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Chocolate is world’s favourite sweet treat. Today, if one picks up a bar of chocolate at a supermarket and is asked to imagine the origin of that bar, they would probably picture a huge industrial setup with an automated assembly line capable of producing tonnes of chocolate in no time. But the history of that bar of chocolate is much older and ancient than that. For the foundation of chocolate is cacao and that is the real origin story of chocolate.

The heart of all existence

The cultivation and use of Cacao can be traced back to more than 4000 years in the ancient Mesoamerican cultures comprising the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations. These civilizations existed and thrived in areas of modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvadore and Belize. The ancient Mayan word of Cacao was Kakawa and it was considered a precious gift from the Gods. There are many Mayan legends around Cacao. In one, it was believed that the Gods created humanity and then gifted them with Cacao. In another one, Gods used cacao to create humanity itself.  Then there is one in which it was believed that Gods bled into cacao, making it sacred. All these legends clearly link human existence to cacao, making cacao an intrinsic part of these ancient civilizations.

Ancient Mayan structure Chichen Itza 
Ancient Mayan structure part of the ruins of Chichen Itza located in modern day Mexico.

Bitter Water

The Aztecs had a word “xocolatl” pronounced as “sh-oc-alatl” which means “bitter water” in the Nahuatl language. This word is important because it tells us how cacao was consumed in these ancient cultures. It was by mixing ground cacao with water. It was also common to add maize to it as well as other ingredients like flowers, spices, honey etc. depending on the occasion. Cacao was an essential part of all ceremonies, be it birth, funerals, weddings, festivals etc. It was offered to the Gods and consumed by the elite for its nutritional and medicinal benefits. But it was not just an ancient version of a superfood. Cacao was sacred, holy, magical and was believed to lift spirits. It is possible that these ancient people observed and understood how after drinking cacao they experienced a sense of calm, focus, alertness and generally having a feeling of wholesomeness. Today with the help of science we can explain all that happens to our brain and body after we consume cacao. But these ancient people learnt about all the qualities of cacao from experience and wisdom.

Ancient Cacao Ceremonies

So, what was a cacao ceremony? Well, these ancient cultures did not have any one specific cacao ceremony, for the simple reason that cacao was by its very nature a part of all important ceremonies and with the kind of stature it enjoyed in the lives of ancient Mesoamericans, they did not require to categorise cacao as “ordinary” and “ceremonial” because cacao was never ordinary. It was always special –  a gift from the Gods. There were many ways to prepare cacao, but it was always in a liquid form. In religious ceremonies, cacao preparation was presided over by priests and shamans. For especial occasions involving the uppermost echelons of the society, there are accounts of a special frothy cacao drink which was prepared by pouring cacao mixed with water multiple times, from one vessel into the other from a height, creating froth in the drink. This was done right before serving the drink to the guests so that the drink was frothy and bubbly at the right time. There are many such accounts of preparation and consumption of cacao during ceremonies and important events. But, there never was any one single cacao ceremony.

Modern day Cacao Ceremonies and Ceremonial Cacao

In modern times, cacao ceremonies have become increasingly popular in the Western world and slowly being introduced in India also. So, what are these cacao ceremonies? When there are no accounts of any one specific cacao ceremony in the ancient texts, where do these modern cacao ceremonies originate from?

Well cacao ceremonies that we hear of today have very little resemblance to the ceremonies performed by the ancient Mesoamericans. While consumption of cacao is central to these ceremonies, they do not involve worship of any specific Gods or deities and are more secular and spiritual in nature. They often involve bonfire, meditation, breathwork, music, sound bath, dance etc. The purposes of these ceremonies could be many and a lot depends on the conductor of the ceremony and the intentions set by the participants. But typically, these ceremonies are conducted to help participants go deeper within themselves, reach a meditative state, recognize and understand feelings, remove mental or energy blocks etc. For many reasons, some of which we will explore later in this article, cacao is also believed to open up the “heart chakra”.

Even though these ceremonies are nothing like the ancient ceremonies, they definitely derive inspiration from them and stem from the faith in the restorative powers of cacao. These ceremonies are often conducted with a group of people. A typical cacao ceremony would involve consuming cacao in the form of a warm drink made out of cacao and water. Many ceremony conductors add natural sweeteners like honey and raw sugar to it or coconut milk for some texture and spices for some flavour. The idea of a cacao ceremony is not to have a “chocolate drink”, but to consume cacao for all its natural goodness and hence the drinks are kept as simple as possible. They taste nothing like your hot chocolate which is sweet and thick, may be topped with marshmallows and some extra chocolate sprinkled on top. This drink of cacao and water is bitter, fruity, acidic and will have numerous other notes of cacao in all their glory.

The cacao used in these ceremonies is not just store-bought powder. It is special ceremonial grade cacao. It is the pure, 100% organic, natural, heirloom criollo nativo cacao which is a wild variety grown in Peru. Criollo is one of the most well – known varieties of cacao. It is known to be exceptionally smooth with little or no bitterness, with rich nutty flavours and classic chocolate notes. Criollo being a wild variety of cacao has higher nutritive value and health benefits. The cacao beans are roasted at low temperature and lightly in order to retain the maximum benefits. The husk is then removed by hand from each bean and the resultant nibs are ground on a stone mill until they form a paste. This paste is then set into whatever shape the producer prefers. Ceremonial grade generally has no added sweetener in order to retain the natural flavours and over all the nutritive benefits of the cacao. Since ceremonial cacao is used in a spiritual practice, importance is also given to the origin of the cacao, i.e. the farm on which the cacao is grown, the intention and care given to the trees and that it is not simply treated as a commercial commodity.

While this special ceremonial grade cacao may not be available everywhere and could be difficult to obtain, one can still derive the benefits of cacao either by participating in a cacao ceremony or simply enjoying it as a drink by using any ethically sourced and produced pure, 100% cacao powder / disc / bar.

The most basic way of preparation of ceremonial cacao is to take the ceremonial grade or any other pure, organic, 100% cacao of your choice, pour hot water over it and use a whisk or a molinillo to mix the cacao and water. Depending on the kind of cacao product you are using one or two more steps could be added to the procedure. For instance, if the cacao you are using comes in disc shape, like ours, you would be required to cut the required quantity of cacao and chop it finely before you add the water.

Coming back to the cacao ceremonies – one rule that applies to all ceremonies is that here are no fixed rules. It is entirely up to the conductor of the ceremony to decide how they wish to steer it what they want to include in it. But this is what a cacao ceremony could be like. There could be group of people and a ceremony conductor. There are no specific qualifications required for a cacao ceremony conductor. But often they are people who are trained and accomplished in practices like yoga, alternative therapies, healing etc. The conductor prepares and offers the cacao drink to the participants and guides them to concentrate on the drink and consume it with total attention and mindfulness. The participants could also be asked to set an intention for the ceremony. After the participants finish their drinks, the conductor could guide the participants into breathwork or meditation through spoken instructions, music, sounds or a combination of any of these. The participants are also given time to observe their bodies or simply be in silence. While these are common elements of most ceremonies, there are many different ways in which they are conducted and no two ceremonies are the same. But, as we mentioned earlier, cacao is central to these ceremonies. There are many accounts available of people who have attended modern day ceremonies and they all have a consistent theme and it is that cacao is used for a purpose beyond mere consumption and even nutrition. It is used as a medium to connect with one’s self and to experience wholesomeness.

Cacao pods 
Cacao fruits grow at the main stem and the outer shell is vibrant in color.

The chemistry of cacao

But why a cacao ceremony and how does cacao work at a mental / emotional/ spiritual level you may ask. Well in our opinion, cacao does deserve a ceremony of its own and for all the right reasons. Apart from being a food dense in nutrition, specifically minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, cacao also contains numerous compounds that aid in achieving relaxation and focus. One of the most well-known compounds present in cacao is Theobromine which also lends cacao its scientific name – Theobroma Cacao.

Theobromine has a chemical composition similar to that of caffeine and it behaves in a similar fashion as well. The effect of consumption of theobromine or caffeine is that they create a sense of alertness. How you ask? Let’s move a little in the direction of our brain chemicals. Our brains have a substance called “Adenosine”. This substance which in technical terms is a “neuromodulator” when binds with its receptors called “Adenosine Receptors”, leads to our brain getting a signal to slow down and go into the sleep mode. When we consume coffee or cacao, the caffeine and theobromine block adenosine from binding with its receptors and instead react with the receptors, thereby blocking the sleep signals from being sent to the brain. So if we were to imagine, this whole situation looks something like this –  we have little messengers in our brain and they are all carrying one message – “Go to sleep”. They set out with this message and if they are able to deliver it to the correct part of our brain, we feel sleepy. But if you consume coffee or cacao, these messengers are stopped midway by a couple of intervenors, their messenger bags are taken from them (let’s hope it is not forceful and no violence involved), the message inside is torn and the intervenors take it upon themselves to complete the rest of the journey to the relevant part of the brain. When they do reach the destination, they look like the messengers, albeit without the original message. Since our brain does not receive the message to sleep, it remains awake and that’s how we end up pulling an all-nighter.

This whole activity seems quite dramatic and there is an equally fitting word for caffeine and theobromine for their nifty tricks against sleep messengers. They are called “antagonists” of Adenosine. But there is a fundamental difference between Caffeine and Theobromine. While caffeine acts only as a stimulant, theobromine is both – a stimulant (milder in comparison to caffeine) and a vasodilator, which means that theobromine widens and opens up the blood vessels, allowing blood to circulate easily. Owing to this function, theobromine helps our bodies to relax and calm down. So, a cup of cacao can make you feel both alert and relaxed at the same time. A perfect drink to recharge as well as to unwind!

There is yet another substance present in Cacao with a name not only poetic, but also closer home – “Anandamide”. It is a neurotransmitter and derives its name from the Sanskrit word “Ananda”, which as we all know means bliss. Anandamide has the function of binding with cannabinoid receptors in our brain and generate feelings of happiness and joy. Interestingly, our brain also produces anandamide, which however is broken down rather quickly by an enzyme known as hydrolase. Cacao also contains substances that slow the process of breaking down of Anandamide, thereby prolonging its effect.

In addition, Cacao has several other compounds that help stimulate the “happy hormones” like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.

It is however, to be borne in mind that cacao ought to be consumed in moderation like any other food to avoid to draw its complete benefits and avoid any harmful effects.

Make cacao a part of your routine

No wonder chocolate is linked so closely with feeling good, being in love and an overall feeling of wellbeing. While when it comes to commercial chocolates, a lot of it is fluffy marketing, but most of it is true for pure cacao or pure cacao based products. While participating in cacao ceremonies is a matter of personal choice, we believe that one can always create their own little routines which can be their personal ceremonies and rituals. It could be anything – a short meditation, journaling, practicing affirmations and gratitude, yoga, breathing exercises, relaxing bath etc. Similarly, one could have a cacao ceremony right at home as their own little ritual. It could just involve preparing a cup of warm, nourishing drinking cacao with care and attention and sipping it while tasting all its glorious flavours and notes and feeling it running down your throat and filling you up with its warmth and goodness.

If after reading this you feel that you don’t really care for any ceremony or ritual, even then cacao makes for a great addition to your diet as it is known to positively impact physical and mental health. So be it overwhelming deadlines or a slump in your energy, try a drink made out of pure cacao. It will work in its firm but gentle way, by soothing your stressed mind and body and gradually alerting your mind and steering it in the right direction.

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