The most passionate examination of hash-smoking will certainly not teach half as much about thinking (which is an imminent narcotic) as the profane illumination of thinking about hash-smoking. The reader, the person thinking, the person waiting, the flâneur, are just as much types of Illuminati as the opium-eater, the dreamer, the intoxicated, and they are profaner.”

—Walter Benjamin (On Hashish)

November 4, 2012. The day of State Assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh.

The polling booth in Rashol, a rundown primary school building to which families don’t send their children, stands empty and abandoned. The polling officer and his assistant keep sleep at bay watching the birds and feeding biscuits to fluffy mountain dogs. A disinterested policeman stands outside, and is greeted by the occasional villager who passes by—a visitor who does not care to stop and vote. His destination is elsewhere; the compelling crisis of his moment is not democracy.

Farther up, on parts of earth accessible only to the people of the mountains, and to compulsive seekers of highs, the entire village is toiling in the “kutlas” (farms) of a plant that once was of the forest and dreadlocked ascetics, ganja is now a cash crop that caters primarily to the recreational demands of a fugitive world.

For the villagers, ganja is a season that commences in the last week of September and ends by the first week of November; a perilous, frantic time of the year where they have to earn as much as they can, for no other season brings them money.

Women abandon homes, children schools, and they join the men in the farms, furiously rubbing the cannabis plant into charas. This charas has, over the last 40 years, garnered universal recognition in the cannabis world as among the best in the business.

On this day, though they have not bothered to vote, the polls are a major topic for conversation, a digression from the everyday chatter in the farms that usually hinges on surmisals, often paranoid, of who has sold how much to which gang, and who the new CIDs in the village are.

But eventually, all the talk boils down to charas and the future of ganja farming: Will they help us to work in peace? Will they stop sending police to cut our farms down? Will they legalise cultivation in the valley?

Lakshmi, known as the woman with hands hallowed by Renuka Mata—the patron goddess of the village—to divine the finest charas, points her greasy, golden-brown, fingers to the snow capped peaks and asks: “But for ganja, all we have is white snow and black rocks. What are we supposed to do if they take the farms away from us?”

In the mountains, the sun disappears in dramatic fashion, and by three in the afternoon, a crepuscular glow graces the ganja farms. Women and children light fires and do the last bit of rubbing for the day, while most men have by now retreated to the village square, to gamble, drink and smoke. To engage in animated, masculine discussions on everything and nothing. To make a business deal or two.

For the villagers, ganja is a season that commences in the last week of September and ends by the first week of November; a perilous, frantic time of the year where they have to earn as much as they can, for no other season brings them money. Women abandon homes, children schools, and they join the men in the farms.

At Gangabhai’s grocery shop, a group of five has assembled. Paul and David are two charas fundamentalists. Paul, a man from Karnataka, runs a guesthouse in the village. David, his friend, is a vagabond from Mumbai who was arrested in 2009 with two kilograms of charas but later acquitted—after being an undertrial prisoner for two years—on account of want of evidence. Karmi Bhai who considers the fabled Malana cream an overrated brand that may win the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam year after year but whose “nasha” will never measure up to that of the potent Rashol cream. Ramji is an old, sagely man who longs for the days when ganja was a medicine. Gangabhai is torn apart by the dilemma of choosing between the lucrative prospects of selling alcohol and the all-consuming wrath of Renuka Mata if he does so—tradition forbids the villagers from selling alcohol and a fine of Rs.1,000 is levied, though this has not prevented the rise of rampant alcoholism in the village.

Karmi Bhai hands a piece of Rashol cream to David who crushes it and then mixes it with tobacco emptied out from a cigarette. A roach is made from the flap of the cigarette pack, and the mix of charas and tobacco carefully placed on a long OCB rolling paper. As David rolls the joint, Karmi Bhai winces.

A woman in a cannabis farm.

“These papers are not really healthy to smoke. Charas is meant for chillums.” Paul nods and says, “The sadhus always knew it.”

Once the joint is ready, David hands it, like a religious offering, to Ramji who lights it, takes a long, hard drag and says “Bom Bholenath”. It’s the customary salutation to Shiva, who aeons ago consumed sacrilegious amounts of charas from the valley’s ganja forests and surrendered to its mind-altering essence, slumbering into a thousand-year-world of quiescence.

As the joint changes hands, the conversation picks up. Whoever wins the polls, according to Ramji, should immediately build a road to the village from Kasol. “A road will bring development. More people will go out and work.” For Paul and David, outsiders to the village, the charm of Rashol is that of an antediluvian village snapped off from the rest of an ordinary world, and as such they dread the prospect of a road.

“Why do you need a road, Ramji?” asks David. “Look at what happened to Malana after they got a road. Now the police come every other day and they have lost their peace. A road to Rashol means easy access to the ‘kutlas’ for the police, and if there is no charas, how will the village survive?”

Paul butts in with this pet theme: decriminalisation of marijuana. “Ramji, whoever wins the polls, according to me, should take immediate initiative to press for the decriminalisation of marijuana. If that happens, the villagers can cultivate ganja and sell charas without fear. A road can wait.”

The conversation is interrupted by the entry of a drunken man who thumps his heavy army boots on the shop’s floor. Dressed in faded blue jeans, a black t-shirt, a Calvin Klein down jacket and a baseball cap pointing backwards, Meenaram is a local legend. A man who rubs so fast that on good days he makes up to 20 tolas (the unit of charas barter, equal to 11.66 grams), but who avoids its intoxication because he thinks it screws his head up; a whiskey addict whose boozy howls in the night sound like the cries of a wounded bird; a gambler who more often lives than dies by the dice he rolls. In the mood for some frolic, he offers a tola to Paul as “prasad”, then turns to Karmi Bhai and asks who he thinks will win the elections. “I go for Ram Singh (BJP),” replies Karmi Bhai. Meenaram is rooting for the Raja (Maheshwar Singh, the King of the valley and a former state BJP chief who is contesting from Kullu assembly segment on the ticket of the Himachal Lokhit Party, a new outfit of BJP rebels founded by him). After arguing for some time about the merits of the two candidates, both men—neither of whom voted in the day—decide to bet Rs.50,000 on the winner, a not too big amount in the harvest season.

Before the group disperses from Gangabhai’s shop, Meenaram opens his wallet and pulls out a currency note of Venezuela. He got it from a tourist in Kasol, someone to whom he had sold charas worth Rs. 30,000. He shows the note to Paul and says: “The people of this country snort cocaine using these notes, and so their government makes notes which too have some kick. I hope our country also does something like that.”

Situated in the remote regions of the Parvati valley in Himachal’s Kullu district, Rashol is home to around 1,500 people, mostly upper caste Hindus, adherents to a tradition seeped in exclusivity. Traditionally shepherds and herb hunters, they had their first tryst with the people of lower altitudes in the Seventies when the forces of modernity irrupted into their world in the form of charas that the radicalism of a disillusioned, guilt-stricken post-war Europe was craving. Indeed, the story of Rashol is the story of an ancient, isolated mountain village whose visions of the mainstream world are framed by the tiny windows of its hallucinated houses; it is the story of how Italian hippies, in their pursuit of a comfortably numb life that could be measured out with chillum drags, re-wrote the destiny of a people.

When the Italians first arrived in the valley, it was on the outskirts of Malana, Rashol’s neighbour, that they pitched their tents. Until then, ganja was used primarily for medicinal purposes—for both humans and their goats—and for making fabric and ropes from its sinewy fibre; the plant’s intoxicating powers sought mainly by wandering Sadhus. Italians taught them the art of rubbing charas from ganja and the rest is a legend called Malana that has been chronicled often enough—the world’s oldest republic and its cultural idiosyncrasies, the village that produces the most expensive charas—not to warrant one more telling.

During the harvest, everyone including children, have to rub the leaves of cannabis plant to prodcue charas.

Marriage brought charas to Rashol. Renuka Mata, the village’s patron goddess is the wife of Rishi Jamadagni, the patron god of Malana, a holy alliance that gave sanction to marriages between their people. The secret of Malana’s burgeoning economy was picked up by Rashol, and in no time the ganja forests were transformed into “kutlas”.

The ganja farming cultures of Malana and Rashol differ, though. While Malana, which learned directly from the Italians, considers it an art, Rashol treats it as pure business. In Malana, charas smoking is a lifestyle, the village is an important consumer of its own product. In Rashol, charas smoking is merely a recreational pastime. And despite Malana’s recent espousal of the commercial path, the contrast in cultures endures. Malana swears by quality, Rashol trusts the might of quantity. The eventual economic outcomes of both situations, though, are nearly identical.

Ganja farming in the valley consists of three phases. In April, the soil is ploughed and made ready. In the third week of September, the male plants are cut to prevent them from pollinating the female plants; pollen is detrimental to the quality of charas, often wrecking the trip with sensations of nausea and tedium; the state of ruminative bliss that charas offers is a function of the unsullied feminine.

Jack, a 30-year-old guerilla ganja farmer—people who grow ganja on land they do not own—from the United States, who has been staying in Rashol with his Indian girlfriend for the last eight months, has been urging the villagers to cut the male plants much earlier.

“Third week of September is too late, by that time some pollination would have surely happened. They also need to cut the male plants more regularly, not just once like they do here,” he says.

The rubbing season starts towards the end of September. Among charas-producing communities, hand-harvesting is unique to India, sieving and filtering being the preferred modes in Morocco and Nepal. In the rarefied atmosphere of snowy mountains, rubbing charas is an art in meditation, one that asks for penetrative powers of perception and hands that have a heart of their own. “What is in the hand comes from the love you have for the plant,” says Lakshmi, and Jack agrees.

“Really, there is no reason why Malana cream should be better than Rashol cream. Both villages are at similar height, and the plants are of similar quality. It is the hand that separates Malana from Rashol.” 

The objective of rubbing is to extract maximum oil content from the plant. The leaves are first removed with great care after which the buds and crystals of the stem are rubbed tenderly. Too much pressure will eke out water and chlorophyll from the plant, polluting the oil, while too little pressure will fail to extract any oil. Once a sufficiently thick layer of oil settles on the palm, it is scraped out into balls which are then packed in thin plastic bags and left to age.

According to the extent of the oil content, the charas from the valley is classified as super cream, first cream, second cream, medium cream, business maal, sabjee and junglee. In recent times, the village, in addition to the hand rubbed charas, has been producing “ice” too. ‘Ice’ is charas made using ice and filter—the ice takes out the water and plant material while the filter extracts the oil out.

Though children, women and men all rub during the season, women are the producers of the finest charas. “Everything about charas is womanly until it reaches a chillum,” says Lakshmi with a wry chuckle.

But the women of the village do not smoke, preferring instead an occasional evening drink. “The men smoke and drink and gamble. If we too start smoking, the whole village will be asleep.”

Incessant rubbing, though, means the women too are bound to be sufficiently stoned with charas that is absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin.

Throughout the harvest season, Rashol, lives in fear of the cops cutting their “kutlas” down and depriving them of their sole means of livelihood. Around 30 per cent of the farms were destroyed this year, with newly-appointed women cops taking charge of the destruction. According to Ashok Kumar, Superintendent of Police, Kullu, regular action has seen cultivation shifting to higher reaches that only skilled climbers can access. “In spite of the obstacles, the success we managed is evident from the drastic reduction in area under cultivation in personal lands, something which was common earlier,” he said in an email interview.

Inaccessibility is not the only test the police have to pass; they also have to front up to the physical might of the villagers. “If I go in mufti to the village and show them my ID card, they won’t care one bit,” says Sher Singh, sub-inspector at Jari, the nearest police station. “But the reality is whatever we do and however much we cut, ganja is ganja. It will still grow in the mountains.”

Among charas-producing communities, hand-harvesting is unique to India, sieving and filtering being the preferred modes in Morocco and Nepal. In the rarefied atmosphere of snowy mountains, rubbing charas is an art in meditation, one that asks for penetrative powers of perception and hands that have a heart of their own.

Since the relatives of most cops own farms themselves—in Himachal Pradesh, the rule states that the constable and the head constable will be posted only in their home districts—the news of a likely raid reaches the village faster than the police.

The police, SP Kumar says, are also investigating the possibility of hybrid ganja farming where marijuana seeds from the valley are crossbred with marijuana varieties having high resin content, and then sold under different brands in the international market. Though they are yet to hone in on anything tangible, it is widely understood that hybrid farming is done through a set of foreigners who get the hybrid seeds and another set that stays back in the valley and farms it with the help of locals.

“Hybrid crop is probably a gift of foreigners to local people,” says the SP. “By seeing the shape, size, colour and time required to grow the plants, anybody can tell their nature. In some places, the ganja plants are more than 12-foot tall. Indian ganja does not grow that high. The police have requested the Forensic Lab to provide details about the plants this year but it will take some time. We have information that a foreign company is selling marijuana seeds under the Kullu brand.”

Kumar says around 150-200 kg of charas, which amounts to nearly one-fifth of the gross produce, is seized on a yearly basis from Parvati valley. This year, 142 cases have been registered under NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) Act so far. A draconian legislation (it even specifies the death penalty in certain cases), it was introduced in 1985 by the Rajiv Gandhi government which at the time was said to be under pressure by the United States administration to ban ganja. NDPS, which brought ganja, a plant that has been a part of spiritual and social culture in India, and other modern synthetic drugs under the purview of the same law, is held by many to be culpable for the valley’s transformation from a Shangri-la to India’s Colombia, from a dwelling house of lonely Gods to a playground for the international drug cartels.

In Karmi Bhai’s words, “The government created a law to create a crime.”

The Italians set up shop as early as the Seventies, and still have a stranglehold over the European smuggling network. While those who smuggle minimal amounts of charas for personal consumption usually prefer to wrap it in plastic and swallow so that they can later crap it out, the professionals are much more creative. Even the Superintendent of Police “confesses” that “smugglers are smarter than the police”.

The prevalent yet the hardest to bust mode of smuggling, he says, is one that is done through “the creation of bogus cavities”. Various ways have been devised to evade sniffer dogs, raising the levels of challenge for the police drastically.

The Italians, according to the villagers, operate through old timers who have made Old Manali, Tosh and Kasol their valley hubs, and who, in a real life pastiche of O. Henry’s Cop and the Anthem, get themselves frequently arrested with small quantities of charas so that they can extend their visa period.

“We are well aware of the situation,” says Kumar, “and have started making a list of all foreigners involved in NDPS cases in the last few years. The list is being sent to the MHA (Ministry of Home affairs) to blacklist them from coming back to India.”

Following the Italian trail, the Japanese hippies came to the valley in the early Eighties and established their own network.

The Eighties witnessed a surge in drug trafficking (and a corresponding surge in the rate of other crimes) from the valley, a phenomenon that is sometimes traced to the nine-year long (December 1979-February 1989) Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a nation that until then a prominent purveyor of hashish in the global market. In the mid-Nineties, the Israelis started coming to the valley, soon converting Kasol into one of their many Little Israels in India, and setting up a Chabad House there; they too, the villagers and the police say, have a smoothly operating network in place.

The first decade of the new millennium witnessed the prolific rise of the Indian networks, with Mumbai and Delhi as its lynchpins. According to Karmi Bhai, the finest charas from the valley is shared by the Italians and the filthy rich of Mumbai and Delhi.

A tola (11.663 grams) of super cream that costs Rs. 2,500-Rs. 4,000 in the valley sells for Rs. 5,000-Rs. 8,000 in Mumbai. A nexus exists, according to SP Ashok Kumar, between Goa and Parvati valley too; a contention corroborated by the claims made by certain young men of Rashol of their proximity with some high-flying DJ’s of Goa’s trance party circuit.

A young, corporate India’s flings with the thrills of a backpack culture, and its fascination with a bohemian fashion statement called the Himalayas has resulted in the rise of a local network within the valley: the café’s and guesthouses of Kasol. After Manali, Kasol is the favoured destination of Indian tourists in the valley; a Little Israel whose villagers are fluent speakers of Hebrew and whose cafes evoke cinematic images of a spooky underworld. Most of these tourists seek a casual affair with charas, a demand that Kasol’s café-guesthouse network is willing to feed. Tolas of the worst quality are sold to Indian tourists as Super Cream at exorbitant prices. Though the villagers of Rashol know the abuse their venerated product is subjected to, they don’t seem to be concerned. “If that is what these tourists deserve, then so be it. It is their bad karma. In any case, even if they were given real Super Cream, they wouldn’t really be able to appreciate its quality. So what difference does it make?” asks Karmi Bhai.

Rubbing the leaves to produce the finest quality of charas is considered an art.

Being in the company of so many criminal networks, the village has birthed a few of its own. But instead of institutionalised networks, the “gangs” of Rashol are quirky individuals. An 11-year-old called Choppu Mafia who has established his alpha-maledom among the children of the village through the speed of his rubbing and the barter deals he strikes with travellers—five tolas for a Sony camera, two tolas for football boots. Or they are trippy 21-year-old chess mavericks like Keku Bhai, who at the age of 15 reached the Israelis through charas, and then at 16 reached LSD through Israelis, and at 18 reached rehab through LSD, and who now at 21 tells his lady love at Malana that “I am your don, and I will call you my donness.”

For a valley that is synonymous with charas, the quantity that is now pumped into it from the outside tops the amount that is produced in the valley, an upshot of the staggering rise in the global demand for Parvati charas. Most of it comes from Nepal, and reaches the valley through Nepali labourers hired for the harvest season. Nepali charas with its high pollen content is then mixed with Parvati charas, and sometimes the ratio of the mix is such that a tola of super cream that costs Rs.4,000 could just be a chunk of Nepali maal coated with a flimsy film of Parvati charas for the effects of colour and aroma.

A casual smoker will find it virtually impossible to discern mixed maal from pure; even a knowledgeable smoker would find it hard to identify mixed maal from just its smell and colour. The only proof of charas is in the smoking; if pure, Parvati flows inside the head like a pristine stream, the mixed maal thunders like a violent sea.

Usually, Nepali labourers are hired for Rs. 500 per day. Farmers with large kutlas sometimes give a portion of their land to the labourer and employ him for Rs. 300 per day to work on the rest of the farm. The charas made from the portion allotted to the labourer is sold to the farmer who owns the land.

“It works better for us that way, it is the safe option. To get into the business of selling and dealing with the mafia is dangerous for us,” says Vikas, a labourer who came to the valley from Nepal a year ago. “And trust me, it is not just Nepali maal that is mixed here, even goat shit will do sometimes,” he giggles.

After the day’s work, Vikas works as a cook in a village guesthouse. This year, he left for Nepal a week before the official wrapping up of the season—it ends with the ritual of offering a goat to Renuka Mata. Two days later, he came back to the village empty handed after he was badly beaten up on his way in Manali and looted of everything he had earned over a season’s sweat and toil. Lighting a beedi filled with charas scraped from a tola of the purest of pure super cream he made for himself, he wonders what they mean when they say “Ye Parvati hai, yahaan pe sab shanti shanti!”

Down the valley, Parvati, the Princess of Mountains, an enigmatic mélange of fury and indifference, flows like a raging dancer, sometimes enlightening a crippled Baba who has run away from the sea to her banks, sometimes carrying the tattered corpse of a white woman down its foaming, mica-flecked, turquoise course. For Parvati, beauty is the alter ego of her violence.

(Names of people of Rashol have been changed.)