Everywhere in the remote Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh, the fame of Malana Cream – the local hashish — is a double-edged sword. It gave 16-year-old Dayal a livelihood after his father died six years ago, but it also took away a lot of his childhood.
“I have been caught twice by the police while trying to smuggle maal (stuff) out of Malana,” said the hashish dealer, who asked that his full name not be used. “But I still go there because tourists pay the most money for it.”
Malana Cream’s high oil content makes it among the most expensive hashish on Amsterdam cannabis menus, and in Delhi, dealers claim their goods are from Malana so they can quote high prices. A tola, or 11.66 grams, retails for $16 in Malana, $40 in Delhi, $70 in Goa and $250 in Amsterdam.
Very little apart from cannabis is produced in Malana, thanks to the popularity of the hashish and Malana’s inaccessibility. Residents and mules carry loads of the bare essentials from the other side of the development bridge, which requires an hour’s hike through narrow hill tracts to the nearest road that can be used by cars. A town, Kasol, is an additional 20 kilometers away, through broken roads prone to landslides and accidents.
“It takes us a lot of pain to get food products up here,” said Hiroo, who runs one of the handful of Malana’s eateries selling overpriced noodles, dumplings and bottled water.
Isolated from the rest of India, the 1,500 people of Malana, fiercely protective of their livelihood and customs, have developed a defense mechanism against outsiders.
The villagers believe that they have pure Aryan genes and that they are descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers. Malana’s god, Jamlu, forbids them from eating, staying or marrying outside the community. They do not like outsiders touching their things. One woman shrank away as a visitor to the village picked up a fallen piece of wood for her.
The residents in Malana and the rest of Parvati Valley are especially suspicious of the government, which they say has failed to engage the people in a constructive dialogue to end the drug trafficking and provide better livelihoods.
A majority of people in the area are employed in the cannabis trade or in the narco-tourism business. “Some parents here tell their kids to work in the farms, rather than go to school,” said Preet, who asked that his full name not be used, as he rolled a joint.
He works in a guest house in Chhalal, a green village dotted with tourist cafes, whose loud electronic music echoes in the hills and merges with the river’s sound. Posters advertise a moonlit terrace party on the weekend. Basic rooms cost 200 rupees ($3.60) a night and are full with Indian students, Israeli and European backpackers.
While there have been some police raids in these parts, locals say that the cannabis business has flourished with official complicity and bribes. India’s soaring economic growth may not have trickled up these hills, but government and police corruption certainly has.
“Of course, we want better facilities like roads. But will they let us live in peace?” Mr. Preet asked, before heading out to the nearest town, Kasol, with a 15-kilogram (33-pound) cooking gas cylinder on his shoulder. On the way back, the full cylinder will weigh 30 kilograms on the 40-minute trek up to Chhalal.
India has an ancient cannabis culture – Shiva, a Hindu god whose wife, Parvati, has lent her name to this valley, was a lover of cannabis. Some states have government-licensed cannabis shops, and bhang (edible cannabis) is consumed liberally during the festival of Holi. But its cultivation or sale without a license and its general use are illegal, per a 1985 narcotics act. A few local politicians have spoken in support of legalizing and regulating the cannabis trade in Parvati Valley, but very little has happened in terms of drafting a law.
So farmers here toil on the wrong side of the law, earning a pittance for what they produce, while the dealer in Goa or the cafe in Haarlem rakes in the money selling hashish from this beautiful valley.
In some ways, however, Malana and the Parvati Valley is now part of an aspirational India that sees better days ahead. There are some slow signs of progress, even in that most reclusive village of Malana. Until a couple of years ago, it took a five-hour trek to reach the closest road that was passable by car. Now there is one about an hour’s walk from Malana.
Every once in a while, you can find Amul’s sweetened milk or Lay’s potato chips in a little shop, and a store or two is run by outsiders who have settled here. Many homes have TV and a satellite dish, and the number of students enrolled in the only government school has been growing.
“I want my children to have a good life, a good house,” said Tumal Devi, as she sewed a purple and red shawl for herself. “Like they show in TV soaps.”
Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is an independent journalist, a Fulbright-Nehru Masters Fellow and a 2012 Columbia University graduate. He can be contacted on Twitter @some_buddha.