Known in a variety of names depending on where you come from, the origin of the hookah is still a much-contested debate. The name ‘hookah’ however, is believed to be derived from the Hindi-Urdu word ‘haqqa’ which means a pot jar.
Other common names include ḡalyān, water pipe, shisha pipe, hubble-bubble, chillum, narghile or kalian.
Over the years, hookahs have primarily been used for smoking flavored tobacco, also more commonly known as shisha. Basically, it constitutes a long pipe that draws smoke through water contained in a bowl. The water is meant to cool down the smoke, making it more comfortable to inhale.
Back to where the shisha pipe originated from, there are two conflicting theories of how it came to be. Most people believe it originated from India while others state that it came from the Safavid dynasty of Persia.
Theory 1: India
According to the first theory, it is said that the hookah traces its origin from India, in the northwestern provinces that border Pakistan.
It is believed that the first shisha pipe was invented in the 15th century by a Persian physician, Abu’l-Fath Gilani. This was after raising an issue on the health concerns resulting from smoking tobacco. He believed that passing the smoke through water would lead to its purification, hence reducing the risk of possible harm to the system.
The hookah was then introduced to the market in medieval India, and later on spread to Persia where it was recreated to its current shape.
In the ancient times, most occupants of the province were wealthy and over time they managed to make hookah smoking a custom. Its popularity increased as the rich used it as a sign of prestige. Many years later, shisha smoking became a traditional custom that spread throughout many villages in India.
Theory 2: Persia
The second theory claims that the hookah originated from Persia. A Persian poet Ahli Shirazi wrote a quatrain which seemed to point out that before Abu’l-Fath Gilani introduced the hookah in India, it already existed in Persia.
This theory is however not backed by many since it lacks substantial evidence showing the hookah was present in Persia before getting to India. It’s unfortunate that the poet’s words seem to be the only supporting factor.
In Persia, the hookah was popularly known as Galyan. Its use spread across the country to the extent of becoming a national addiction. There was a rise in demand for shisha smoking among both men and women and at some point, Shah Safi banned its use. The ban didn’t last for long since hookah smoking had a great impact on the country’s economy.
How the hookah spread across the continents
Shisha smoking spread from India across different continents as it was associated with affluence and class. Its demand greatly increased during the Ottoman regime as sultans took portraits with their shisha pipes and made hookahs a status symbol.
Pakistan bordered the northwestern provinces making it among the first countries impacted by the spread of hookah smoking. Arab countries seemed to take up the smoking culture very well as compared to other countries. This resulted in the vast use of hookahs in the Middle East and other Arabian countries.
With time, the water pipe acquired several local names such as nafas, hoqqa, ghalyan, shisha and nargile which were common among the people in the middle east. Its use also spread to Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Southeast Asia, Canada, South Africa, United States, and Bangladesh.
With time, people preferred shisha smoking to tobacco smoking because of its sweeter flavor and thicker smoke. The shisha pipe was well received during its introduction, but its use declined over the years. More recently though, its popularity has risen, especially among the youth.
Hookah design: Old vs New
The base of the hookah was initially made of coconut shells which later advanced to a glass base. It was created in its present form after the formation of the glass manufacturing company in India.
The water required to ‘purify’ the tobacco was held in a glass base which they named ‘Shisha’ after the Persian word ‘shishe’ meaning glass.
In ancient times, hookahs were made of brass, copper, and alloys of low qualities. More recently however, manufacturers are using stainless steel and aluminum with an aim of providing better quality.
In its introduction, the hose was made of leather and wires, but that has now changed to soft silicon rubber which is safer and easier to wash. Some traditional manufacturing regions still retain the materials used in the past due to the high cost of production.
Without doubt, the hookah has a rich history that introduces us to how the shisha pipe came into existence. It has experienced tremendous changes over the years, and has been modified to provide a modern torch which helps it measure up to the recent standards.