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When you hear the word “ganja”, the first thing that likely comes to mind is Rastafarianism. This religion originated in the 1930s Jamaica, combining Protestantism with mysticism and Pan-Africanism. Its devotees (Rastas) use ganja (cannabis) for spiritual and meditative purposes. What is interesting is that the word itself did not originate in the Caribbean, but on the Indian subcontinent in the ancient language of Sanskrit.


So how come that a word with Indian roots became so ubiquitous in a predominantly Jamaican religion? The answer lays both in British imperial politics of the 19th century, as well as in the vital role this herb has been playing in certain aspects of Hindu culture.


Ganja, Rastafari and British imperialism

British Empire connected the Indian subcontinent (including the words for cannabis derived from Sanskrit) with the Caribbean. In 1833, British abolished slavery, which sparked demand for workers in their vast colonies ranging from India to Central America. That is how Indians, often as contract workers, got to plantations in many different regions, including Jamaica. Between 1874 and 1917, the British brought almost 40,000 Indian contract workers to this island.

The word "Ganja” reached Jamaica thanks to the mixing of Indian and Jamaican cultures. In the early 20th century, ganja has already been common among young Jamaican plantation workers of African descent. The Pan-African message of Rastafarianism took hold in this pariah group. Many workers were moved to poorer suburban areas, and Rastafarianism, which preaches spiritual use of ganja, Pan-Africanism and liberation, thus grew stronger. In the mid-20th century, ganja was already an important element of the anti-establishment movement, which Rastafari had become.