Cannabis indica - Indian HempFAMILY: Cannabaceae
GENUS: Cannabis
COMMON NAMES: Azallu (Assyrian), Bandsch, Bang, Black Prince, Canamo de India (Spanish), Canapem Indiana (Italian), Gai Ando (Vietnamese), Ganja, Hemp, Hierba Santa (Spanish, ‘sacred herb’), Indian Hemp, Juanita, Kerala Grass, La Santa Rosa (Spanish, ‘the sacred rose’), LIamba, Madi, Marijuana, Mustang Gold, Parvati, Qunubu (Assyrian), Ramras, Siddhi (Bengali, ‘miraculous ability’), Soft Hemp, Tarakola, True Hemp, Vijaya (Sanskrit, ‘the victor’), Yaa Seep Tit (Thai, ‘drug’), Zacate Chino

Cannabis indica is a species of Cannabis that is closely related to the better known Cannabis sativa, or fiber hemp. The main morphological differences between Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica is that C. indica tends to have broader leaves and produces a plant that is shorter, more conical, and densely branched than C. sativa. In general, Cannabis indica is a bushier, shorter plant that grows mainly in cool highland regions, while Cannabis sativa is a taller, branchy plant that grows in warmer, lowland areas. When mature, the leaves of Cannabis indica also often exhibit a purplish cast that is absent with Cannabis sativa leaves. Pharmacologically speaking, Cannabis indica can also be distinguished from Cannabis sativa by its high concentration of CBD (cannabidiol) relative to ∆9 THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), making Cannabis indica the preferred species for traditional medicinal use (Amsterdam Seed Bank 2012).

TRADITIONAL USE: The Indian Anandakanda, a massive 12th to 13th century work on alchemy and tantric yoga, compiles an intriguing list of the ten different types of Cannabis users, who are as follows: “saints (siddha), sages (muni), women, people of the four castes, yogis, children, old people, medical patients, people suffering from impotence, and people with many wives” (Wujastyk 2001: 15). Basically, what this list shows is that people from almost every walk of life in India used Cannabis at one time or another, indicating this resinous herb’s entrenched medicinal and spiritual role in South Asia.

Although the South Asian literature is often unclear, scholarly interpretations have suggested that both Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa were used ritually, recreationally, and medicinally in India— often interchangeably, although Cannabis indica may have been recognized as having greater medicinal value as mentioned above, and was thus probably the species of Cannabis more commonly used in medicinal preparations. Working out of the Portuguese colony of Goa, the Spanish physician Garcia da Orta made a distinction between opium (Papaver somniferum) and bhang, the Indian common name for Cannabis flowering tops dried and used in recreational and medicinal preparations. In Da Orta’s writings (possibly the first time in European medicinal literature that Cannabis’ use was specifically described), he states that bhang was used to “quiet the women”, possibly a reference to Cannabis indica’s sedating effects, and its usefulness in combating menstrual discomfort and reproductive problems (for which Cannabis sativa may also have been used). In contrast, opium use appears in Da Orta’s writings as a male aphrodisiac and is clearly disassociated from bhang (Wujastyk 2001).

Much work on Cannabis indica’s recreational use was also done by British physician William O’Shaughnessy during his medical posting to Calcutta, India in the 1830’s. Along with conducting several experiments to determine the toxicity of Cannabis indica on animals (low) and its potential as a medicine to treat convulsions and infections, O’Shaughnessy also made careful observations of Cannabis indica’s recreational use in Indian society. He discovered that Cannabis indica use was endemic among all classes in Indian society, as well as among Portuguese immigrants in Calcutta (kala-ferengi in Hindi), men and women both. Often consumed in an oral preparation called majum or majoon, Cannabis was considered a refined indulgence in a Hindu society in which the consumption of alcohol was not only religiously prohibited but also often considered unrefined. In contrast, among the Portuguese population in Goa, majum was usually consumed by the lower classes of immigrants, according to O’Shaughnessy (Wujastyk 2001).

TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Cannabis indica is the Cannabis species most prized in making hashish, or cakes of concentrated Cannabis resin produced exclusively from the flowering female trichomes of the plant, which can be smoked or eaten for an effect (Wujastyk 2001). In his tracts on Cannabis indica preparation and medicinal usage, O’Shaughnessy describes one process by which charas, or highly concentrated Cannabis resin, was collected in India by having men run through flowering Cannabis fields clad in leather garments to which the sticky resin would adhere. In another anecdote which, though amusing, is impossible to verify today, O’Shaughnessy claimed that in Nepal these leather garments were dispensed with entirely, and the resin was collected directly from the skin of naked laborers (Wujastyk 2001).

In India, both Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa were probably used to make bhang, a simple preparation of dried Cannabis foliage and flowers that could then be mixed with food ingredients such as flour, milk, ghee (clarified butter), sugar, and spices to make majum, a sort of Cannabis “candy” that was orally consumed by Indians of all classes as a recreational substance up until modern (19th and early 20th century) times (Wujastyk 2001). Cannabis indica may also have been used exclusively to make ganja in parts of India, a type of resin-heavy preparation of rolled Cannabis flowering tops. Traditionally, in making ganja only the unpollinated female flowering tops were used; bhang could be made from either the pollinated female flowering tops, or from male Cannabis indica plants (Wujastyk 2001).

Finally, people also liked to drink preparations of Cannabis indica made from the plant’s resinous seeds: these would be collected and ground into a powder, then infused into equal parts water and milk. The resulting beverage might then be flavored with everything from melon seeds, to black pepper, to cucumber (Wujastyk 2001). This form of Cannabis beverage was also offered to Hindu deities in different parts of India, either in a bowl beside the deity’s shrine, or by being poured over the statue itself (Touw 1981).

Cannabis indica seeds also formed the basis of an oral medicinal preparation in Traditional Chinese medicine, in which are seeds were boiled in water until they formed a type of congee, or gelatinous paste. This mixture was then combined with wine and taken orally for a therapeutic effect (Smith 1911).

MEDICINAL USES: Cannabis indica has been used to treat as many if not more medical ailments as its relative Cannabis sativa, and it is the Cannabis species most prized in India and China for pain relief and relieving insomnia, possibly because Cannabis indica’s high ratio of CBD to THC gives it a distinct soporific effect over the more stimulating Cannabis sativa.

In India, Cannabis indica resin and foliage has been prescribed orally for pain relief, as an anti-convulsant, a treatment to reduce and eliminate seizures, and to reduce psychological stress and anxiety. Cannabis indica was considered especially effective for treating headaches due to malaria infection and migraines. Some of Cannabis indica’s therapeutic respiratory actions include relieving asthma through dilating the bronchial tubes, and functioning as an expectorant to clear phlegm from the lungs. Cannabis indica was also used as a sleep aid and to reduce intraocular (eye) pressure that could lead to glaucoma (Wujastyk 2001).

Cannabis indica was also the probable species of Cannabis described as a painkiller in ancient Chinese medicinal literature, due to the texts’ description of the plant’s heavy soporific and analgesic effects. In China and Taiwan, Cannabis indica is listed as one of the 50 essential medicinal plants: every part of the plant was used medicinally, including the leaves, flowers, leaf juice, seeds, seed oil, and the achenes, or the hard fruit surrounding the individual Cannabis indica seed (Smith 1911).

Internally, preparations of various parts of Cannabis indica were considered useful for treating fluxes, postpartum discomfort, bleeding, poisoning from vermillion or aconite, constipation, and persistent vomiting. The processed oil was specifically used to treat sulphur poisoning, while the leaf juice was often used in infusions to relieve dry mouth, thirst, and fluxes (Smith 1911).

In Chinese medicine, Cannabis indica seeds are considered to be tonic, laxative, and diuretic, meaning they stimulate urination. They are also emmenagogues (stimulating blood flow to the pelvic tissues and uterus), and anthelminthic, effective in expelling parasitic worms (helminthes). A paste of the seeds is also used topically as a demulcent, an agent that soothes inflamed tissues, as well as to treat skin eruptions, favus (a type of fungal skin infection), ulcers, wounds, and hair falling out. The pressed leaf juice is a common remedy for scorpion stings and also used as a vermifuge to stun parasitic worms (Smith 1911).

TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Like its close relative Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica contains a class of psychoactive compounds known as cannabinoids, including ∆9 THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), CBN (cannabinol), and CBD (cannabidiol); cannabinoids are also produced endogenously in the bodies of humans, mammals, birds, and fish (Pacher and Mechoulam 2011). Cannabis indica contains, on average, 5-4 times more CBD than THC in its flowering tops, which reportedly produces more of a heavy, physical buzz than the largely cerebral, spacey effects of Cannabis sativa with its high THC content (CESAR 2005). Furthermore, because of CBD’s antagonist effect at cannabinoid 1 receptors (as opposed to THC’s partial agonist effect), the CBD-heavy Cannabis indica may have far less potential to induce paranoia than Cannabis sativa (Amsterdam Seed Bank 2012). The oral preparation called majum in India, composed of Cannabis indica resin or foliage with other ingredients, was reported to induce euphoria, feelings of flying, sexual desire, and enhanced appetite in its users (Wujastyk 2001).

As a general statement, Cannabis indica seems to produce a quieter, more introspective experience lacking in the high levels of hilarity and sociability produced by Cannabis sativa. Because of its high levels of CBD, Cannabis indica has also been the more prized of the two species in the treatment of insomnia (CBD tends to promote feeling of sleepiness or drowsiness), pain relief, and in relieving anxiety because of its sedating effects (Wujastyk 2001).

In modern times, Cannabis indica has garnered interest in the medical marijuana community as a species that might be especially effective in treating glaucoma, relieving nausea in cancer patients, and stimulating appetite in those suffering from AIDS related anorexia. Cannabis indica may also be the more effective of the two species for treating chronic pain and inflammation due to its high CBD content (Amsterdam Seed Bank 2012). The potential of Cannabis indica as a medicinal herb, bolstered by its long history of safe medical use in India and China, will no doubt be subject to more research in the next decade. Like Cannabis sativa, the future of Cannabis indica as a legitimate medicinal herb will largely rest on the findings of independent research and in the expanding field of alternative and complementary medicine.



“Difference: Marijuana/Cannabis Sativa and Indica”, Amsterdam Marijuana Seed Bank, last modified 2012.

“Marijuana”, lm May 2nd, 2005. Center for Substance Abuse Research,

Smith, Frederick Porter. 1911. Chinese Materia Medica: Vegetable Kingdom. American Presbyterian Mission Press: Shanghai. p. 90-91.

Wujastyk, Dominik. September 12th, 2001. “Cannabis in Traditional Indian Herbal Medicine”, Wellcome Library: London. 1-15.