British officials of the 18th century - why they got hooked to hookah in Bengal, India!!

In the 18th century Bengal in the Indian subcontinent became a trans cultural center with various European communities working here along with the natives. The history of hookah culture from the late 16th century till the late 19th century is quite interesting and now in  India  hookah culture is almost gone and was banned by the Indian government  soon after independence as it would promote  infectious diseases. Hookah smoking dominated the cultural life of the Muslim population during the Mogul rule and  this newly discovered Nawabi culture was not prevalent among  other religious groups like the Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, etc. Hookah smoking gained currency in the middle of the 17th century in Bengal with the arrival of East India company - a mercantile trading company that had established a settlement in Calcutta close to the Hooghly river. 

English man Ochterlony smoking hookah. Alamy

Above:  British Resident David Ochterlony (1758-1825), in Indian dress, smoking a hookah and watching a nautch(dancing girl) in his house at Delhi, painting, c. 1820 - Image ID: T6DF56

English officer in Bengal smoking hookah.


In 1722 Sadat Khan, a Persian nobleman, founded the Nawabi dynasty of the Awadh.  He  began his career as  a local Nawab or an agent of the Mogul ruler, for some time. Later when the Moguls became very weak politically Sadat   broke  away from the  Delhi ruler  to function independently. This led him   to found an autonomous kingdom  called Awadh (also Ouadh; part of present day Uttar Pradesh). The vast revenue from Bengal region that was supposed to go to Delhi, filled the Awadh coffers. When Nawab  Shuja-ud-daula took over the reins as  the third ruler  in 1754, the kingdom became enormously rich at the ''expense of the Delhi court''.  Thus Lucknow became the capital of Awadh and  prospered between 1775 and 1856.


In Lucknow, now the capital city of UP,  hookah smoking became  a social etiquette particularly among the nobles of the court and the rich; it gained them social status during stately dinners and in places where the courtesans used to dance before the nobility. In the social life or cauldron  the association of hookah and courtesans  gave them a new  social dimension - a symbol of dignity and politeness. This pushed  hookah  smoking on a pedestal from the level of mere pleasure objects. 

Hookah smoking, as a mark of of prestige and social culture  gradually  caught up with the  elite  the members  or Amirs of the court of Siraj-ud-daulah  and the rich Bengali business community.  When the English company  was trying hard to consolidate its profitable ventures in Bengal, being greedy and grasping, they never paid the customs duty or taxes  to the ruler, throwing the trade agreements to the dust-bin. The arrears snow-balled into a big mass. This wanton breach of trade  treaties with the ruler by the arrogant British  traders  resulted in many skirmishes and raids by the Nawab's army. Confrontations were immediately  followed by negotiations by the English company's  officers  to pacify  those from the Nawab's court. During intense negotiations  and mediation to resolve and narrow down the differences,  hookah smoking  eventually became a necessity -  part and parcel  of business dealings and  a social nicety.  For the English negotiators and mediators adhering to  hookah smoking as an important social courtesy became part of protocol  to engage in long deliberations with the Muslim noble men over matters related their trading operations.. 

Through intriguing, manipulations and down right impropriety  EIC  since the arrival of Robert Clive from Madras fresh from English victory at Arcot (in Tamil Nadu) to recapture from Nawab Siraj Ft. William, Calcutta  , had gained an upper hand using the dissident members in the court of Nawab to their advantage. The successful handling of  the Battle of Plassey, the battle of Buxar -1764 and later the Allahabad treaty saw EIC become the Master of Bengal and later a proxy government for the British Crown.  The British government openly allowed the EIC to use the  military muscle  to run its business in India.  After the annexation of Bengal, the flow of revenue from Bengal alone so vast it boosted the British economy to  a dizzy height from a mere 3 GDP (India's GDP was 23 then). 

The persistent social and political contact of  the officers of the English company in Bengal  with the rich natives  made them become   hooked to the culture of Hookah smoking.  Hearty meals were positively followed by the hookah and brandy- pawnee in most of the stately homes. 

The Dutch traveller, John Splinter Stavorinus, mentioned about  a dinner at the residence of the governor of Calcutta in 1769; the  hookah session  that was followed  went well past midnight. William Dalrymple, a British historian dealt with at length  the love of hookahs among the East India Company officers  and cited the example of  the fourth baronet, Sir Thomas Metcalfe: "Certainly he was a notably fastidious man, with feelings so refined that he could not bear to see women eat cheese ..... His one concession to Indian taste was to smoke a silver hookah. This he did every day after breakfast, for exactly thirty minutes.

Hookah smoking

As time went by Bardars - those who prepare the  hookah pipe for the British to smoke became part of their retinue while camping or travelling on official work. As for the hookah instruments, they  were embellished and specially made  depending on the taste of the smokers  and at one stage in their social gathering  hookah was a must  they could not conceive the very idea of social gathering without out a puff of hookah. According to Jane Bennett,the "hookah established itself in India as an “object” of social taste and addiction and soon in the hands of the Nawabs, it became a “thing” with an ability to civilize; its engagement with the British, further, turned it into a denser “thing” promulgating cultural imperialism as its usage differentiated between the civilized English and the barbaric Indian." When the English took full control over Bengal, many officials became rich on the sides and obviously and these nova  British Bobs took to hookah to establish their opulence.

Retired British army official Thomas Williamson’s  mentioned in The European in India (1813) report  that many European parvenus (those with humble origin) became  slaves to their hookahs. Williamson’s accounts were illustrated with engravings by Sir Charles D’Oyly (his Tom Roe series), a British painter and official. illustrated Williamson's account  in his engravings. The series featured several scenes of hookah-smoking in private or in public.  Paintings by the Italian painter Francesco Renaldi feature Bengali women of fashion smoking the hookah.The great Indian rebellion of 1857-58  changed the concept of hookah smoking among the British. What was seen as a symbol of oriental grandeur  and pleasure became an object of abomination with negative aesthetics.  After the  Great Revolt the hookah smoking had begun to decline.

In 1770s and 1780s to some British writers  ''hookah'' was an 'emblem of British integration into Indian culture as well as of their supremacy'. British diplomat Philip Dormer Stanhope in his Memoirs mentioned that writers with an annual income of just 200 pounds a year had  hookah  burdars, perhaps to establish the British racial superiority and britishness

with the employment of the hookah burdar (hookah bearer), smoking became a ritualistic expression  of native subjugation and administrative status. British diplomat Philip Dormer Stanhope wrote in his Memoirs  mentioned that even writers whose salaries did not exceed £200 a year employed hookah burdars.


Dalrymple, William. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

Bennett, Jane. "The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter." Political Theory 32.3 (2004): 347–72. Print