was popularized in the US when the gov started shilling propaganda to scare the people about the Latino and Black communities.
Was it Ganja? Most people think of Rastafarians from Jamaica like Bob Marley when they hear "ganja." But that's because after Britain emancipated the slaves (which they brought to Jamaica), they needed new workers for their sugar plantations, so in 1845 they began importing indentured workers from India who brought with them something they called "ganja."
You see, cannabis is indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and the name for the flower (the part you smoke) is "Ganja," which is the term used in Hindi.
Okay, so is "ganja" is the original name for cannabis in India?
If we go back to ancient India, we first hear about cannabis in the Atharva Veda, written in 2000–1400 BCE. It speaks of a sacred medicinal, magical plant known as "Soma," which eventually was called "Bhanga". It was called the "lord" of the five kingdoms of plants, which include hemp.
From Bhanga, the plant, we eventually got "Bhang" (seeds and leaves), "Charas" (the resin), and "Ganja" (the bud). Today, it's common to drink Bhang Milk, which is cannabis-infused milk – especially during the festival Holi. People use the word "Bhang" these days synonymously with the drink, the plant, and the leaves.
Now, the specific region where Bhang was prolific in was the lush delta of the Ganges river which is now modern-day Bangladesh.
The earliest name for this region was called "Vanga". The people were referred to as Vangala, and when the Muslims arrived, it became "Bangalah" which was the precursor to "Bangla."
In other words, "Bhanga" (cannabis) was considered the most sacred plant of a region which was called "Vanga." Whether the region was named after the plant or vice-versa is unknown – but the link is clear. Additionally, the region is centered around the "Ganges" delta and bud is called "Ganja."
So here's what we know:
  • The word Bangla is directly tried to Bhanga which is cannabis.
  • Cannabis was considered a sacred plant by ancient priests of India, as written in some of the world's earliest scripts in the Vedas. It was an integral part of life in the region for both its medicinal uses and the physical uses of hemp.
  • The same region's ancient languages of Sanskrit and Prakrita eventually evolved into Bangla which has a rich history of literature.
So that means throughout the millennia, the language of Bangla co-evolved with the sacred plant "Bhang." An alternate translation of Bangladesh could be "The land of Cannabis."
And "Bangla" could be translated as "the language of the sacred plant" – a language that people went to war to protect and named a country after it. A language that integrated the cultures it came in contact with, whether it was Hindus or Muslims. A language shaped by the wisdom of a sacred plant.... so put that in your pipe and smoke it.

If you enjoyed reading this, would love for you to share it. I'll end by saying that I'm not a historian. There's a lot I couldn't fit in a short post and would love to speak with a Bengali or Indian historian to dig deeper and learn more. And want to thank my wife Khadija for helping with the research.