When I stepped into the exhibition Huqqa in Indian Art and Culture (on until August 1 at the National Museum, Delhi), the gaudy pipes and tinted glass bases of modern hookahs at bars and cafes paled in comparison to what I saw in front of me. Laid out were extraordinary hookahs—intricately carved and inlaid—from the reserve collection of the museum. Gleaming from behind protective glass, about 20 hookahs and their delicate bases were made from materials like beaten gold, silver, brass, smooth stones, porcelain, clay and marble.
According to a brochure from the exhibition, the Portuguese introduced the tobacco plant to India, specifically Bijapur, in the 17th century. As the Sultans of the Deccan became addicted to it, the Andhra region became a prominent tobacco production centre. Hookahs became a prominent motif in Mughal miniatures by the end of the 17th century.
Zahid Ali Ansari, who co-curated the exhibition with Anamika Pathak, told VICE that “The earliest objects resembling hookahs have been found in the excavations of Neyshabur in Persia, belonging to the 9th and 10th centuries.” Ansari explained that a hookah consists of four parts: the head, or chillum; the hollow stem connecting the chillum and base; the water bottle or base; and the slender flexible tube ending in the small mouthpiece known as the mohnal.
Pathak told me that while the Mughals preferred glass, the Deccan sultans “used a new metal, called bidri, which is an alloy of zinc, copper and lead. Silver and even gold was used to inlay the hookah as it presented a brilliant contrast against the inky black background.” One example on display was a hookah with a figurative scene depicting Padmavat in silver, from the late 17th or early 18th century.
The English eventually adopted the hookah from India. I spoke to noted biographer Peter Parker, who is researching the East India Company, over the phone. “Officials in the East India Company adopted some Indian customs and smoking hookah was one among them,” he said.
Not everyone took to the water pipe though. William Hickey, an English lawyer, wrote in his memoirs that shortly after arriving in Kolkata, in 1775, “The most highly-dressed and splendid hookah was prepared for me. I tried it, but did not like it. As after several trials I still found it disagreeable, I with much gravity requested to know whether it was indispensably necessary that I should become a smoker, which was answered with equal gravity, ‘Undoubtedly it is, for you might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion.’” He added, “[I] have frequently heard men declare they would much rather be deprived of their dinner than their hookah.”
Hickey wouldn’t likely be surprised to know that smoking hookah as reportedly increased 150 times in the last three years. Nowadays, it’s cheap plastic pipes that emit smoke incessantly, but the ritual continues.