High up on the foothills of the snow-capped Himalayas lies a lush village called Malana, best known for its stunning views of the Parvati river, relative remoteness, and a strain of hash or charas – a cannabis product made from the plant’s resin called Malana Cream.
Considered one of the finest and most expensive strains of cannabis in the world, Malana Cream is iconic for its clay-like consistency, high value of THC (the main psychoactive component), and a distinct aroma. It’s churned out through a hand-rubbing technique that involves growers furiously rubbing fresh cannabis leaves in their palms until the resin seeps out. And while Malana Cream is illegal under India’s Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) law, its fame has spread far and wide, attracting thousands of visitors who trek through the Kullu district of India’s Himachal Pradesh state to make their way to Malana.
So, when photojournalist Hari Katragadda first heard about Malana’s illustrious legacy as a hash-rubbing community, he was instantly intrigued.
“This is a story that starts with hash,” Katragadda told VICE. “Back in 2008, when I was working in Delhi, I heard about Malana as a mysterious place with mythological associations.”
Those in the community, Katragadda explained, believe that the residents of Malana were descendants of Alexander the Great and his Greek soldiers, though this has not been proven. Here, about 4,700 inhabitants live a peacefully isolated life and speak a distinct language called Kanashi, which is a mix of different languages including Tibetan.
“I also heard that Indians and all outsiders are considered untouchables in this village, which was also strange to hear,” said Katragadda.
In 2009, he teamed up with a writer and set off on a mission to understand more about the Malana community.
The photojournalist made 12 trips to the isolated village from 2009 to 2015, befriending members of the community and even attending their traditional functions, such as weddings, as he tried to absorb knowledge about their culture.
“I didn’t approach them as a customer who wanted to buy hash,” he explained. “I reached out to them as a friend and not a client, so I think they were more open to [accepting me].”
For this community, he explained, rubbing cannabis flowers to produce hash is a livelihood they have depended on for over three decades.
“Cannabis plants that are over 12 feet tall grow around their villages and up in the hills,” he said. “Since this grows right in their backyard, it was a daily ritual to smoke up, and was specifically for their personal consumption until 1980. In the 80s, the whole drug culture of selling it outside and to Europe changed the nature of cannabis cultivation and made it a source of livelihood because the terrain and temperatures made it very hard to grow anything else.”
Historically, the Malana community’s livelihood was rooted in cannabis, either as hash rubbers or by selling products like baskets and slippers woven from these plants that grew in the wild. It was also seen as a gift from their god, a local deity the community worships called Jamlu Devta.
However, after India criminalised cannabis under the NDPS Act in 1985, the community’s way of life came under threat.
“Last time I visited the village, I witnessed a police campaign to destroy the cannabis crops that grow in this region, even in hard-to-reach terrains high up in the hills,” Katragadda recalled.
Police campaigns that involve burning or cutting away these crops have since become a regular feature in the region, with authorities also setting up checkpoints that made it harder for growers and visitors to carry substances out of Malana.
This has, in turn, dealt several blows to members of the community who depended on cannabis as their main source of income.
“During my time there, I visited a family where a father was the only caretaker of his two kids,” Katragadda said. “As I spent more time with them, I realised that the father was distressed and dealing with [mental health issues]. This happened because his wife was arrested while taking a consignment of hashish out of the village, and sentenced to seven years in jail. This had broken the entire family.”
Katragadda also said that many of the authorities’ attempts to wean the community off cannabis proved futile.
“There was a police officer in the area who tried to push for the community to cultivate tea plantations instead,” he said. “This worked for one harvest season, but as the winter months rolled around, it destroyed these crops.”
In fact, he added, interference from local authorities was also a relatively recent development, with the community historically relying on a council of elders to settle their disputes.
“Malana also has a reputation for [having] the oldest system of democratic governance,” he explained. “They had their own laws and methods to settle disputes, and even the police were not allowed [to interfere].”
One of the tactics to settle disputes, he said, was using sheep owned by the community. “This community is also a sheep-rearing one, so one of the ways they would settle a dispute is to ask [each contesting member] to offer a sheep, then poison those sheep. Whoever’s sheep died first was considered a liar.”
While this council was the overarching authority for several decades, things began to change as Malana gained more accessibility with a new road leading up to the village and a hydropower project over its rivers.
“The older community has reservations about people coming from outside because they believe the deity would be unhappy about the outside influence,” said Katragadda. “But the younger generation now all have smartphones and are more connected to the world outside their village. So more tourism gives their village an economic push.”
While the community also embraced progressive customs, such as allowing a widow to live with any man she pleases without moral policing, other traditions like restricting marriages to within the community are now evolving.
“Some beliefs, like the one about them never touching outsiders, is not true,” said the photojournalist. “I lived with them, stayed in their homes, ate with them, and attended their ceremonies. There are, however, some sacred places that the council doesn’t allow outsiders to enter or touch, and a fine is imposed on anyone who tries to touch it. The culture is slowly changing, but these things are part of their mythology.”
Check out more photos from the project below.