[stextbox id=”custom” float=”true” width=”900″]How does an intoxicating contraband substance produced exclusively in a part of India end up in faraway Europe as a prized commodity?[/stextbox]
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]alana Cream, the hash produced in a small village of Himachal Pradesh called Malana, tops the menu of most restaurants in Amsterdam and it is mostly the highest priced on the menu. Hash, hashish, or simply charas is banned in India but legal in Amsterdam. It grows all over Parvati Valley in abundance. Nobody goes hungry in Parvati Valley, thanks to “Shiv ki buti”, goes the saying in the valley. The buti has been consumed in India as charas for centuries but was banned in the mid-eighties.
Malana is on a height of around 3,000 m; it can be accessed only on foot. The ascent is steep but the rewards on reaching there seem to be much steeper. There is not one person who has visited Malana for its beauty; the fans of Malana know what they want from it and most return satisfied. Strangely, the less than 500 residents of this remote and difficult-to-access Malana are recluse; they dislike outsiders and don’t let anybody touch anything. It doesn’t matter that tourists bring cash and prosperity. Another small village in the valley is Tosh. But it is easily accessible and is now learning to welcome tourists. Even Tosh cream is considered of best quality and passes off as Malana cream in the European markets.
A steady stream of foreign and Indian tourists comes to Parvati Valley and even to Manali to have a holiday or adventure mixed with the highs of hash. In my three months stay in various places in the Parvati Valley, Manali, Vashisht and Solang Valley, I have not come across any signboard, warning, police action or any such thing preventing smoking of hash in public, let alone private places. The hash paradise is teaming with youngsters, particularly in summer months. So far so good! Something that is banned in most parts of the world, attracting years of prison, is easily available in India and in excellent quality. It would surely attract people from all over the world.
But the issue is not all that simple. You search the net for “malana”, “malana cream”, “hash”, “parvati valley”, “manali” and “kheer ganga”, and you will find any number of write-ups including blogs telling you how dangerous the area is in terms of terrain, how a single misstep could mean death. How the forests are full of bear and poisonous snakes and how it is not advisable to go through them on your own.
Well, I am 58 and a woman. I trekked to Kheerganga with a backpack weighing about 10 kg and crossed a treacherous forest path walking for hours in pitch dark with just a small torch showing the path in front, and that too after 10 km of fairly difficult trek from Tosh to Rudranag. Except for the extremely difficult path, there was no sign of any wild animals or snakes. What is unique about Parvati Valley is that the locals here do not seem excited to receive visitors. Everywhere else, travellers bring business, money. Here that does not seem to be attractive enough.
All conversations with locals about a walk in the forest, going to the upper areas of forest and hills unaccompanied are feverishly discouraged. The local police seem to be full of stories of how people have disappeared without a trace and how a large number of people die on difficult treks — due to falls and in animal attacks. When you tell them about how fragile life could be in a city like Delhi, they insist city people have no idea how dangerous hills could be. The warnings become a scream if you happen to be a journalist. Apart from locals, what is noticeable is the presence of a large number of people from Rajasthan who are sheep farmers. Their younger generation is now into camping, trekking, travel and related businesses.
It was the inquisitiveness of a journalist’s mind that processed all these facts in a way that threw up the following questions before me. Is hash, or weed, or charas habit forming? It has been banned as it is harmful. How does it harm? If it does, how come there is hardly much in Indian scriptures any mention of a connection between hash consumption and crime?
I came across a large number of young people, boys and girls, Indians and foreigners, who have come to the valley several times, have stayed for weeks and months together, smoked hash through their stay, gone home and resumed a normal life. Not one person told me they got addicted to it. Sadhus, who roam the valley and live on hash, have never been seen or reported to have raped or even misbehaved with women travelling alone, most of them young Whites. In fact, village elders complain about the locals or outsiders, mostly youth consuming alcohol in the valley and creating a lot of trouble. According to them, alcohol makes them aggressive, reckless. Hash gives a high of calm. So why ban hash? Surprisingly, nobody seems to be complaining. This seems like a valid question to be raised.
The second question, and perhaps the most relevant one is, Malana Cream may be the best Amsterdam restaurants can offer. But since consumption, processing and trade of it is banned in India, how does it reach Europe? This is not a topic for you if you want a pleasant stay in Parvati Valley. So what do you do? You befriend some of the foreigners travelling in the area and investigate a bit. Instead of asking, take risks and try to see for yourself. You will find commercial farming of marijuana in upper inhospitable regions of the valley. Look closer at the lifestyle of village boys. They may live in shanty dwellings, but consume the most expensive cuisine from the menu of the local restaurants serving all kinds of Israeli, Italian and Lebanese food on a daily basis while you find yourself counting pennies. How does it reach Europe is the secret that holds a lot of mysteries. The best way to unravel it is to join the smuggling and get a first-hand report, so tight is the system and so close is the hash `trade’ club.
Dig deeper and you would find that the Punjab connect in Parvati Valley is not merely religious — Manikaran gurudwara to Kheerganga. There is much more to it than meets the eye. Then there are labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and even some Nepalis mostly working as guides on the upper reaches. You focus on the quality of the hash sold to tourists and soon you know the good stuff is not easily available even locally. If you do get your hand on it, it’s extremely expensive. What is available is coming from Nepal or Pakistan through Punjab and is being sold in Kasaul, Tosh, and elsewhere to unsuspecting travellers as local hash.
But why should low-quality hash find a market in Parvati Valley that produces its own supreme quality hash in abundance? Because of two things — the local hash has a premium market in Europe, and its free use in the valley gives a good market for imported weed to be consumed here. While the low quality imported hash is priced around Rs 12,000 per kg in the valley, local high quality hash is priced around Rs 3 lakhs per kg. Since there is an open market for hash consumption in the area, imported stuff has a high market potential here. While the high quality local hash has a herbal smell to it, the imported hash carries a smell of incense and is harder.
A constant stream of boys from Punjab who are said to carry outside hash into the valley are said to merely exchange their stuff for the real one and go back. The entire trip from Chandigarh and back can be done in a day. There are pictures of hash being sold at Manikaran on taraju (weighing balance) before it was banned. All that trade continues. Post-banning, it has gone underground.
How much hash is grown and processed in the Valley? It is a subject worth examining. A rough estimate based on conversations with some local influential people tells me it could be worth above Rs 5,000 crore annually. One can find mules carrying essentials from Birsaini to Kheerganga, or Tosh to Kutla. There are sheep farmers who go to the upper reaches of the hills with their flock of hundreds of sheep and leave them there to graze for days.
You would not find a single cop either in Tosh, Malana, Birsaini, Kheerganga. A lot of conversations later, I came to know they come in a flock of 20-25 once a month and collect an unbelievable Rs 1 lakh per cop per family. I find it hard to vouch for this information as authentic and keep it in the realm of idle gossip. But it’s worth an investigation.
Little shanties have cash buried in the ground. Now this information is more than gossip. No wonder they are extremely suspicious of tourists, have weird stories to put them off. At the same time, you would find some Indian and foreign travellers living in the remotest parts of the forest, on isolated hill tops, in villages for months, even years together. I have spoken to a few such people trying to understand what kept them sitting in these remotest of areas interacting only with locals and have come across answers like, meditation, peace of mind, etc. When you ask them how they sustained themselves, many were blog writers but would not give you an idea of where to find their blogs. Others were book writers. Really? In that inhospitable surrounding and away from any contact of humans of their values? In fact, almost 25 to 30 per cent long stay Indians and foreigners say they were blog writers. You search blogs written on the area and you are hardly any wiser.
Since hash has a lot of medicinal value and has been used in ancient times to treat all kinds of illnesses, I have come across at least some people who know Europeans doing research on “medicinal plants”. A few herbal producers of national and international fame are said to be quietly sourcing hash in bulk from the valley. Marijuana is processed not merely to produce hash, but also to produce butter, a cooking medium. A European who had volunteered in one such processing place in Malana told me the stem of marijuana plant is boiled with butter for hours to produce this special butter. The stem is otherwise not capable of giving a high but, if processed with butter, it acquires all the qualities of hash. This material is so highly valued that it is smuggled by individual travellers by injecting it even in pen refills.
If you go to Manali, you will find an over-deployment of police. To the extent that they pasted a notice on the doors of the hotel I was staying in making it mandatory for the hotel to record the names of next of kin all the guests so that in the eventuality of their death during trekking or stay, their family members could be informed. But once I was out in the forest and trekking, I realised how useless that notice was. The most sensitive places had no register, no hotels. Only home stay or guest houses! The rules were useless for foreigners and those who go camping. To me, the system appeared to be complete madness, but perhaps there was a certain method in the madness that covered a well-oiled system of transporting the Parvati Valley hash to Europe.