The word Chillum, also spelled shillum, from the Hindi cilam चिलम or Persian chilam چلم, is a noun that simply means “pipe.”
The chillum is a simple, straight and slightly conical smoking device with a removable stone in its center, which was traditionally made of clay. Clay is still preferred today over any other material.
The chillum is also known as the bowl of a hookah, the part containing the cannabis flowers or the hashish mixture, an adaptation to further cool the smoke, the ancestor of today’s smoking glassware diversity.
The exact origins of the chillum are unknown, as are the origins of cannabis concentrates and the birth place of cannabis; however, it is widely believed that the use of the chillum originated in India, one of the potential birth places of cannabis, and that it has been smoked in a spiritual context for thousands of years by Indian holy men, followers of the god Shiva, known as sadhus.
The historical assumption is that smoking cannabis flowers and cannabis resin started with the introduction of tobacco to Europe by Columbus in 1492, however, archaeological evidence indicates that cannabis was smoked during the 13th – 14th century in Africa, a century before the introduction of tobacco from the New World, according to a study done by Professor Nikolass van der Merwe on two ceramic pipe bowls excavated in Ethiopia in 1971, which tested positive for cannabinoid compounds.
The oldest records of smoking I have found are in the Mahavagga of Vinaya-Pitaka, stories of the awakening of the Buddha and his disciples that were compiled following his death in 483 BC, in which Buddha actually permitted his followers to smoke.
I have always found the suggestion very odd that cannabis and other aromatic plants where not smoked on the Euro-Asian or African continents until the appearance of tobacco. After all, cannabis was one of the first domesticated crops, it is easier to dry and prepare, it tastes better than tobacco and is furthermore psychoactive and therapeutic.
I had seen chillums before my first trip to India in 1980, but my first experience actually smoking a chillum was in the holy city of Pushkar with sadhus; smoking hashish—or to be more precise charas, hand-rolled live resin—in India has a spiritual and religious connotation. A chillum is always dedicated to the god Shiva before being lighted, which bring awareness of the moment to a higher level for anyone sharing the smoke, and this deeper communion profoundly changed my relationship with cannabis resin.
A chillum is the perfect tool to smoke resin, and if you are a charsi, a charas smoker, and stay for a while in India, you may find yourself on a quest to find the perfect chillum—because not all chillums are created equal.
A chillum pipe is hand-crafted without the use of a mold from a single piece of clay usually rolled on a smooth glass surface. The inside is gently excavated from the mass once the clay is no longer soft, a mirror-like perfection of the inside is mandatory to the final quality. A pyramidal or hexagonal shaped stone is used to retain the resin and tobacco/flower mix in a perfect chamber; the size of the stone defines the size of the burning chamber.
The first stop on my quest brought me to Pondicherry, in southern India, where a renowned Indian chillum-maker was crafting black clay chillums with cobra carvings.
The apparent simplicity of such a device is very deceptive; the type of clay that is used, the length and thickness of the chillum, the size of the stone, its shape and above all, the absolute mirror-like smoothness of the inside chamber have a major impact in the smoking experience.
A chillum is very representative your immersion in Indian culture and how deep your knowledge of charas is. A chillum is an object of status in the traveling community as much as the quality of the charas you smoke, a point which usually remains unknown to most neophytes for a while, yours truly included. I was only vaguely aware by the end of my first year in India that my black cobra chillum was nice, but nothing like some of the chillums I had seen around and smoked.
Since traveling with anything remotely related to cannabis consumption wasn’t an option in the ’80s, I gave away my first chillum before leaving India.
I came back to India after a three month visit to Japan, which had been magical but overwhelming. Tokyo’s population density had me on edge, and I needed to be by myself for a while. I flew from Tokyo to Bangkok, bought a ticket for New Delhi and left the same day. On my arrival in India, I went straight to the bus station and traveled for another 20 hours to Manikaran, the village at the end of the road in the Parvati Valley. Then another two days walk brought me beyond the last village of the valley into wild cannabis territory.
I spent two-week’s worth of a hermit’s life in the wilderness of the Himalayan mountains making charas. I went back to civilization when I started talking to myself a little too much.
I stopped overnight in Pulga, a small village a day away from the closest road, with a group of Italians renting a house for the season, and spent the night smoking and talking chillums with an Italian chillum-maker by the name of Renzo, who was baking the last series of chillums he had just finished.
As I mentioned earlier, the quality of your charas and of your chillum defines the respect that is given by the old timers.
Charas made with wild cannabis plants over the villages of Tauch, Nagtang and Kirkanga in the Parvati Valley is the ultimate proof of belonging. The “crème de la crème” of jungle charas is a very rare commodity, and sharing such a smoke creates a deep relationship between total strangers overnight. Renzo gifted me a chillum in the morning, warm from the coals, an object of elegance and perfection, made of three different types of clay polished to a mirror-like perfection, a dream to smoke. Renzo also gave me an education on the many aspects of chillum minimalism during the night, which brought me a new appreciation of the tool I would use to smoke for years to come.
The funny thing was that I had no idea who Renzo was when I left in the morning on my way to Malana, a bordering valley. I was shortly educated profusely on the subject by a group of Italians with whom I shared a chillum a few hours later.
A Renzo chillum should have been a trophy unattainable to a newcomer like myself, and the way I was looked over and questioned at first was obviously distrustful. Once I explained that I had received the chillum from an Italian in Pulga by the name of Renzo that very morning, they were so obviously shocked by the event that I really started to wonder what the story was.
Renzo was simply the most respected chillum maker of his generation, a dedicated and talented craftsman who fashioned clay treasures that were coveted by all connoisseurs, the waiting list was long and exclusive. Renzo literally initiated an evolution of a tool that may well be the first smoking apparatus conceived by humans, thousands of years old.
His knowledge, dedication and visionary approach were the source of this evolution, simplicity and perfection—his trademark. This incredible gift was part of my life for most of the eight years I spent in India. I could have strangled the person who finally broke it.
We have to fast forward to 2016 and a meeting with another group of Italians at the Emerald Cup in Northern California for me to have another magical encounter with a chillum made by another Italian master, Daniele who had been mentored by none other than Renzo. On the very same day, I was offered to light another masterpiece, the likes of which I had never seen, made by another Italian, Alverman, who had been trained by Renzo as well.
I had almost forgotten how unique of an experience it is to smoke hashish in a chillum. I had never had another chillum after my Renzo was broken, so to have my love rekindled by the work of his students was the most precious of gifts.
Renzo’s legacy lives on in the work of Daniele, Alverman, Lucas BH and Manu, to name but a few; there is no better reward for a teacher than seeing the students mastering the art further. Renzo sparked an evolution that is today a revolution. This article is for you, my friend, respect and love!
Frenchy Cannoli is a consultant, educator and writer in the cannabis industry with a special focus on hash making using traditional methods. Frenchy can be reached through his website at: www.frenchycannoli.com or seen on Instagram @frenchycannoli.