THE CHILLUM – Hardcore … Hardcore …Hardcore…

The Chillum is a traditional, very simple, very effective smoking implement that has been used in Asia for centuries. Most anything can be smoked in it, but the chillum culture that developed in India, and was transported intact to San Francisco in around 1968 or 1969, followed a well defined ritual … that yielded some of the most intense hashish hits that many smokers had ever experienced.

There was a lot of cross-cultural exchange between California and the cannabis growing regions of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the like, with many folks hitting the so-called Hippy Trail that ran from the counterculture hotspots of Europe and America to the sources of the wonderful herbs that the brave and righteous smugglers of the time spread effectively all around the globe.

Smuggling was different in those halcyon days of yore.  Sure, some was smuggled by actual criminals, but many, many pounds of hash were transported  by independent entrepreneurs who felt that they were performing a righteous act that would make the world a better place, while financing a peaceful lifestyle that we all hoped elevate consciousness and compassion worldwide.

 Arlo Guthrie’s masterpiece … “Comin’ into Los Angeleeeeze, Bringin’ in a couple of keys, Don’t check my bags if you please, Mr. Customs Man”.  Those wonderful days before drug dogs …

The chillum had been used for centuries in Asia by Sadhus, renunciate holy men (and women) who often lived on the fringes of society and dedicated their lives to the pursuit of higher states of consciousness. One Indian holy man was discovered and adopted by a group of American seekers, who brought him to San Francisco and established a spiritual center in big old Victorian near the western entrance of the streetcar tunnel that runs from downtown to the Haight-Ashbury. 

He had probably a dozen or so followers, and their religion was based around prayer while smoking devastating hits of chillum mix.  I probably am messing up the spelling here; his name was Chiranjiva.  

The prayer and process was a well defined ritual. With every chillum hit, the pipe was pressed against the forehead, eyes closed, and the smoker recited the sacred words “Bom Shankar”. (Again, please excuse any spelling errors).

Preparing the chillum mixture was a ritual and an exacting process. Hashish was heated, crumbled, and mixed with tobacco. Interestingly, only two types of tobacco provided a smooth hit when used in a chillum mix.  These were Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes, and English Shag pipe tobacco. Other types were tried occasionally, and they were very unsatisfactory. Lots of coughing and a horrible taste when mixed with hash.

The formula was simple enough. One half gram of fine Afghani charas mixed with one half of a Pall Mall unfiltered cigarette. The hash was crumbled in the palm and the tobacco was vigorously worked into it with the thumb.  Although Pall Malls were used most often, an amount of Shag equal to a half of a Pall Mall had a slightly different taste, but smoked just as smoothly.

Anyone who was an experienced, hard-core, cigarette smoker at one time knows that there are few, if any, cigarettes that are as overall bad as an unfiltered Pall Mall.  How it became the gold standard for chillum smoking is beyond me.

The mechanics of the chillum are interesting. The main pipe is simply a small clay funnel, about 3 or 4 inches long. Instead of a screen, a piece of soft rock is filed down to fit in the neck of the chillum.  The smoke comes around the rough edges of the rock and it works just like a pipe screen.  This piece is called the “giti”.

A piece of cloth about 6 inches long, called a “sofi”, is wetted and wrapped around the bottom end of the chillum, cooling the smoke as the hit is inhaled.  This piece was usually ripped from the Indian print bedspreads that were ubiquitous all over the counterculture at the time.

Holding the chillum is an exacting technique.  The packed chillum, with the wet sofi wrapped around the bottom, is held in the left hand by the thumb and first two fingers. The right hand wraps around the left.  The hit is taken between the thumb and forefinger of the left hand, while a friend lights it up. (Kind of complicated to describe here; google “how to hold a chillum”.  Some great pics of chillum smokers.)

The chillum was usually smoked in a group setting. Four or five people could each get a mighty hit from a well made chillum.

A hit from a proper chillum is unlike any other.  The closest example is a huge dab of powerful shatter.  But the hit from a huge dab is very different than a solid chillum hit, due to the tobacco.

A proper chillum hit consists of first exhaling all the air in the lungs, then slowly sucking on the pipe while a friend lights the bowl. The lungs are slowly filled to capacity in a long, deep, single hit … striving to inhale the biggest hit possible.

Unlike most smoking methods, the smoke is not held in for very long; it is forcibly expelled after just a second or two.  According to legend at the time, it is not necessary to hold it in because the nicotine dilates the blood vessels in the lungs, which allows the hash smoke to be instantly absorbed.

Don’t know if the science is correct on that theory, but however it works, it is an experience like no other.  Along with the cannabinoids in the hash, one gets an instant hit of an obscene amount of tobacco / nicotine, which greatly effects the high, and provides an instant rush with each hit.  Along with a substantial dose of nausea many times, especially after the pipe has made the rounds a time or two, profuse sweating starts about 30 seconds after the hit.

Amateur chillum smokers have been known to immediately throw up after joining a chillum circle with hardcore smokers.  I didn’t see it, but there was a story at the time of a smoker who spent a year of intense chilluming in India, returned to San Francisco, had a huge hit, vomited violently, and came face to face with a giant tapeworm that had been living in his innards for quite a while.

Chillum smoking was very ritualistic. It was considered bad manners to do anything that contributed to an ending of the circle. In fact, a chillum circle went on for a few months, 24/7, at Fred and Feasley’s house on Cole street. (There was a lot of great hash in SF during this period).  

The circle ended, along with most of the participants putting the brakes on their hardcore obsessive chillum use,  when a wonderful participant named Tiko caught a respiratory infection, which spread to his brain, and killed him. A really great guy, and a true tragedy.

This was probably the last time that I used tobacco.  And tobacco was truly the culprit. Smoking Pall Mall tobacco this way, which is likely the most destructive manner possible, is a true affront to the human organism.  That shit is strong and it will kill your ass, especially if you smoke a huge amount, drawn deep into the bottom of the lungs, like you get in a proper chillum hit.

A bit of advice:  Maybe try it once some time when you have some great Afghani hash, but beware. Be very careful. Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and smoking it in a chillum is much, much harder on the health than a three pack a day cigarette habit, IMHO.


Side note: The “Wild Boys”,  Stevo and Chris from Jackass, visited a group of Sadhus in India who smoked chillums, chugged whiskey, and spent their lives rolling around in human ashes at the local cemetery … showing their ultimate disdain for the conventions of society.  I don’t think I have ever seen a happier bunch of guys.

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