Joints, blunts, or bowls? Vapes or dabbing? Edibles or tinctures?
In this world of growing marijuana legalization, we’re blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it’s time to decide how we want to consume our weed.
It might make sense, though, to take a step back and think about how cannabis pioneers — the people to whom today’s weed culture owe a great debt — consumed their weed.
No, we’re not talking about Snoop and Method Man, or Willie Nelson and Jerry Garcia.
Bob Marley came to mind? Now you’re getting closer.
People used marijuana long before it became an integral component of Jamaican Rastafarian culture, of course. But we owe much of our cannabis consciousness to Jamaicans’ love of ganja.
And the traditional way to smoke ganja in the Rasta community is with a steam chalice.
Let’s learn more.
Weed and Jamaica
It might seem that ganja was Jamaica’s gift to the rest of the world. That isn’t really how it happened.
The first documented use of cannabis  dates back to around 2800 BC, but the plant didn’t arrive in Jamaica until the mid-1800s. That’s when British plantation owners began bringing indentured servants from India  to the colony — and some of those workers brought marijuana seedlings with them.
The plant’s use was extremely common in Jamaica by the 1930s. That’s around the same time that the religious consciousness movement called Rastafari  (which considered Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to be the Black Messiah) was formed in Jamaica and quickly gained popularity.
It was a marriage made in ganja heaven. Cannabis was viewed as a holy herb that made meditation and worship more spiritual, and its use was integrated into celebrations and festivals as well.
Visitors to Jamaica during the 20th century couldn’t avoid seeing the prevalence of weed use there, and many readily partook. It wasn’t until Bob Marley and other reggae artists became prominent in the middle of the century, though, that the link between Jamaica and ganja was firmly established in Western consciousness.
(Fun fact: marijuana wasn’t actually legalized in Jamaica until a few years ago, and only for religious, medical, or private use. It’s still illegal to smoke in public.)
You might immediately think of spliffs when you think of Jamaican weed. However, that’s not the traditional way of smoking ganja in Rastafari.
Introducing the Steam Chalice
Have you ever seen photos or videos of Jamaicans smoking with something that looks like a jerry-rigged hookah with a long bamboo rod sticking out?
That’s a traditional steam chalice.
It’s not clear who first created the device, but it’s a relatively recent invention that’s become an integral element of Rastafarian ceremony, and it’s become widely used by other Jamaicans as well.
When the steam chalice is used in a religious environment, the participants consider it a spiritual experience. Blessings and expressions of gratitude are offered when the chalice is passed from person to person, inhaling the ganja enhances the ability to meditate, and the process may last for hours.
Even the water in the chalice (used for the same purpose as water in a bong) may take on a religious connotation, sometimes used to “anoint” the believers’ dreadlocks.
Steam chalices are made from natural materials, in keeping with their view of cannabis as a natural way of enhancing consciousness. What’s more, the device’s construction allows bud to be vaporized rather than burned, making its use a much healthier way to consume marijuana.
As a result, both the herb and the chalice are considered sacred; the religion sees a steam chalice as an ital (natural) way to partake of cannabis.
And the rest of us might consider the steam chalice to be the first (and most innovative) way that people have used to vape weed.
How Is a Steam Chalice Built?
A steam chalice has four parts.
- The bottom is fashioned from either a hollowed-out coconut or calabash gourd which is filled with water.
- A large clay bowl called a kutchie holds the ganja and is connected to the coconut with a bamboo rod. It typically holds 2-3 grams of flower.
- A clay grate sits on top of the kutchie; the charcoal that will be ignited to heat the weed is placed on top of the grate. (Some people use activated charcoal, and some modern chalices use ceramic instead of clay.)
- A longer bamboo rod is attached to the coconut and is used to inhale the vapor.
This construction ensures that the ganja doesn’t burn, but instead produces “clean vapor.” Not only is it free of the tar and other substances created when you smoke weed, but it doesn’t contain any of the solvents that you might inhale when using a modern vaporizer and THC juice or concentrate.
Devotees of steam chalices say that this method of consumption delivers the full taste, flavor, and medical benefits of cannabis.
The materials used to make the chalice also hold significance in Rastafari since they symbolize the world’s four elements: water (in the coconut), earth (the clay parts), air (the breath used to inhale), and fire (used to ignite the charcoal).
Can You Make Your Own Steam Chalice?
It’s understandable if learning about steam chalices has made you want to give the device a try at home.
That’s certainly possible, but unless you’re an accomplished DIYer, you might find it much easier to purchase a chalice rather than make your own. A growing number of small companies manufacture and sell steam chalices online, and you can find handmade models (or their components) on Etsy.
If you’re motivated to build one, though, here’s a modernized set of instructions courtesy of HeadsLifestyle.com.
- Drill three holes in a large coconut, one for the hose you’ll inhale through, a second for the kouchie that holds your weed, and a third to use as a carb.
- Gently dig out the coconut meat through the holes you’ve drilled.
- Insert a metal downstem (available at head shops) through the “kutchie hole,” and make sure it reaches most of the way into the coconut.
- Fashion a hollow bowl to be used as a kutchie from the material of your choice.
- Insert a 12” length of plastic hose into the hole you’ve drilled for it.
- Seal everything with beeswax.
Fill the coconut with water and the kutchie with weed, and if you want to be more authentic, place a grate on top to hold charcoal. Otherwise, give thanks for the high you’re about to enjoy, and fire your chalice up!
What Is a Steam Chalice: FAQ
Q: How difficult is it to clean a steam chalice?
A: It’s a lot easier than you’d think. The weed is being vaporized instead of burned, so it doesn’t leave most of the gunk you have to struggle to clean out of a piece. All you have to do is empty and clean out the coconut, rinse out the kutchie and run some water through the bamboo, let everything dry, and you’re ready to go the next time. Just be sure to store the chalice in a cool environment.
Q: Do Jamaicans use ordinary flower, or is there something special in the ganja?
A: Most smoke the same bud we do, but some add other herbs like mint, thyme, or rosemary to add to the flavor of the vapor and deliver additional medicinal properties. It’s also common to see coconut charcoal used to heat the ganj.